November 28, 2023

LYSYKHANSK, Ukraine — There was a mass grave that held 300 people, and I was standing on the edge of it. The chalky body bags were stacked in the pit, exposed. A moment ago, I was a different person, someone who never knew what the air smelled like after passing over the dead on a pleasant summer afternoon.

By mid-June, those bodies were far from the full number of civilians killed by shelling in the area around the industrial city of Lysychansk in the previous two months. They were only “those who had no one to bury them in a garden or a backyard,” one soldier casually said.

He lit a cigarette while we looked at the grave.

The smoke masked the smell.

It was rare to find such a moment to slow down, observe and reflect while reporting from the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine. But that day, Ukrainian soldiers were happy after delivering packages of food and other goods to local civilians, so they offered to take reporters from The New York Times to another site they said we should see: the mass grave.

After leaving the site, I naively thought that the palpable presence of death in the air could not follow me home – to all the roads and checkpoints that separate the graves in Donbas – to my loved ones in the western part of Ukraine.

I was wrong.

I was back in Kyiv, the capital, in the small apartment I was renting and brushing the smoke and dust of the front line out of my clothes when my best friend, Yulia, texted: She had lost her cousin, a soldier, fighting in the east.

Soon I would have to stand over another grave.

It was an experience familiar to many Ukrainians. Five months after the start of the full-scale Russian invasion, the war fronts mean nothing. The bombings and news of death and casualties have blackened almost every part of the country like poison.

Iulia’s cousin Serhi served in an air mobile battalion around the city of Isium in the east. Hours before he died, he sent his last message to his mother, Halyna: an emoji of a bouquet of flowers. He then led the fight to the front line, where he was found by a Russian machine gun.

In Donbass, these tragedies are a backdrop of daily existence, piling up in numbers that seem unfathomable even as they surround you completely, an inescapable reality that is like the very air in your lungs.

There is no clearance for people living in the frontline areas. Instead, they seem overwhelmed by the enormity of what’s happening around them—as if it’s an existential threat too big for them to do anything about. So they wait numbly for what often seems the inevitable outcome, hypnotized by indecision, often forgetting that they are in immediate danger.

It felt different in the west, away from the front. In the Donbas, almost every sudden strange noise was exactly what you suspected: something deadly was flying nearby, looking for the living.

In contrast, Kyiv was almost peaceful. With running water, natural gas, electricity and internet, it was a far cry from the medieval conditions of a ruined Lysychansk. People played frisbee and walked dogs in parks, without the physical stiffness and sense of dread that comes with the threat of sudden death.

The chain of midsummer rocket attacks on cities far from the fighting in the east and south had just begun, turning the daily news of civilians killed into a nightmare: unsuspecting people – including children – were dismembered or burned alive inside shopping malls and medical centers in daylight. It left us with tight knots in our stomachs, but they hadn’t yet morphed into something almost genetic, a terror that would be passed down to posterity by the survivors of this war.

Another nightmare, a private one, was contained in Serhiy’s coffin, closed to spare the family the sight of his wounds. It heralded the arrival of war in Lishchn, a stamp of a village in northwestern Ukraine where Yulia’s family came from. There was no boom of artillery or scream of a shell, only the quiet hum of a funeral procession.

Because of soldiers like Serhiy fighting on the front lines, the villagers still had their present and future, warped by war, but protected. Therefore, on that Saturday morning, hundreds of them came to the yard of Serhiy’s parents to share the burden of their grief and take a long farewell walk with the family.

As the priest read prayers to the crowd, a flock of swallows maneuvered high above us – a set of peaceful black specks crossing the blue sky. One of them flew down and sat on a wire directly above Serhiy’s mother, who was crying next to the coffin, placed on a pair of kitchen stools outside the house.

I have watched these ceremonies before as a reporter, but from the emotionally safe distance of an outsider. But that day, it was Julia, shaking in the wind. So I put my arm around my best friend, as close to the raw pain of a human being as I’ve ever been.

Hours later, when the prayers were over, Halina could no longer cry. She simply spoke quietly to her son, as she had done more than 30 years ago when he was a newborn, his face in the crib as tiny as the face in the obituary photo of the smiling uniform holding a rocket launcher.

Finally, we made the long walk to take Serhiy from the family yard to his grave.

Hundreds of people walked with Serhiy’s parents in his home village. There was a shop where he probably bought his first cigarettes and a lake where he probably swam after leaving school with his friends.

Experiences from Serhiy’s life seemed to be hidden in every corner of their village. It made the walk exhaustingly long.

My steps that day were joined by the pain of one family—but only one. There are so many others in this war, which seems far from over.

It was hard to keep my thoughts from drifting back to the wheat fields of Donbas, to that yawning mass grave in Lysychansk.

There was no one there to mourn them. After the Russians took over the city in the last days of June, the 300 bags with names affixed by Ukrainian soldiers were likely joined by many others, anonymously. But I realized that someone somewhere was quietly grieving each of them.

Now, as I write this, others are walking the same paths of memory and loss across Ukraine – over city alleys and wheat fields, over rubble and broken glass, through eastern steppes, western forests, liberated villages, trenches and bleeding cities on the edge of the front line.

Ahead, there will be a sunny afternoon for some of us to stop, take the hand of someone we love and let go of everything and everyone we lost in the war.

But how long is the ride to get there?

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