Lend-lease and abandoned shoes
The front line is humming. Explosions can be seen and heard for dozens of kilometers across the horizon. The roaring wave seems to be getting closer and closer to the outskirts of the village where we stopped for the night with the gunners. They are still waiting, because they work on large-caliber self-propelled guns Peony. This weapon is used precisely and carefully. The commander of one of the guns, a stout fair-haired man, slowly drags on a cigarette and points with his hand to the horizon, beyond the forest strips. There, a speck of light explodes in the sky. Then it breaks up into hundreds of smaller ones. "Phosphorus”, he says.
Grad is operating from behind us: dozens of rockets are flying into the night sky. In a few minutes distant explosions reach us. Probably from the place where the Russians fired phosphorous projectiles.
"And itʼs like that all the time," says the commander. “Every hour everything changes. It can be quiet in the morning, loud in the afternoon.”
A powerful volley of several barrels shakes the air. This sound involuntarily bends the knees.
“Oh, and these are our "axes" answer. The Russians also constantly shoot at them. There, the boys just live in bulletproof vests and helmets. Itʼs scary to imagine what condition their spines will be in: they live and sleep in armor. Itʼs easier for us, we are far behind the front line,” calmly says the stout commander.
The man finishes smoking a cigarette and goes to one of the houses on the outskirts, to spend the night. We, along with other military personnel, have been listening to explosions over the horizon for ten minutes. Suddenly, we notice a rush outside the village. A military man jumps out from the farthest house. He is of medium height, with broad shoulders, a black beard and the same eyebrows, from under which dark eyes peer intently. This is the battalion commander, "Kapa".
“What the hell did we miss the hit? Okay, Iʼm going on the spot, to quickly see whatʼs there. Just in case, be ready to take the vehicles out, — the combatant says loudly and jumps into his jeep on the go. The car disappears in the darkness.
We go to the yard where the gunners live: two houses, a chicken coop, an old broken tractor. The military explains: before the invasion, a pro-Russian family lived here, it fled to the Russian Federation. The man had several dozens of hectares of land, but he didnʼt live well. We go to the house. In a dark room, a tall doctor with a neat beard — nicknamed “Doc” — is sitting on a sofa. While we are talking, “Kapa” arrives. He says that the fire we saw is the field burning. Someone from the locals decided to set it on fire. I ask the combatant if there will be work today.
“When called, then we will go. Actually, we donʼt have work every day. This weapon is specific, there are not many shells for it. Although the Russians left a lot of ammunition when they fled. Itʼs their “lend-lease”, so to speak. But everything we found has already been sent back to them,” “Kapa” laughs.
Soldiers sit in the living room and play shooting games on their smartphones. The room fills with screams of joy, anger and despair. At some point, "Kapa" puts down the phone, gets tired and goes to get packed in his room. Colleagues apologize for killing his player. “Kapa” comes out in a few minutes. He says he has to go on a mission. And at night, there will probably be some work to do.
We go out with a few soldiers to the yard to smoke. The front seems calm. The military is shown several videos from the Russian trenches. With old computer monitors thrown in the bushes, with scattered military boots, with a toilet next to the kitchen. Itʼs midnight on the clock. Time to go to sleep.
In the house, the fire crackles comfortably in the hearth. Loud snoring comes from the far room.
“Lord, someone kill that tiger,” someone from the military shouts from another room.
Suddenly, the front door opens, and "Kapa" appears.
“Departure in an hour and a half. Everyone be ready!” he announces loudly and disappears into his room. Or the office, as subordinates jokingly call it.
In an hour, the house turns into an anthill. The gunners get out of their sleeping bags, quickly get dressed and run for the village. The road is illuminated with flashlights, eyes are wiped as they go. Itʼs dark outside, like a cellar: the whole sky is covered with clouds, an icy wind blows in the field. After a few dozens of meters, strange shadows appear between the trees: two huge cannons, covered with a net and branches. Artillerymen deftly jump on them, throw off their camouflage. Engines start to growl, headlights turn on. “Peonies" woke up.
“We have a small job. Just one shot, we need to hit on the infantry somewhere. Jump on the armor, no one will wait,” says one of the soldiers.
As soon as I jump on the car, the Peony jumps out of its place and drives through the fields with rumbling tracks. Itʼs almost impossible to understand where we are exactly: everything is covered in darkness. Finally, we stop in the middle of the field. Gunners deploy self-propelled guns, aim guns at targets.
“Oh my God, I canʼt see anything. Ask them to light up there one more time, so I set the gun,” one of the gunners, nicknamed “Khottabych”, curses quietly.
A white flashlight moves in the field behind him. The man looks now at it, then at the sighting device. Finally, the cannon is i the right position. In the dark, two yellow headlights are switched on, a truck with a long trailer roars towards us. Four gunners take one shell and one powder charge from it. The first one is simply rolled on the ground, because it weighs 110 kilograms. The second one is carried on the shoulders. The projectile is placed on a special carriage that charges the cannon. Next, a powder charge is stuffed, followed by a pyro cartridge. "Peony" is ready.
“Cannon! Fire!” is heard from the walkie-talkie.
A barely audible screech fills the air. For a second thereʼs nothing but the shadow of the gun is visible. Then there is an explosion. The field is flooded with yellow light, a wave of air hits the chest. The projectile flies into the target. In a few minutes, the cannon is assembled and ready to move away: after all, Russian shells can fly in response.
“You know, last night we also worked. Then 20 minutes after the shot, MLRS with cluster shells fell on the place where we were standing. But we werenʼt there, "Khottabych" says thoughtfully.
Our "Peony" turns around and quickly drives through the fields. The second cannon is still standing. We can hear how its calculation is messed up and every time after the command "Fire!" the cry "Misfire!" is heard. We leave them behind. In the end, we find ourselves under the cover of trees. The engine stops, the militarymen quickly camouflage the self-propelled guns. Together with them we go to the village. At that moment, out of the corner of my eye, I notice a bright yellow flash in the distance. In a few more seconds, the sound of an explosion rolls in. The second "Peony" fired successfully. We go back to the house. Now itʼs possible to rest.
Sleep, however, is interrupted after a few hours by loud explosions. Shock waves hit the house. The front door is shaking. The windows are trembling. The front came to life. It seems that the Russians have decided to launch their own counteroffensive: there is no other explanation for the explosions. Gunners are as calm as possible. They say that if you constantly think that an enemy projectile will fly at you, then you can just go crazy. So you just have to do your job. Meanwhile, breakfast is brought to the yard. Today itʼs pearl porridge with eggs and sausages. Eggs, by the way, are from locals who are trying to help the army.
“But you have to be careful with the locals. They support Ukraine, but who knows whatʼs in their heads. For example, one grandfather is said to have brought food to the occupiers and fed them. On the other hand, almost everyone had to cooperate with the occupiers. The only question is how exactly,” “Kapa” explains.
“The Russians are very active today. This hasnʼt happened for a long time. Maybe they took offense at us? Because yesterday we blew up their warehouse. For a long time afterwards, we watched it burn on the horizon. Today we worked on some infantry. Well, or they went on a counterattack, broke through the front, and then weʼre toasted,” thinks the commander of one of the guns over breakfast.
In two hours, with several artillerymen, we are going to the forest strip, to "Peony". The military put the trigger in place — it was repaired. Something is buzzing in the sky. “Itʼs a helicopter, itʼs ours, the Russians donʼt fly here,” confidently says one of the soldiers with the call sign “Ryba”. Heʼs under two meters high, broad-shouldered, with a neat beard. Before the Russian invasion, he worked in the security of one of the ships, but now he is fighting with the artillery. "Ryba" talks to us without distracting from the main work — fixing the mechanism of the cannon. The hum slowly builds up. Ukrainian helicopter flies over the trees in the distance.
We return to the village. Near the hut with the gunners, we meet pensioner Yuriy (name changed), who is transporting cans of water on a bicycle. He says he has a small farm, so he needs about 200 liters of water every day. He collects it not far away, from a neighbor who has a deep well.
“We donʼt have much water here. Previously, there was a water pipe and a water tower: water was drawn into it. And now there is no electricity, the pumps arenʼt working. People who have wells share with their neighbors,” Yuriy explains.
During our conversation, the man sometimes looks into the yard where the military is based. We ask which of the occupiers were in their village: the Russian army or those mobilized from Donbas.
“At first they were from the ʼDPRʼ. They seemed to be adequate. Then the Russians came. They swept the ʼDPRʼ out of the village, told them to live in the fields. Then there were some from Asia. Their eyes were kind of wild. They looted. Stole sneakers and underwear from people”.
Yuriy starts to laugh, lights a cigarette.
“The neighbor says that one person came to her house. He asked where the toilet was, she showed him. For a long time, he couldnʼt understand what a ceramic toilet is. He called other [occupiers] and started telling them that Ukrainians are so rich that they have a fountain in their house! Another came to collect water. He approached the faucet in the kitchen. He looked at it for a long time until he was shown how to turn the water on. They were very surprised that we have water and toilets right in the houses. They asked who allowed us to live better than they live,” says Yuriy. We ask if there were people in the village who disappeared. The man thinks for a minute, trying to remember.
“It seems that there were several cases. ATO soldier as given [to the Russians]. People say that there was a torture chamber in the basement of the school. But I donʼt know that myself, I havenʼt seen it. Little is left of the school now: the Russians have organized a hospital and a base there. Then the Ukrainian Armed Forces hit the building with shells. What I know for sure is that they treated their soldiers like garbage. Russians came to the neighborʼs house and asked for black bags. They say it was needed“to bury the garbage”. It turned out that they killed their wounded and buried them in the backyard. How did we find out about this: the corpses were not buried deep, and our dogs regularly dug them up and sometimes dragged their hands and heads around the village. The last time we covered that grave with slate so that the dogs wouldnʼt drag the corpse around the village,” Yuriy laughs.
I say goodbye to the man and go to the house of the military. As soon as I enter the room, the air is torn by an explosion. In a few seconds, we hear over the radio: "The cannons attacked the drone!". "Doc" grabs the walkie-talkie. It seems that he was just sleeping — he ran out of the room in just the thermal underwear.
“ʼRybaʼ, have you even seen that drone?” while getting dressed, he jokes into the radio.
“Damn, it shot right next to us, itʼs a miracle we didnʼt get hurt,” shouts the walkie-talkie in response.
“Doc” pulls on his pants, grabs his backpack, and runs outside. After him, angry “Kapa” comes out of the room with quick, accelerated steps. He grabs a machine gun, goes outside, and shouts to those who are left in the house: “Shoot down without a command any piece of crap that flies and rattles. Theyʼve already lost their minds, dogs.”
In an hour, the commander returns with one of the guns. The gun is intact. The drone became entangled in tree branches and exploded there, without causing much damage to the equipment. Russian shells can be heard exploding several kilometers away.
“Estupidos! They didnʼt hit the target! Crooked hands!” screams “Doc” at the top of his voice.
“The machines are to be re-based today. We need to divide the teams. It seems that one of the locals told about us. Be careful. We are looking for a new base,” says “Kapa” while walking around the yard.
At dusk, “Peonies” leave the forest strip and go elsewhere through the fields. To a safer place. We are going to spend the night in Kryvyi Rih — it is restless near the positions today. The front is buzzing.
In a day we return to “Kapa” — the commander says that thereʼs some work for them to do, so it will be interesting. We arrive to already familiar house. The number of people in the yard has decreased greatly. “Kapa” says that a woman from another unit should come to visit them: to sign the shells that the artillerymen will use to hit the Russian army.
“Guys, give me the speakers. The girl will come, at least we need to turn on some music,” laughs “Kapa” and sits on the hood of a military jeep.
As soon as they turn the speaker on, the voice of the retro Ukrainian singer Ivo Bobul can be heard from it:
"And autumn has already come to my garden,
I didnʼt call her — go back
Donʼt disturb the green groves
And donʼt knock on my windows..."
“Kapa” sings along, swaying slightly from side to side. A woman in a uniform appears behind the fence. Tells her name is Anastasia. The gunners immediately come to life, start cracking jokes, take out a cup of coffee from the kitchen and line up in a semicircle near the car. The guest is in the center of attention. She says she wants to sign several shells for herself and her friend.
“I was once in the ATO, in 2018-2019. Then finished my service and returned home to Kherson. And on February 24, the invasion began, and I left a few days after that, already from the occupation. It was impossible to stay there. If the Russians found out that I serve at the army, I would be in the basement. Thatʼs why I want to say hello to them,” says the girl calmly.
We go with her and several soldiers to the truck with shells. We donʼt have time to open the sides of the truck when we hear a shout on the walkie-talkie: “To the battle!”. Gunners run out of several houses in the village and rush to one of the guns. “Peony” is being unmasked again. “Khottabych” jumps into the gunnerʼs chair with the inscription “landscape designer” and arranges a stick with a piece of black cloth next to him. After him, other soldiers climb onto the armor. I jump in last. As soon as I hit the metal, the gun shudders and vibrates. “Peony” goes on a combat mission. The wind unfurls a piece of black cloth, and it turns into a pirate flag.
This time we are going much longer. It seems that we are circling fields with overripe grain. Here and there you can see black circles — the traces of "arrivals" of Russian artillery. Sometimes the tail parts of "Hurricanes" can be seen between the ears. In the end, "Kapa" chooses a convenient position for shooting.
"Park the car and disguise yourself, wait," he says.
- As if these pigs wonʼt see that there is a cannon among the branches, — the gunners begin to mumble, but they still go to cut down the trees.
In 15 minutes, "Peony" is covered with branches from all sides. A few hundred meters away, "Kapa" has settled down with his tablet: he is carefully calculating something, adding up numbers. "Fish" approaches us. We ask him how the counterattack is going.
— Someone from Kyiv once told me that his counteroffensive is not advancing quickly. Like, we could move faster. Well, I want to tell such people to shut their cunts. Because every freed village is a loss. I remember when the counteroffensive began, we were standing in the same formation with tankmen and infantry. There were a lot of people. And medevacs constantly rushed by. I ask, do they make such a wind? And they tell me that the wounded are being taken out of the front line, — says "Ryba" discreetly.
His colleagues are lounging in the distance, under the trees, looking up at the sky from time to time. Even further, there is a truck with shells — a "cow", as the gunners affectionately call it. "Doc" approaches us.
- When the counteroffensive started, everything happened. For example, that our long-range artillery ended up in some villages earlier than the infantry. And I still remember the intersection with the watermelon. The corpses of Russians were still lying there. They didnʼt take them away, and we didnʼt have them at that time. So we drove around them during the day, and at night... Letʼs put it this way, you canʼt turn on the lights, youʼre driving in the dark, using the devices. No one visited those corpses. Now it is impossible to take them away. Except to scrape it off the asphalt. Although, maybe itʼs easier to put a new layer on top, — says "Doc" thoughtfully.
After conversations, half an hour passes. Command finally gives permission to open fire. The gunners, who had been walking around like flies before, ran in. "Cow" drives right under the cannon, two men unload the body, "Dok" on the ground is already signing shells on behalf of Anastasia, who came to the gunners in the morning, but did not have time to leave a message to the Russians: "For Kherson! From Nastya!" and "You will all die in hell."
- Good fuck. We donʼt use such powerful charges that often. And when the cannons were raised so high, I donʼt remember at all. "If the target was 170 meters away, it would be a ceiling for the cannon," says "Kapa" enthusiastically.
The mechanism sends the projectile into the muzzle with a rumble. Powder charges follow. For a few seconds, life around stops: the mechanisms of the "Peony" freeze, the gunners freeze.
- Cannon! Fire! — shouts "Fish".
The flash blinds the eyes, the roar of the explosion covers the head. It seems that you physically feel how the blast wave is trying to overturn both you and the gun and everything within a radius of a hundred or two meters.
- Running fire! The second projectile! — heard from the charging team.
The team loads the cannon. Artillerymen loading shells are chasing their colleagues who are carrying gunpowder. They are supposedly too slow. Among the screams, you can distinguish "fuck your mother" and "fuck you faster". The second projectile is ready.
- Fire! — shouts "Fish".
Gunners pull the rope. Nothing happens.
- Misfire! — shouts "Fish".
- Your mother! the gunners shout.
- Donʼt even think, you bastard, to pull the rope, because Iʼm going to die! — shouts the loading team to the gunner with the lanyard.
The gun is ready in 30 seconds.
- Fire! — shouts "Fish".
The air responds with an explosion. The second projectile hit the target. The team is already charging the third.
- Fire!!! "Fish" roars.
"Peony" spits a 110-kilogram projectile into the sky along with the flame.
- On armor! Run! Letʼs go! the gunners shout to each other.
As soon as the gun is lowered into the special mount, the gunners jump onto the armor. "Khotabych" does not have time to take the steps, the car roars out of the forest lane and rushes across the fields to its hiding place. Already at the base, I ask "Kapa" if they were hit.
"Well, if my superiors donʼt hang up my phone demanding to explain what it was, then theyʼve been hit," he says. — They beat on the column of equipment. Of course, I didnʼt see her, I only had the coordinates. Ours noticed that they were standing somewhere on the road. So we gave them some greetings.
evening We smoke in the yard with the gunners, talk about the counteroffensive and activity at the front. "Doc" intervenes in the conversation.
— I have an acquaintance in the infantry, in one of the divisions. He said that they began to cut tasks. And this happens with his unit in two cases: if they go either to clear the village or to storm. Think now, says the doctor.
A few days after that, Ukrainian infantry entered Kherson.