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In My Homeland, the smell of death on a summer afternoon

LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine – There was a mass grave with 300 people, and I was standing on the edge. The chalky body bags were piled in the pit, visible. A moment before that, I was a different person, one who never knew what the wind smelled like after flying over the dead one pleasant summer afternoon.

By mid-June, those corpses were far from a complete count of civilians killed in shelling in the area around the industrial city of Lysychansk in the past two months. They were just “the ones who had no one to bury them in a yard or backyard,” one soldier casually said.

He lit a cigarette while we looked at the grave.

The smoke clouded the smell.

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

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

I was wrong.

I had returned to Kiev, the capital, to the small apartment I had rented, and was the smoke and dust of the front lines of my clothes when my best friend, Yulia, texted: She had lost her cousin, a soldier , fighting in the east.

I should soon be standing over another grave.

It was an experience many Ukrainians knew. Five months after the Russian invasion began on a large scale, the front lines of the wars mean little. Rocket attacks and the news of deaths and casualties have blackened almost every part of the country like poison.

Yulia’s cousin Serhiy served in an airmobile battalion around the city of Izium to the east. A few hours before his death, he sent his last message to his mother, Halyna: an emoji of a bouquet of flowers. Then he drove to the battle on the front line, where a Russian machine gun found him.

In Donbas, these tragedies form a backdrop to everyday existence, piling up in numbers that seem unimaginable even when they completely surround you, an inescapable reality that feels like the air in your lungs.

There is no catharsis for the people living in the frontline areas. Instead, they seem overwhelmed by the vastness of what’s going on around them — as if it’s an existential threat too great to deal with. So they wait numbly for what often seems like 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 any sudden strange noise was exactly what you suspected: something deadly flying nearby in search of the living.

In contrast, Kiev was almost peaceful. With running water, gas, electricity and internet, it was far from the medieval conditions of a devastated Lysychansk. People played Frisbee and walked dogs in the parks, devoid of the physical stiffness and sense of dread that come with the threat of sudden death.

The chain of midsummer rocket attacks on towns far from the fighting to the east and south had only just begun, turning the daily news of civilians killed into a nightmare: unsuspecting people – including children – shot to pieces or burned alive in shopping malls and medical centers in broad daylight. It made tight knots in our stomachs, but they had not yet been transformed into something almost genetic, a horror that would be passed on to descendants by the survivors of this war.

Another nightmare, a private nightmare, was in Serhiy’s coffin, closed to protect the family from the sight of his wounds. It heralded the arrival of the war in Lishchn, a postage stamp of a village in northwestern Ukraine where Yulia’s family came from. There was no artillery blast or rocket scream, just the silent hum of a funeral procession.

With soldiers like Serhiy fighting at the front, the villagers still had their present and future, war-distorted, but protected. Therefore, on that Saturday morning, hundreds of them came to Serhiy’s parents’ garden to share 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 series of peaceful black spots that crisscrossed the blue sky. One of them flew down and sat on a wire just above Serhiy’s mother, who was whimpering at the coffin, which was standing on some kitchen stools outside the house.

I’ve seen these ceremonies before on duty, but from the emotionally safe distance of an outsider. But that day there was Yulia, trembling in the wind. So I put my arm around my best friend, as close to someone’s raw pain as ever before.

Hours later, when the prayers ended, Halyna couldn’t cry anymore. She just spoke softly to her son, as she did over 30 years ago when he was a newborn, his face in the crib as small as the face in the funeral photo of the smiling man in uniform holding a rocket launcher.

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

Hundreds of people walked through his native village with Serhiy’s parents. There was a shop where he might have bought his first cigarettes, and a lake where he probably swam with his friends after dropping out of school.

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

My steps that day coincided with the pain of one family – but only one. There are so many more in this war, which seems far from over.

It was hard to keep my mind from wandering across the cornfields of Donbas, to that gaping mass grave in Lysychansk.

There was no one there to mourn them. After the Russians took the city in the last days of June, the 300 body bags with name tags of Ukrainian soldiers were probably joined by many more, unnamed. But I thought someone was quietly grieving somewhere.

As I write this, others are walking the same trails of memory and loss across Ukraine—down city alleys and cornfields, over rubble and broken glass, through eastern steppes, western forests, liberated villages, trenches and bleeding towns on the fringes of the front line.

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

But how long is the walk to get there?

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