HUSARIVKA, Ukraine — There’s a dead person in there.
It is blackened, almost as if it had been welded into the Russian military vehicle when it exploded.
How long had this Russian soldier been seen? Long enough to become a monument in this small village in eastern Ukraine, Husarivka, where some people passed in the cold spring rain, knowing they were walking past a grave.
The Russians had been out of the area for about two weeks by that time in April, evidence of their retreat scattered across the roads and fields — mixed with bullet-riddled civilian vehicles and hastily dug graves in the backyard.
The two weeks were just long enough for the roughly 400 remaining residents to take stock of exactly what had happened to them since late February: the war, the occupation, the struggle to retake their village, their own losses and the body left in the destroyed armored vehicle.
He was so badly burned I couldn’t tell how old he was, but I thought he must be young because he was in the troop compartment: the back of the armored personnel carrier where half a dozen men usually crouch with their guns attached. , waiting for an older officer to tell them to go out and attack or defend.
Perhaps he’d been sitting there listening to the firing outside the thin armor of his vehicle, known as a BMP, which moments later did just about nothing to stop the projectile that slammed the whole thing open like a can.
But two weeks later, he’s still sitting, his last thoughts gone from his skull, cracked open and wet from the rain.
If he had been a general, his troops might have tried to grab him, to pry him from the wreckage while it was on fire.
The Russians have left the bodies of many of their troops behind, a startling practice that violates a common code among combatants. Does it indicate disorder? Low morale? Or was it something more personal in this case?
Maybe if he had been popular in the pack, the guy who picked you up from the bar at 4am without asking questions, they would have fought to put out the flames. Or at least to get his body so that he could be buried under a familiar sky.
Or maybe it was so catastrophic that by the time the survivors got to safety and looked around and realized, god, he’s missing, they knew there was nothing they could do. He was still inside over there. Caught.
I look at him, think about all this, try to figure out if that’s his rib cage, listen to the artillery in the distance and wonder if it’s getting closer or further away.
Husarivka was a speed bump in a Russian advance that failed, leaving the village of dairy farms, and little else, briefly occupied by Russian soldiers — and saturated with Ukrainian artillery fire in response — until the Ukrainians advanced in late March.
Presumably the BMP was destroyed by then. Now the front line was only miles away, and we were there doing the same thing as the Husarivka residents: taking inventory of the wreckage and its loss.
As has become a depressing feature in modern wars, this one talks much about casualties and deaths statistically, as if the violence had become so routine and mechanical, so rapid, that the numbers of dead and wounded can be analyzed about such as sports scores.
For the people of Russia and Ukraine, those anonymous numbers that only the rest of the world looks at are mothers, sons, friends. Their empty rooms must be repainted and redecorated, or left undisturbed, awaiting a return that will never come.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
And for those who actually live through all this destruction and killing, the waste of battle has its own allure after the firing has stopped and the sirens of the air raids have died down. Inevitably, the scorched remains of destroyed tanks and other vehicles will be surrounded by voyeurs wondering about the fate of those doomed crews; trying to piece those final moments together or staring in awe at what people can do to each other.
This urge to gaze at the unspoken parts of war reminded me of my second deployment as a Marine in southern Afghanistan in 2010, which saw many deaths and deaths, but not on a scale comparable to Ukraine.
An injured Taliban fighter — or a man the platoon said was a Taliban fighter — was brought to our outpost of about 50 people so he could be evacuated for treatment. The Talib was shot pretty badly, bandaged but clinging to life.
Everyone in the outpost wanted to see him. They stopped what they were doing, crowded around the stretcher and watched this man slowly die. Just to see it, to experience it. They walked next to him after the helicopters landed and saw him leave, then went back to work.
Maybe it was some kind of comfort, the ultimate memory: he was on that stretcher and she wasn’t at the time.
In Ukraine, the twisted hulls of destroyed tanks and other Russian military vehicles on display in Kiev, the capital, have attracted crowds. Young and old probably moved there for many of the same reasons as my comrades in Afghanistan more than a decade ago, though the Ukrainians have the added justification that comes with resisting an occupier – and moral distance from participating in the violence. himself.
Wanting to look at this wartime – at wreckage, at the wounded, and even at the dead – feels almost inevitable, something you have to do to make sure it all really happened. But I’m not in a position to judge.
There I was a few weeks ago, staring at this dead Russian soldier in eastern Ukraine, peeking into his grave of entangled metals and casing and what was left of his burnt body, evoked by a simple statement.
There’s a dead man in there.