Never Wear Seatbelts: 8 Things You Learn In A Modern Warzone
War is the perfect setting for roughly 100 percent of our Call Of Duties and our Rambos. It is a less-than-perfect setting for the civilians who happen to live in those war-torn countries. Cracked sent a writer, a photographer, and a translator near the front lines of the war in Ukraine (yes, seriously -- why does everybody keep asking that?) to talk to some civilians whose everyday lives have been turned to hell by the realities of modern warfare. Here's what they told us.
Fighters Cope With War By Turning It Into A Game; Civilians Just Have Drinking
The "Russian occupiers" psych themselves up with nifty videos that make their part in the war look like a video game. We interviewed one such volunteer, and he sent us this YouTube link.
In case you can't watch it, just know that we could run a "Top 50 Stills From
This 2 Minute Video" article and still have to cut most of the craziest stuff.
This is how the young men volunteering to invade someone else's country think war looks: like Call Of Duty, only you get to brag about it more because it's real.
"Excuse me, is this where I sign up for Pwnage Platoon?"
"Sorry, this is Troop Teabag."
About 8,000 people have died so far in the war, and civilian casualties have surged lately as the fighting goes from infantry shooting each other to an artillery duel with cities in the middle. The odds of a "Russian occupier" surviving his Ukrainian adventure are pretty good. Civilians living in the middle don't have it so well. Their war looks substantially less bitchin' ...
Nobody creates arena rock pump-up videos for having your apartment bombed to rubble.
The civilians of Avdiivka have been shelled constantly for more than a year. For them, war looks like a rocket exploding inside a local bar:
Alexey: "A grad rocket hit the bar several months ago. Three people died 500 meters from here. It was a direct hit on the bar."
We traveled to that bar, a tiki-esque place that wouldn't look out of place in any city in America. The manager, Yana, told us:
"I left 20 minutes early that day. I was about 200 meters away when it happened. Everyone's first reaction was panic."
Here's the repaired bar today.
Here's a picture she showed us on her phone of the blast's immediate aftermath.
And here's a picture of the shrapnel from a weapon that ended three human lives.
No one came to work at all for a month after that. But the bar is back in business now. Because purveyors of alcoholic distractions have a particularly important duty in a city collapsing under the stress of combat. As our bartender friend bluntly told us, "People drink a lot more now."
Tourism note: Maybe don't order a round of Jagerbombs.
Fear Is A Variable
The next day we paid a visit to the town's mayor during a brisk exchange of artillery fire that periodically rattled the walls of the town hall. People kept right on working like it wasn't a thing. The people of Avdiivka have been shelled virtually every day (mostly during the nights) for well over a year. Everyone reacts differently to that kind of thing. One source, a middle-aged mother with adult children who handled PR for the local coking plant, told us over beer, "I'm not afraid to drink here. I stopped being afraid."
She told us she couldn't remember the exact date when she stopped being afraid, but, she said, "The people who can't handle it already left."
"Whatever; more sandbags for the rest of us."
That young bartender Yana related the same thing: She wasn't afraid anymore; the shelling had just gone on for so long. When we met with Yuriy Cherkasov, the mayor, we asked him the same question and got a very, very different answer:
"Everyone is afraid. Only idiots are not afraid, or cretins. It's scary to everyone. For four months there was no water. From November to February. No electricity for three months. No heating during that time. And of course there was firing as well. [Minus 20 degrees Celsius] in the winter. Is that scary?"
More than 120 days of deadly cold and even deadlier gunfire sure puts the lack
of a working toilet into perspective.
The mayor continued: "They were not able to bury the dead during that time. They ... had problems bringing caskets to bury people. A tractor would dig a trench and the dead would be lined in there. Is that scary? During the whole time, people are shooting. They are transporting children, old people, taking them around the town during all this. More than 50 people, in one year, were killed in Avdiivka. Four hundred wounded. None of these casualties are military. Is that scary? Of course it is."
We can't comment on whether the people who told us they weren't afraid were just putting on a brave face, but our answer to the mayor's persistent question was just uncontrollable urination.
Even War Has Its Lighter Moments
At one point we sat down with a Ukrainian colonel serving as Avdiivka's military authority, on par with the mayor, who explained that, since the school season was starting up in a few days, the Separatists had gone from shelling at night to shelling during the day and night.
"They are trying to intimidate us."
Right after he said that, a Howitzer boomed in the distance, so loud it shook the walls and rattled the windows of the tiny room we were in.
"That probably came from this fortification, which you'll note is entirely too close to this room."
At that point he laughed. Everybody laughed. The timing was just too good.
"See? Like that."
Later during our visit, that colonel drove us around to see some of the buildings most recently hit by shells, in a car that had already taken its fair share of shrapnel:
Look, not every army can afford Humvees.
There was still light mortar fire and heavy machine-gun fire echoing around us, intermittently, as we drove around. The actual shooting was less than a half-mile away. At one point we attempted to buckle our seatbelts and noticed someone had jammed pieces of plastic in them, rendering the belts unusable:
Probably more pressing safety issues in a neighborhood under constant mortar fire.
If we were to get caught up in an artillery barrage, the military governor explained, we'd want to be able to bail out right away. His safety belts had been disabled for safety. Also of note: The first casualty of war apparently isn't truth -- it's traffic laws. Nobody enforces speed limits in Avdiivka.
Social Media Saves Lives
VK.com (Vkontakte, or In Contact) is a fast-growing, super-cool new social network where you and your fun friends can post fun pictures of the fun things you do:
Like posting fun selfies of your life in what is essentially a Fallout game.
The citizens of Avdiivka, who lived lives basically like any other Westerners, used it for trivial stuff back before the shelling started. Now they use it to avoid dying.
Yana: "There are groups on VK.com where people tell each other where shells are falling, people will write from Donetsk about that to the people here and vice-versa. People warn each other."
"Movie night canceled -- howitzer fire AGAIN. #FirefightFriday"
Donetsk is the big city that Avdiivka is near. It's also the capitol of the Donetsk People's Republic, and thus the political and military HQ of the people shelling Avdiivka. Everyone in Avdiivka has friends and family in the city, and vice-versa, so they warn each other when they hear their respective soldiers warming up the guns.
Later on our trip, we met a local nurse who now lives at the hospital, because her apartment was hit by a mortar round last February.
"Fuck mortars" will be a persistent theme in this article.
She told us, "If I was home, I'd be dead." But she learned shells were falling on her neighborhood thanks to the "Avdiivka Is My Motherland" VK.com group. She told us that same group later informed her that her home had been destroyed, which helped a bit less, but we suppose it did save her a pointless commute.
In Some Ways, War Is Just ... Boring
The mayor told us that, out of a pre-war population of 33,000, less than 10,000 people still live in the city. Avdiivka's primary business is a massive coking plant, one of the largest in the world. It has operated this entire time, despite being hit by shells and mortars and rockets roughly 165 times. Many of the workers who remain live there full-time now, in bomb shelters. Most of those workers sent their families away long ago. We talked to one factory worker, Sergei:
"I made the decision to send my family home after Jan. 10, when the fighting started up again."
Most of the people who remain in town have seen all of their friends and family leave. One local resident told us, "All the normal people have left. It's like this isn't home."
At one point we met an elderly couple tending a new garden:
This little garden was the woman's best attempt to alleviate the soul-crushing ennui of war: She had no family or friends left in town at all. And now she can't visit her dacha (country house) and work on her primary garden (which both fed her and seemed to be her passion in life), "because it's full of unexploded shells," she said.
That's not a charming term for poor seed growth.
And there's not even Netflix to entertain people in the hours between artillery raids and work. As Alexey, who's an engineer, explained, "During the artillery raids, wires and cables get cut and damaged."
This means no TV, no wired Internet and, for months at a time, no power for the people of Avdiivka. I asked Alexey what the hell people do, considering they also couldn't really congregate after dark thanks to the tendency of stuff around them to randomly explode. Diana, a local woman we talked to, pointed out one upside of the situation: "My husband and I have started talking more at home. When you don't have electricity, TV, or other distractions ... you talk more with your husband, neighbors, friends."
You don't have a year's worth of conversations set to gunfire without getting a little closer.
One young man we talked to pointed out that, on the rare occasions the TVs worked, most of what came in was Russian propaganda anyway. We stayed the night in a hospital attached to the coking plant, along with a bunch of Ukrainian soldiers. They were able to watch the rebel separatist TV network, which, curiously enough, was playing The Devil Wears Prada. Way to rebel against conventional movie taste, guys!
Jury-Rigging The Basic Necessities
Obviously, the war fucks up much more than just your entertainment options. Here's Alexey:
"Last year, for three months we didn't have water. A canal was destroyed."
He explained that they organized convoys of people with vehicles to drive out to nearby towns and get water. They cleaned out cargo vehicles and filled them with bottles and jugs of water. Everything they drank had to be brought in. During the worst of the shelling in February, schools were closed on account of they kept goddamn exploding. But the educating had to go on:
"Kids were given assignments at home; they were sent through email or by courier." In other words, students with Internet access got assignments for their net-less peers and brought them over.
For those doubting the toughness of Ukrainian school kids, realize that THIS doesn't justify a day off.
Avdiivka's head teacher added:
"Other times, the teachers would go to students' homes individually to consult with kids; sometimes they would teach the children directly in the homes. They used to have 3,000 children in the city, and now they have 763."
Heating is another major problem. For one thing, whenever a mortar or howitzer round lands, it destroys literally every window within dozens, sometimes hundreds of feet. This makes heating homes nigh-on impossible in Ukraine's infamous subzero winters. The local government does their best to help ... which in this case means they cut chunks out of a huge roll of plastic wrap and hand them out to citizens.
They don't look exactly "stoked" about this solution.
Central heating works for fuck-all in the face of constant shelling, but the mayor and the management of the coking plant jury-rigged a fix:
"Basically, we get heat from the factory. ... A pipe comes from it, filled with hot water, and that's driven to the city through the pipeline."
If you've got a better idea for industrial waste water, we're all ears.
This is a picture of part of that tubing system. Hey, notice the cat? "What's up with that cat?" You might be asking, if you have some bizarre priorities. Luckily, we have some bizarre priorities too ...
What's Up With All These War Kittens?
Avdiivka isn't some constantly war-wracked hellhole where life has been an unbearable nightmare for years and years on end. Two years ago, it was probably a lot like wherever you live. Which means that people had pets, which sadly means that people abandoned some of those pets to the warzone. Some parts of town are practically overflowing with orphaned kittens and puppies. The locals don't adopt all of them, because "I'm living in the middle of a warzone, jerkwad" is a pretty rock-solid excuse. But several women did band together to build an ersatz animal shelter out of the town heating pipe.
Spunky and adorable in the face of danger.
They built a little warren for the youngest kittens and their mom where it's warmest, and they also set up food and shelter for the other animals who needed it:
On top of giving something uplifting to people who also needed it.
A handful of puppies live at this "pet shelter" too. They play with the kittens, eat with the kittens, and when we brought food for the animals, they all shared. No growling, no fighting, just a bunch of hungry animals living and cuddling together.
We kinda felt we owed you this picture after all the mortar talk.
We're not sure about the "mass hysteria and human sacrifice," but Venkman was totally right about the "dogs and cats living together" when everything goes to shit.
You Stop Caring About Anything But When It Will End
You could call Avdiivka a "loyalist" town. But a significant chunk of the locals we talked to sympathized with or outright supported the separatists. At least ... they did at one point. After a year of war, no one seemed to care about the political inspirations behind the fighting that had ruined their goddamn lives. The sentiment we heard over and over and over again was: "I don't care; I just want my life back."
Eventually all politics take a back seat to not freezing in a pile of rubble.
As the mayor told us: "Of course people have become tired of war. They are fed up with war. They want peace at any cost. Every family here has problems. Someone left, someone died, somebody's house has been destroyed."
We asked the military governor -- whom you'd assume would be spouting the company line loudest of all -- what he thought he'd do when the war ended. He didn't say anything about freedom or loyalty or the cause. He said:
"Live. Just live."
Update: Cracked's sources within Avdiivka report that, as of this October, the most recent ceasefire seems to be holding. The residents are cautiously optimistic that things might work out this time. We wish them a mortar-free holiday season, and also a mortar-free rest of their entire lives.
You can donate here to help refugees of the war in Ukraine.
Robert Evans is the head of Cracked's personal experience article team. He has a Twitter. Is something strange happening in your hometown? Send him an email. Jim Kovpak has a brutally honest blog about Russia. Give it a read!
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