Witnessing the strange, static warfare that is being fought every day in eastern Ukraine.
"Don't step to the left or right of this path," Iryna, a female Ukrainian soldier, told us in a quiet voice. It was just after 6:30 p.m. but already dark and silent in the fields of Ukraine's Luhansk region, where potential land mines restrict movement to narrow tracks.
The two soldiers guiding us knew the snow-covered route to the front line with the instinct of forest animals: Straight downhill for several minutes, right at the tree line, scramble through a tangle of undergrowth before crossing a last, open field. As we neared the trenches, the soldiers paused to announce our approach by walkie-talkie.
I was working with an experienced fixer from the Donbas Frontliner project to see what soldiers thought of the rumors of an impending invasion. Far from the U.S. media/government feedback loop, it seemed the young Ukrainians facing the Russian military with weapons in hand would be best placed to make an assessment. The near universal response to that question was no, the soldiers did not believe an invasion was imminent. A Ukrainian colleague working elsewhere on the front line at the same time confirmed that view is widespread. "All soldiers tell me [an invasion] is impossible. But this is soldiers," he added, "some of them haven't been to a big town in seven months."
By the time we arrived in the village house where the Ukrainian fighters were billeted, we had spoken to several people and our reporting work was largely done but, thanks to the fleeting daylight hours, I had little to show visually. We decided to wait for the gloomy December dawn to shoot photos, then get out of there as quickly as possible, assumedly by the same forest path.
The plan was fine -- and utterly naïve. In war as a noncombatant, it turns out, you lose all agency. Like a child who needs to be passed between responsible adults, you have little control over what happens or when. It was an indelible lesson I would learn the next morning.
That night we again heaved on our body armor and helmets and moved out into the darkness, crunching along an icy road towards an outpost slightly closer to separatist positions. As we walked, a sudden blast of automatic gunfire from a few meters away barely seemed to register with the soldiers. The bang of a gun in the darkness is of little concern. Instead, I was told, it's the zing of incoming bullets, that arrive before you hear the gun, that will get a soldier moving.
In the outpost, two soldiers were preparing to head into the trenches for their four-hour combat shift. One asked not to be photographed. Her mother thinks she is working as a pen pusher far from the front lines and the sight of her only daughter heading into the darkness with a Kalashnikov in hand could be too much to bear.
By the time we head back outside, mist has settled over the village. It's nightmare weather for frontline troops. In the house where we would sleep, a senior soldier was looking grimly at a screen that would normally show a view of the battlefield but was glowing with a featureless white. In foggy weather like this, both sides use "diversion" teams that creep silently around the battlefield, terrorizing soldiers in the trenches who stand listening tensely through the night.
The next morning the eerie world of darkness and whispers that we arrived to is revealed as a postcard-pretty Ukrainian village. In the trenches that led off from the back of the village house we made photographs of soldiers and various weapons, all of them Soviet-designed, including a PK "pokemon" machine gun, then it was time to go.
It was only when we headed onto the road out of the village that it became clear we were not in fact leaving the front lines but moving directly across the line of contact to another forward position. The danger was probably no more or less than everything that came before, but the feeling of not having control of your decisions was heart-sinkingly unsettling.
At most points on the road, mist or houses kept us invisible from the separatist positions, in other places the soldiers ran across open ground in an attempt to avoid sniper fire.
When we arrived in the next position, we learned that someone would come to pick us up by car. One of the soldiers had let slip the day before that while she was relatively comfortable walking in the area, she got nervous getting inside vehicles. Although civilian cars are largely safe to drive in, the separatists in the area sometimes target khaki-colored Ukrainian military vehicles with anti-tank missiles.
When the car eventually arrived it was an obviously military vehicle -- khaki green and full of soldiers. But we arrived back to the operating base without incident and set off to find wifi to file the story of the soldiers' perspectives.
After the story was published, the fixer I worked with gifted me two shards of shrapnel from recently-fired artillery and mortar rounds. Holding the fragments in my hand -- as sharp as pieces of a torn tin can, I remembered what Iryna told me about the talks between Washington and the Kremlin -- agreements and sanctions, the work of men and women in suits means little to what will unfold on the ground. Or as the German statesman Otto von Bismark put it more than 150 years ago, the great questions of the day will be decided only "by iron and blood."