On May 26, 2014, I rushed to Donetsk's Sergei Prokofiev International Airport, but not to catch a flight. Instead, I was there to report on the first major battle of a new war.
The airport -- a symbol of transformation from gritty, post-Soviet malaise to vibrant modernity -- had morphed into a battleground for close-quarters fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russia-backed insurgents who had seized much of Donetsk.
By nightfall, the terminal was a mess of spattered blood, shattered glass, and mangled steel.
The next morning, at Donetsk's central morgue, lay the new reality. Dozens of mangled corpses -- almost all Russian men, according to their passports -- were piled as high as my waist. Other bodies filled the hallway amid the summer heat. Even the overwhelmed morgue workers gagged on the stench of death.
Ukraine was at war.
Donbas: Ukraine's Hard-Knuckled East
I first arrived in Ukraine's Donbas region as a Peace Corps volunteer in 2010, five months after Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych had taken office and four years before the conflict with Russia and armed separatists began.
Over the next two years, my work took me to cities, towns, and villages all across the two heavily industrial regions that make up the Donbas: Luhansk, and Donetsk.
Today, as the theater of Europe’s most brutal conflict since the Balkan wars of the 1990s, it’s hard to visit many of those places and impossible to visit others. A 450-kilometer-long front line snakes through the Donbas, and crossing to the separatist side can be a crapshoot.
This past summer I was back, looking for any signs of healing. I drove through the government-controlled area and the length of the entire front line, revisiting people and places familiar from my early years here. Russia-backed separatist leaders denied me access to areas under their control.
What I found were open wounds. Towns reduced to rubble. Fighting where a shaky cease-fire has failed. And Ukrainians: tracing the last days of a lost son; running a vital factory between bouts of shelling to keep the region’s lights on; fighting for a common future; or rocking a stadium full of fans near the front line in an effort to hold together the stitches of a frayed nation.
More than three years of war has transformed much of the Donbas into a wasteland. Vital infrastructure -- airports, bridges, buildings, highways, and power and water lines -- has been destroyed. Tens of thousands of mines and unexploded ordnance have contaminated much of its precious black earth, rendering it unfarmable.
The devastation to property is estimated at more than $50 billion. Life has been made wretched for many of the roughly 6 million people who reside in the designated conflict zone, especially some 300,000 along the front line.
Some places are so badly destroyed that they are no longer inhabitable.
A holiday paradise turned hellscape
Semenivka was a poor, blue-collar village in the northern Donetsk region that few outside the region ever knew existed. That was before it was caught in the crossfire of one of the war’s first and most intense fights -- the battle for Slovyansk -- in the early summer of 2014.
While the adjacent city of Slovyansk has since been largely restored, Semenivka remains the same wreck today that it was after being shelled to near smithereens over the course of just a few weeks. With entire buildings leveled or bombed out, surviving residents have fled. More than three years later, it exists as a reminder of the war’s ferocity.
Slovyansk was one of the first places I visited when I arrived in eastern Ukraine seven years ago. Sadly, today it’s a microcosm of the war's human cost: more than 10,000 people killed; more than 20,000 wounded; hundreds missing; and more than 2 million displaced.
It was the summer of 2010 when a friend's family invited me to stay at their cottage on the city’s grassy outskirts. They shared with me their quiet, simple way of life. On hot afternoons, we rested beside a saltwater pond. In the evenings, we harvested vegetables from the summer garden and butchered rabbits or nutria for dinner. War was far from their minds in this city of spa treatments and mud baths.
Yet, four years later, it would see some of this war’s most brutal clashes. Slovyansk became a hellscape -- an unforgiving and unpredictable place with buildings blasted apart by shelling, graveyards full of unmarked crosses, and overwhelming dread.
Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, a Russian commander with a penchant for battlefield reenactments, got a chance to play war for real. He ruled here with an iron fist, commanding Russians and Ukrainian separatist fighters who had previously helped the Kremlin illegally annex Crimea.
During the occupation, Girkin ordered journalists and other residents arrested as spies. Many were thrown for days or weeks into the basement of a former Ukrainian security services building.
Some were killed and their bodies buried in a mass grave or left on the battlefield, according to documents that I and two other journalists found after Girkin retreated with his men.
One of the cases we discovered was that of 31-year-old Oleksiy Pichko. Documents signed by Girkin describe Oleksiy as a civilian found guilty of stealing two shirts and a pair of pants from a neighbor’s home -- a crime for which he is believed to have been executed by firing squad in June 2014.
A handwritten confession -- likely written under duress -- included what may have been Oleksiy’s last words. He wrote that he “want[s] to die as someone who was of use" to the separatists. He added: “I also have a pregnant wife, Rydkovskaya Inna Vladimirovna.... I want to see her and raise children and be a useful member of society.”
Of course, he would not get that chance.
The grieving mother
Residents throughout the war zone have been traumatized. The experience of Avdiyivka, a strategically important city that is smack on the front line and only 20 kilometers north of the separatist stronghold of Donetsk, has been particularly harrowing.
Avdiyivka is no wasteland. But it’s been badly damaged and its very existence has been threatened, most recently when heavy fighting erupted here in February. What has saved Avdiyivka is its all-important coke plant and the determination of its nearly 4,000 workers to keep it up and running.
One of the largest of its kind in Europe, the plant provides up to 40 percent of the coke needed to power Ukraine's heavy industry. But it also heats and lights Avdiyivka, and helps unite the community. The plant's general director, Musa Magomedov, tells me that a shutdown would turn the city into “a village.”
The plant workers who stayed to keep the lights on
Lucky, a towering volunteer soldier who was a businessman in Donetsk before the war, asks me to use his nom de guerre. He talks about his brothers in arms in what he describes as a "blood feud." Many of them believe that if they stop fighting, the land controlled by Russia-backed forces will be lost forever. So they battle on, navigating -- sometimes in suspect ways -- the rules of engagement outlined in the Minsk peace deal, which has failed to end the bloodshed.
While that deal helped ease the intensity of the war and stem the separatists’ advance, fighting and even heavy weapons continue to chew up soldier and civilian lives on an almost daily basis.
Lucky serves in Avdiyivka. He divides his time between fighting in the trenches and living in a nine-story apartment block on the edge of town that has no running water and spotty power. All but one of its original residents have abandoned it. That’s because it’s dangerous to be there. It’s taken dozens of direct artillery hits. Now it’s a home and operating base for dozens of Ukrainian soldiers.
When the soldiers aren’t resting, or plotting in the apartments, they’re out on the battlefield. Lucky takes me there.
Lucky and the volunteers
Roughly 50 kilometers southwest of Avdiyivka and just two from the westernmost entrance to Donetsk, is Maryinka. Like Avdiyivka, the war churns on here.
This used to be a sleepy collection of rural cottages. Now much of the heart of Maryinka has been badly damaged. You’d be hard-pressed to find a home that hasn’t been sprayed by shrapnel or struck with something larger, or destroyed completely. The police station is just a crumbling façade spray-painted with a warning to stay away because of land mines.
Defending Maryinka are soldiers from Ukraine’s 92nd brigade. Twenty-eight-year-old Sasha, nicknamed “Dome,” is originally from the northeastern city of Kharkiv. When I meet him, it’s at the 92nd brigade’s forward-most position here -- they’ve taken over an abandoned cottage that connects to a maze of trenches and bunkers.
Sasha says he and his fellow soldiers are under fire “all the time. Especially, in the evenings.” The separatists, who sit between 60 and 300 meters beyond this brigade's redoubts, “use all kinds of weapons.”
“They shoot at us with machine guns, grenade launchers, and antitank rocket launchers, heavy machine guns,” Sasha says. “Sometimes a tank comes and fires, too.”
Sasha and his comrades here return fire with similar weapons, some of which are on display around me. One, a large-caliber machine gun that the soldiers simply refer to as “the big one,” is getting a spring cleaning.
Soldier life in the trenches
Alina Kosse only saw war in her "nightmares” four years ago. Now, Kosse, a self-described “woman of war,” says she’s living through a daily game of Russian roulette here in Maryinka. “I’m no longer praying but giving my life over to fate,” she says.
People like Alina and her friend Yelena, who asked that her last name not be published for fear of persecution from those who may disagree with her opinions, raised their children and tended their gardens here. They made friends here, too. But a lot of them have fled for safer ground since the war began. For many, the stress is too much to endure.
Living in fear
Slava woke up one morning to discover he was living on a precipice.
With the front line just down the road, his hometown -- and adopted hometown -- Bakhmut is now a border city and the last stop down one of the region’s major highways before reaching what’s called the gray zone -- a no-man’s land about 20 kilometers wide that divides the warring sides’ fighting positions and where thousands of people live in limbo.
Beyond that is the self-proclaimed “people’s republic” of Donetsk, one of two separatist enclaves supported by Moscow.
Slava is one of my oldest Ukrainian friends, along with Natasha. I’m not using their last names because they requested it. The war has made every topic so controversial that expressing opinions publicly or to reporters can invite abuse. We reminisced one recent evening over beers at a local pizzeria.
We began talking about the name changes. Until February 2016, Bakhmut was Artemivsk. It was renamed Bakhmut because of Ukraine’s policy of decommunization. Hundreds of cities and towns, and thousands of streets and squares with Soviet names around the country have been relabeled.
Here, Sovietskaya Street is now Independence Street; Lenin Street is now Freedom Street. Artem Square, adjacent to the apartment where I lived, is, well, nobody really knows after its namesake was pulled down and dumped at a junkyard. But everyone still refers to them by their old names.
Natasha and Slava told me they are Ukrainian patriots. But they feel like the rug has been pulled out from under them. Sometimes they hardly recognize their hometown. They wonder if Kyiv realizes the effect its national policies have had on regional identities.
Living on the edge
Just down the road from where we had our beers is what has come to feel like a new international border -- where thousands of people wait for hours each day to cross to and from Ukrainian-controlled territory. Often it takes as long as a transatlantic flight, or longer, to get through.
In the early days of the conflict, block posts manned by scrappy fighters were erected hastily from random objects like sandbags, tires, felled trees, and razor wire, on highways and roads across the Donbas. When the war was more fluid, they moved frequently with the front line -- sometimes daily -- making it impossible to know who controlled the road up ahead.
As the intensity of the conflict lessened and the battle lines hardened, block posts grew into checkpoints, which eventually evolved into crossings resembling a full-on international boundary.
Today, Ukrainian border guards manning six crossings check passports and inspect vehicles moving through. People are given stamps marking their entrance or exit from Ukraine. The scene is chaotic, to say the least.
It can also be dangerous. Some of the war’s bloodiest episodes have occurred at crowded checkpoints.
The shelling of a checkpoint in government-controlled Volnovakha in January 2015 killed 12 civilians when missiles exploded near the bus they were riding in, reigniting all-out war. Another incident at a checkpoint in separatist-held Olenivka in April 2016 killed four people who had been forced to wait for hours and into the night -- when fighting is at its worst -- to try to pass through.
Trying To Heal
Lysychansk is hardly a shining city on a hill. Poor and rundown before the war, it was among the cities that fell into the hands of Russia-backed separatists early on and saw heavy fighting. Shelling left its infrastructure badly damaged and many municipal and apartment buildings with holes in their walls and floors. A lot of that destruction is still visible.
But there is more that can't be seen. Instead of peace when the fighting here subsided and Lysychansk came back under Ukrainian government control in July 2014, another dark force descended on the city. A ruthless police unit called the Tornado battalion, subordinate to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, set out to terrorize and round up residents whom they deemed pro-Russian. They imprisoned, raped, robbed, and tortured dozens of locals, and allegedly murdered several more.
Only since the conviction of 12 Tornado members has the city been able to breathe a sigh of relief, though some say the experience has led these residents to distrust all authority figures.
But with the front line still just 20 kilometers south -- within range of some of the larger missiles systems -- the shadow of war still hangs over this town.
And yet today it is also the scene of an effort to heal.
Hope on the frontier
There is much here that remains disconnected -- the landscape, the people, some would even say the national leaders responsible for negotiating peace are out of touch with the situation on the ground.
Meanwhile, the conflict grinds away. As long as it does, reintegration of separatist-held regions of the Donbas remains a distant dream.
Yet not all signs point to indefinite conflict.
Peace negotiations have ramped up some since the United States installed a new envoy to deal directly with Moscow. And though far apart in the essentials, all sides have publicly spoken of the possibility of peacekeepers.
But it's anyone's guess whether such talk will translate into a lasting peace, or will fall apart like previous attempts.
On my way back to Kyiv, I thought about something Lucky had said: “If you’re looking for peace here, you'll be waiting a very long time.”
Unfortunately for the people of the Donbas, I fear he’s right. And once the fighting does stop, it will take even more time for the wounds of this war to heal. And even then, its scars will remain.
Inna Varenytsia contributed to this report.