Journey in the dark

In Luhansk, the rows of tower blocks stand dark against an indigo sky awash with light – brilliant stars, a more brilliant moon. Usually it’s near-impossible to see starlight in a city. Here it glints off the broken trolleybus wires and tram rails, the many shattered windows. Not a single streetlight is working in this city anymore. Large areas still lack all electricity. Finding an open restaurant, an internet café powered by generator, feels like a small miracle.

The internet works, the heating doesn’t; the few people in the cafe are hunched in coats and hats. The man in charge stays open late for us – “I’ve got no electricity in my flat,” he says with a shrug when we thank him.

His mother is sitting in the flat in the dark, waiting for him to come home. His father was killed minutes before a ceasefire was declared, because he refused to leave the family house in Kommunarka, just outside Luhansk, now a flattened wreck. “He couldn’t wait five minutes for the ceasefire, just five minutes… The really stupid thing is, he’s a veteran from Afghanistan. Got through that whole war, and he was killed in his own home.”

Full moon, two nights later. There never was a ceasefire. Artillery fire from around Donetsk airport arcs upwards in orange streaks, four by four by four, that burst in mid-air like gigantic, monotonous fireworks. Beyond Makiivka, full of convoys of trucks and mounted guns, of jittery militants who count the cost of everything in Russian rubles, the highway north is almost deserted.

There are rumours everywhere of imminent attack, of this strange war that never stopped starting all over again, Russian invasion, Ukrainian advance… There is nothing happening on this highway tonight, just the ghosts of mortars in dents and holes, of tank treads in left-behind, humming song.

Moonlight turns the world silver and indigo and unreal. Off the highway, the country roads are just as dented and full of holes, although there was no battle here, just years and years of neglect. At checkpoints the bus driver turns off the headlights and we are plunged into silver indigo brightness, Ukrainian flag, separatist flag, the stripes of yellow tape the Ukrainian soldiers use to identify themselves all turned the same, silver, indigo.

I’ve done this journey several times now. Each time there is a looking glass moment of crossing from one territory to another; each time, I wonder if I will fall into a chasm between them. This time the moon turns it all utterly dreamlike. We will wake up from this dream soon, this country will wake up and ask itself: how could it happen? How could we do this to each other? Pull of the darkness.

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