A Dam between Death and Life - - a story of Ukrainian warrior Maryna Lanivska

April 20, 2023
This essay is written by Ukrainian warrior Maryna Lanivska. Age: 27 years. Code name: Smereka.
Photo credit: Maryna Lanivska

Maryna participated in the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) and now serves in the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the aerial reconnaissance unit. In civilian life, she worked for the NGO "Veteran Hub" and taught the subject of "Defense of Ukraine."

A Dam between Death and Life

Our pickup isn't so much old as it is beat up. We were heading to another shattered village. Around the perimeter you can see the ends of rockets sticking out of the ground, but they're not what you need to worry about. 

We see a typical scene on the side of the road: soldiers changing a tire. 

Whenever shell fragments on the road pierced the tires again, we just had to be happy that we hadn't hit a mine. The flat tire gave the group time to drink a thermos of coffee, and eat some of the sandwiches, home-baked pastries, and other treats the locals would give them as they passed through the frontline villages.

An infantryman stops us, one of hundreds we've encountered on this journey.

His focused movements, ragged camouflage, and the layer of dust that had become a second skin. Where had I seen that look? Oh, I remember: in the mirror, when I have a chance to look at myself closely.

"Slava Ukraini, guys! Oh... pardon me -- and ladies! Welcome to free Ukraine!"

"Heroiam slava! Are you alright here? Deploying?" I say.

"Yes, dear. Maybe you could wait a little while? The sappers haven't finished clearing it yet."

"We're following our guys. We'll try to be careful," I smile reassuringly.

"Hang on a second," he says, and waves over to one of his guys. "Mishania, hand me that grocery bag."

He smiles and pours me a bunch of treats, holding back tears. I share some of my simple treasure, too -- some chewing gum -- all I found in my backpack.

"Here we go, a message!" I grab my phone. "We're fine. We've entered... haven't detected any motherfuckers. Everyone safe."

"Superb! Let's bounce," says my fellow.

We're passing our units. Yesterday this was still ground "zero" (*the most forward positions). I feel like I  recognize the area: somewhere behind this strip of forest we were evacuating our guys after a tank attack.

On the other side of the field, beside the bank, my fiancé's group was getting out of their positions, tracked by a drone that was directing the fire of self-propelled artillery and "Grads" (*Soviet-era MRLS).

There are white vehicles with the wording "On the shield" (*a reference to the “with a shield or on a shield” saying originating from the Spartan culture) along the side of the road. Black bags with clasps lie in a row beside them. 

"Our boys are finally coming home." Did I just think that, or did I say it out loud?

The dam separated Lake Solonets from the Black Sea. Not long ago the demarcation line was here. It separated families, armies, and mindsets. For a long time, the "Russian world" raged beyond that line. The people fighting it have remained on this line forever. Instead of the heroic images of the liberation of Kherson that blanketed the media, here we were witnessing the prosaic picture resulting from the exhausting fight for Mykolaiv -- and the end of it.

On the dam, the "missing persons" waited to go home -- both military and civilian.

Civilians who were eager to break out of the hell of occupation, or who had read false information in the media saying that their homes had been liberated. Volunteers, who had missed the turn to the last Ukraine-held village or who believed the social media messages about helping the locals in the village, when in reality all the civilians had been massacred. The military who were breaking through to reinforce the units that were holding circular defense and help them escape the encirclement.

Funky water mixed with rust, scattered dead bodies left a bitter taste and overwhelming thirst. It felt like only revenge and victory could quench that thirst, and the bitterness would remain forever.

Two mangled rusty cars on the side of the road, crumpled like scraps of paper,  stood as indicators of the first line of mines the engineers have just disarmed. A dead body was lying a big black puddle on the ground next to a blown-up minibus. He probably died in one of the assaults last spring. Scraps of camo have faded in the burning sun, dried by the heat and sea winds, washed by the cold autumn rains. Only a patch with the blue-and-yellow flag and the trident on his sleeve were recognizable.

Several other blackened bodies lay next to him in unnatural poses, because they died in horrible agony.

I was afraid to count the bodies.

The dam was neverending. We took a few steps and stopped by the area that had been demined. There were bodies everywhere: on the asphalt, in the grass, in the burnt vehicles. One of the bodies had black sneakers with white soles. Autumn rains thoroughly washed them and that perfect white spot ate at my eyes against the overall scenery. The bodies of dogs and foxes also lay among the bodies of people, amplifying the bizarre, deadly ambience.

We approached another tangle of crumpled metal and bodies, then another, and another... These piles of metal were old Ladas, expensive cars, and minibus. Some garlic had fallen out of one of the cars and tried to sprout, but ended up rotting after all.

I'll never forget the baby carriage overgrown with dry grass on the side of the road. The dirty blue cloth was splitting at the seams and flapped in the wind. A little gray shoe with three black stripes was lying next to the stroller.

The refrigerator trucks marked "On the shield" drove onto the dam. The evacuation of the bodies started. We were moving forward, past other people's deaths, to save other lives. This place has imprinted memories that we will only be able to tell years from now, if we survive.

This essay is made possible by the support of IREX Veteran Reintegration Program. The contents are the “sole responsibility of Recipient” and do not necessarily reflect the views of IREX.