War exposes people to things that will never go away

10 June, 01:47 PM
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Trostyanets, Sumy Oblast – Viewing daily existence through the eyes of the person next to you, noticing common sounds around you as if for the first time, seeing who lived, who died, and, as night falls, wondering if you will see the morning come again.

Witnessing war sharpens the senses.

Sight and hearing become accustomed to wails of despair, screams of anguish, and a puffy face still streaming tears as a hoarse voice tells you of horror.

But sometimes, you bear witness to the unspeakable, the unfathomable, the unimaginable – as I did in the middle of a quiet town in Sumy Oblast, in the north of Ukraine.

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Even the last three terrible months of the eight-year Ukrainian-Russian war hadn't prepared me for this nightmare.

Like in many horror films, this terror has been hidden away, but unlike a film that you can pause or turn off, and eventually forget, this experience, which lasted no more than half an hour, will be with me for as long as I live.

There was nothing to prepare me for it when I arrived in Trosytnets. Half a dozen teens were bathing in the rapidly disappearing late afternoon sun, lounging about, smiling and laughing.

In front of them, is their town’s square, with a monument in the shape of a World War Two battle tank. Behind the teens, a grassy landscape, with a stand of trees obscuring the lower part of a building.

However ordinary in its display of peaceful tranquility and carefree adolescence, this vision of a joyful and normal Sunday in Trosytnets, a town of some 19,000 people in Sumy Oblast, was an illusion.

 Reality emerged in the scarred and pocked walls of the building hidden behind the trees, in the total destruction of the structures lining the streets in front of the teens, and in the bowels of a train station, where the dreadful torture of Ukrainian men had taken place.

Even after inspecting a mass grave in Kharkiv Oblast, and during almost 100 days of covering Russian terrorism against the Ukrainian people, with countless cases of death, sorrow, and devastation, nothing prepares you to report from a torture chamber.

Trostyanets had fallen after a week of fighting.

And from March 1 until its March 26 liberation by Ukrainian troops, horror visited the town in the shape of a “Z”, and in the war criminals of Russia who preached its perverse gospel.

The train station, that building that rose above the tree line, its bullet-riddled clock tower stopped at some hour during a battle, was ground zero for the occupying forces.

Invading officers slept there. Diabolical snipers perched there, and down below, amidst the dark and cold, and the dank smell of the bathrooms and storage areas, Ukrainians would see their countrymen’s bodies stacked there, and the men beaten, scarred and killed there.

To journey to this specific hell, you have to descend two flights of stairs, to a steel door, lined with vertical bars, and an unbreakable lock.

Accompanied by investigative journalist Jay Beecher, along with one of the Ukrainian men who was tortured, and an employee of the station, at first I was confused by the two-tone coloration of the wall through the door’s opening.

They tried to prepare us.

While not allowing her name to be used, the station employee walked us through the events of previous months.

"They came here. And they didn't fight a war. It wasn't war like people imagine it.  It was something different. Hate. It was like they were animals roaming the streets."

Entering, my mind went numb.

The color on the wall was dried blood.

She had been right – the witness described the Russians as animals, and only animals could have left behind what I was now looking at.

The blood of the brave and beaten Ukrainian patriots who had been held captive by Putin’s sadistic and demented torturers.

With a hand print visible among the bloodied and smeared markings, and the noxious fumes of human waste hanging in the air, we listened to the survivor’s story of anguished screams, and broken bones, of amputation, of death.

And then silence overcame all of us.

Even now, despite meeting us, the man, in his early 40's, was too scared and too traumatized to go on record – in case the terrorists return.

Emerging back into the light, looking out towards a society destroyed by bullets and demons, we headed to our vehicle.

As I opened the door, I heard laughter.

The kids were still there.

Driving toward Sumy, the silence between Jay and I was notable.

 Having come to Kharkiv in early March, within a week I saw bodies being pulled from the wreckage of buildings and watched as fires engulfed whole malls, reducing dreams to nothing but charred ashes. Amongst those backdrops, I shared images of the war and wrote the words to accompany them.

Mustering strength and focus, I did my job and then moved on to the next attack.

But this was different.

As the horizon beckoned toward the formerly besieged Sumy, nothing could be said, and there would be no moving on, just an attempt to move forward.

War exposes people to things that will never go away.

Sarah is a journalist and author from Las Vegas, Nevada. A recovering political operative and investment analyst, she is currently based out of Kharkiv and has been covering the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the ground for over three months. 

Her photos from the war and other written work can be found on Twitter:  @SarahAshtonLV.

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