Editor’s Note: Sasha Dovzhyk is a special projects curator at the Ukrainian Institute London and Associate Lecturer in Ukrainian at the School of Slavonic and East-European Studies, University College London. She has a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Birkbeck, University of London. She divides her time between the UK and Ukraine. Her work on Ukraine is supported by the IWM project Documenting Ukraine. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
“Sauna! Lunch! Delivery!” tempts an advertisement by the side of the road. “Mines” reads a fresher sign just underneath. These red warnings bloom all over the scorched earth of eastern Ukraine.
From our minibus, we see village after village erased by the Russian onslaught — houses burnt with phosphorus, forests mangled with missiles, fields littered with the carcasses of tanks.
We are a team of writers, journalists and scholars united by the literary and human rights organization PEN Ukraine.
We bring aid to the recently liberated towns and villages close to the frontline — but we also bring ourselves to bear witness to Russia’s crimes against our people and our land.
The town which tries to lure us with the promise of saunas and landmines is Sviatohirsk. Once a resort in the Donetsk region, complete with a pine forest and an Orthodox monastery hanging over the river on chalk cliffs, it was under Russian occupation for three months over summer last year.
Today it still smells of pines, but also of burnt metal. Scorched military equipment rots in the locals’ backyards from which the occupiers shelled Ukrainian positions.
The Russians tried to shell the townspeople into submission too: A school gapes at us with two black holes from a Russian tank’s direct hit. Apartment blocks are dissected by air bombs — the remnants of the residents’ possessions are mixed with bricks and concrete on the road.
When Ukrainian troops liberated the town in September, most of those who survived the Russian occupation lost between 15 and 20 kilograms of weight, the head of the town told us. The Russians had left no way for the locals to get food.
The impact of the sites of human suffering is visceral. The first glimpse of a building cut in two by a missile might fold you down the middle.
The realisation of the harm done to nature is slower, but it creeps up on you as well. Your peripheral vision registers trees scarred by shrapnel, woods sealed off by “danger” signs, shells sticking out of gardens.
While trying not to step on the remains of someone’s daily life thrown under your feet by a shockwave (a notebook, a pack of paracetamol, bed linen), you quickly learn to also scan the ground for mines.
You only walk on asphalt; high grass is out of bounds. The wounded nature is eerie and every step in its direction needs to be cautiously negotiated.
A great deal of eeriness is due to the highly explosive Russian “petals.” “Petal” — or, “lepestok,” in Russian — is the poetic name of an internationally banned Russian-made anti-personnel landmine.
Scattered from aircraft or delivered by mortars, the “petals” spin through the air, bite into the earth and explode upon contact with as little as 5 kilograms of weight. The Russians have sown these seeds throughout the liberated and frontline territories of Ukraine.
For me, the weapon’s name evokes the children’s fairy tale “Rainbow flower” by the Soviet Russian writer Valentin Kataev. In the story, a little girl receives a flower with seven rainbow-coloured petals, and each petal can make a wish come true.
The ordinary plot conceals a true minelet in the form of a chant which has bitten into the memory of generations of Russian-speaking kids. Heard once, the words with which the heroine sends her magic petals travelling around the globe can’t be unlearnt:
Fly, petal, oh-
East to West you go.
Then North to South
And turn about.
Touch the ground, do,
Make my wish come true.
Decades later, other Russian petals — these ones of a military nature — have also touched the ground to make the wish of the sender come true.
The Russian wish for Ukraine appears to be death: to render Ukrainian land uninhabitable, to maim and kill those who live on it. But as one learns from Kataev’s tale, the Russian petals travel far and know no borders.
We pass by the heavily mined fields of rich black soil which will bear no fruit this year other than that planted by the enemy. Hectare by hectare, Russia’s invasion turns barren the country which contains almost a quarter of the world’s chornozem, a highly fertile soil.
In November, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reported that 200,000 hectares (almost 500,000 acres) of Ukrainian land were contaminated with unexploded mines and shells. Even after the contaminants are removed, the toxins they release will affect the fields’ fertility for years.
We pass by the pine forests laden with mines. They will for decades preserve a serene and untouchable beauty one can only mourn from afar, standing on a safe patch of asphalt.
We pass through the land under the darkest of spells.
A similar spell was cast upon Ukraine by the previous iteration of the same empire almost four decades ago. Our trip to the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions coincides with the 37th anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear catastrophe which has led to the creation of the 30-kilometer exclusion zone in the north of the country.
From Moscow’s decision to build the nuclear power plant some 90 kilometers from the capital city of Kyiv, to the Kremlin’s coverup of the accident, the disaster epitomised Russia’s colonial practices and disregard for life in Ukraine.
In the poem, “On the banks of the Prypiat a devil is sleeping,” Ukrainian poet Lina Kostenko reflects on the Chornobyl disaster:
This his empire. And he is the emperor.
The reactor, all black—his hell and his throne.
In the sands he sleeps, curled up in flame.
In his circle of ravens he dreams all alone
of Ukraine, of the whole of Ukraine.
Russia keeps dreaming of the whole of Ukraine, and the burnt-out eastern landscape is the stamp of the sleepwalking necrophile.
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This time, the succession of nightmares enabled by Russia’s previous impunity must be stopped. The persecution of Russia on the grounds of ecocide — environmental destruction — is one of the 10 points in Ukraine’s peace formula.
Although wars unfold in landscapes, and although control over landscapes is among the wars’ declared aims, one chiefly relies on human testimonies to document, expose and interpret the wars’ effects. The destruction of a natural landscape is as much of a war crime as the destruction of human life.
Like a human body, the body of a land can hurt. And for its agony, justice must be served.
Note: The writer uses the Ukrainian spellings “Chornobyl” and “chornozem.”