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Living on the front line

By Matthew Parish



I thought I’d write about this subject while it’s fresh on my mind, because living on the front line of a war zone is a uniquely distressing and unpleasant experience and one I’ve lived through several times. I’ve just woken up at 2.30am, and there are several long hours to go before dawn and I am wondering what to do. I’m wide awake and there’s no prospect of going back to bed for a bit. Yesterday I woke up at 4am and it was the same. I’m on my own and these extended periods of solitude, full of anxiety, are common. They are perhaps the most distinguishing and unnerving feature of living within the range of artillery shells and missiles. Your daily life is disrupted to the extent that you suddenly have huge amounts of time on your own and to yourself and you don’t know what to do with it. And after a while this starts to rattle your mind and drive you quite crazy.


It’s an uncomfortable subject to talk about, I suppose; but it’s one of the realities of war. Millions of Ukrainians are going through this every day, both in the civilian and the military, and this sort of relentless anxiety, combined with isolation, is something that virtually everyone I know who has ever lived in a front line environment has experienced. The reason why front line living is so disorientating is because you are locked up at home with nothing much to do for far longer than you normally would be. Typically all life stops in front line communities of any size at sundown: so that means 6pm or so. Then it doesn’t start again, absent some nighttime horror such as an air raid, until an hour or so after dawn. So you have these long evenings stuck at home, often on your own because you are separated from your family, with nothing to do. How do you spend all these extra hours that have appeared magically in your day and your night? You cannot go out to meet friends, or pursue conventional pastimes. There is a temptation to watch television, but it hardly takes your mind of things, because it is often rolling coverage about the war. Your conversation become dreary, as it’s all you ever talk about. And so on and so forth.


Your daily schedule becomes short. There often isn’t anything to do outside, except go to buy the local groceries and then come home again. The environment outside can be menacing, with soldiers and guns and cars everywhere, and nobody looks particularly friendly, so you tend to undertake your errands and then rush home. You try to fill your time with quasi-social activities, such as checking up on friends and family; but they are often themselves at risk, and this just increases the anxiety.


The inability to get a good night’s sleep is a recurrent feature of living on the front line. It’s not just that you are woken up by bombs or air raid sirens; this night has been relatively quiet by the standards of Kramatorsk, where I am based right now. It’s rather that your perpetual state of anxiety about what is to come, plus being forced to go to bed far earlier than ordinarily you would (yesterday I evening I tried to go to bed at 7 O’Clock in the evening; this is absurd), leaves you on edge and hence you wake up for any or no reason and find you have hours to spare staring at the clock until dawn while trying to keep warm, quiet and with the lights down. Right now I am in a small room with an electric heater, where it is tolerably warm but I still have to sleep with a fleece on. If I go out into the corridor to use the lavatory or the kitchen, my feet freeze to the floor.


When I woke up this morning I knew there was no change of going back to sleep so I made myself a cup of coffee. I was so bleary with sleeping pills that I poured salt into the mug instead of sugar. And so on. Now I’m writing a bit. I hope you don’t mind. Later in the day I will fall asleep in the middle of the day. This is also something people living on the front line do all the time. It is a shared experience.


Then there are the shells, the explosions, the sirens, the tannoys announcing imminent doom and the relentless bad news. Every time you do see or speak to someone, or check your mobile ‘phone, it’s about some new tragedy or disaster and every time someone dies (which is frequent) your phone pings with messages full of well-wishers ensuring it wasn’t you. The statistical odds of dying on the front line are often very low, as they are here in Kramatorsk. But the psychological toll it takes upon the individual, stripped of all his or her social interactions, is dramatic and relentless. That’s why, in my war reporting, I try to make each visit as short as I can.

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