The departure is postponed several times due to the continuous bombardment of the Ukrainian artillery: our safety first of all. After days of exhausting waiting, however, comes the ok. We can reach the airport area to meet S. on the front line, a few hundred meters from the Ukrainian stations.
The car whizzes on the avenue leading to the airport, leaving behind the normal life of the central Donetsk. Let's go into the heart of darkness of this conflict that apparently Kiev does everything to keep open.
At the check point, the engine is turned off behind a Ural truck. The guide sits on the back and puts the phone in front of him. The body language can be more than a thousand words: there will be another pause, who knows how long.
The background is the usual one: gusts of pulimiot, hisses, detonations. Two soldiers in camouflage descend from a Lada and stop to talk to others about the check point. Looking at them well they remember the grotesque masks of the Nordic sagas. Too bad you can not take pictures or shoot.
The engine finally comes back on and goes around the block. Waiting for us there is an officer of the Vostok Battalion: the head in addition to the look also has the tonnage. Seeing me explode in a loud laugh involving others in his company.
My guide listens and smiles in turn: in a low voice he whispers to me that last year he had met me in Spartak while for the first time I had tried to reach S. in post.
Then it was bad and S., who had tried with me the sortie, had made me spin fast.
This time, however, is different: he smiles good-naturedly and makes me put on a helmet and a bulletproof vest; his expression is silent only when dark in the face makes me realize that I must not take them off for any reason.
Where we will go the activity of the regular forces and the paramilitaries of Kiev is intense: we shoot and the responsibility for our safety is yours; one of the soldiers at his side mimics the gesture of writing with his hand ... maybe he is asking me if I made a will ...
The van that will take us to our destination is an old green pea Mercedes with a windshield riddled with winds: a classic in these parts.
As I sit on the passenger side, the tailgate opens and a soldier in a battle suit rises.
He greets me and I reciprocate… It's S .; with a long beard and black from the dirt accumulated in two weeks in the trench I had not recognized him; he in turn had not recognized under the helmet.
During the journey, I would like to inform you about the situation of your station: it is a trench dug by hand, at XXX meters from the Ukrainian lines.
In the daytime it is quite quiet, but at night there is something to shudder: Artillery shots and Grad rockets pass incessantly overhead. A damn concrete wall obscures the view. It looks like a grave:
when it is cloudy and the moon is covered, it is like being immersed in pitch; you can not even see your own hands.
The risk of incursion is very high and night vision is a luxury that no one can afford with the pay of 12000 rubles per month.
The entire surrounding area was mined and littered with booby traps. But there is still Shchit (shield, ed) the dog that S. took with him when he was still a lost puppy that wandered in search of food among the abandoned houses. At the slightest noise he barks like a madman: there is no better anti-intrusion alarm than him.
Arrived at Stab of S. welcomes his commander; he is an old acquaintance too.
We had seen each other last year and had scarcely been able to do so when his battalion commander had chased me away.
He shakes my hand warmly and invites me to a guided tour of his post.
Located in XXX, all kinds of poultry are bred: lambs, pigs, otters ... it makes no difference ...
There is also a farmyard full of laying hens and a tank with fish that are very popular with local cuisine.
Time to greet and the column to reach the trench is made up; you pass between reeds, a pond and ruined houses.
On a bench a group of elderly people enjoy a strange rest after the hard work in the fields: they are collecting the dry leaves from the ground before setting the fire according to local custom; it is always done at the end of the thaw to prepare the soil for the spring vegetative phase.
It is surreal that in such devastation there is still someone who has not left everything to take shelter: the ladies with their faces framed in the colorful handkerchief look at us with the tired smile of those who have now resigned themselves to a future made of precariousness. The old generations are used to it.
They have lost a lot but not everything and cling to what little remains with all the strength and obstinacy possible.
On the road to the trenches the military occasionally stop to collect fragments of bombs to be added to the "museum" that they are setting up near their position.
Adrenaline rises: it seems to be back a hundred years, to the stories of grandparents; come to mind images of boots soaked in mud, frost and dark nights spent in the company of their own ghosts.
From the holes in the concrete wall that delimits the post and separates it from the open field, the skeletons of a BMP 2 and a tank Ukrainians destroyed, while from the high ground on the right stands the red-black flag of the Pravy Sector the extremist Ukrainian paramilitary group.
S., followed by the inseparable Shchit, leads us along his post showing us all the walkway, the bunker in which he sleeps and the armaments supplied.
For obvious reasons we do not add anything else.
S. and his companions pose for a photo next to the flag sewn ad hoc by his girlfriend; a pheasant takes off from the reeds beside it with a surreal innocence. It's all very strange.
Night falls and the soldiers get nervous. The civilians seen in the first leg are already all in the shelters where they will spend another long night.
To achieve the stab where we spend the night with S. we have to travel a long way through the desolate village. We pass through courtyards, abandoned orchards and gates, always accompanied by the noise of shards and glasses that crunch under the amphibians.
If it were not for real fear it would look like a videogame.
All around resounds the hiss of the incoming shots and the roar of explosions. The Ukrainians go there heavy.
At one point we feel a closer roar and then a glow on the horizon: probably a house has been hit and it is set on fire. I stop to take it back with the camera: that terrible glow is both hypnotic and fascinating.
Suddenly three pulimiot places in three different points beyond the horizon line start firing simultaneously: there are no doubts we have been sighted.
Trace projectiles shoot that initially pass well above our heads, but soon they are getting closer and closer to hear the hiss clearly. Feeling them so close makes you feel their charge of death in every fiber of your body. It's terrible.
We throw ourselves on the ground. I start crawling towards a shelter. Still noise. Still shoot.
S. and his family find shelter behind the house opposite; they separate 20 meters but they look like 100.
The shots continue to arrive. Coverage starts.
Adrenaline is skyrocketing and the heart beats hard; another burst and then the way to a frantic race to reach their position.
We are all waiting for the shelter, even if the fear of artillery strikes, once sighted, becomes stronger and stronger; always snaking through the destroyed houses we head quickly to the stab.
The occupants of the house ask us what happened. We show him the shot from the camera viewer: the sneering smile of those who live them daily, says a lot.
Remove helmet and jacket, we are served dinner: bread, canned meat and smoked fish, as used in the forefront.
Finished eating everyone throws himself into his bed. The light is turned off (the windows are all darkened so as not to make the glow visible in the distance).
At that point, from the silence of the night, the noise of the war begins to disturb our sleep until the first light of dawn.
(photo: Giorgio Bianchi)