The Ukrainian special forces sergeant jumped into the front seat of Alexander Kosenko’s white minibus with two Kalashnikovs slung over his shoulders, his vest stuffed with a dozen ammo clips, some hand grenades and a couple of machete-size daggers.
“Welcome to hell, Daddy!” he shouted over the constant crackle of automatic fire. “From now on your life hangs on how well you can hear me and follow directions. You got it? Don’t say a word.”
Kosenko, who was wearing only a T-shirt and jeans, obeyed the sergeant. He pushed the gas pedal to the floor.
A civilian driver for a private transportation company whose bushy gray mustache makes him look older than his 48 years, Kosenko had expected to be home by nightfall.
Instead, he was racing into Ukraine’s war against pro-Russia separatists in a vehicle built for jaunts like delivering pensioners to a senior citizens lunch.
His original task had been straightforward enough: deliver a team of 10 Ukrainian soldiers to a town in the part of eastern Ukraine under full control of government troops. But the armored vehicles that were supposed to take them into battle never came, and Kosenko was ordered to drive on.
Now they had reached enemy territory. With tracer bullets and the minibus’ emergency lights the only sources of illumination, they made a half-mile dash down a sniper’s alley to a safe harbor for the night.
Explosions boomed all around the minibus, almost tearing it apart. The sergeant yelled at Kosenko as they nearly collided with the smoking carcass of a tank in the middle of the road:
“Don’t slow down or you will get us all and yourself killed. Or worse — I will do it myself with my last bullet.”
Kosenko specializes in driving people to weddings and funerals in the town of Dnipropetrovsk, about 160 miles west of here.
On this night, he was planning to go home as usual and have dinner with his wife, Tatiana, and their 15-year-old son, Kirill. They’d have roast beef and potatoes baked in sour cream, his favorite meal. He’d chase it down with a little glass of horilka, Ukraine’s vodka, for “appetite and health.”
Then, if this night were like other nights, he’d watch the TV news in bed with his wife to see how solid the truce in eastern Ukraine was.
This night was not like other nights.
It was pitch-dark when the sergeant finally ordered Kosenko to stop. The rattled soldiers began to tumble out of the minibus, one of its windows shattered by shrapnel, in the village of Peski, a government stronghold on the western outskirts of the battleground city of Donetsk.
But they weren’t safe yet. The house where they would spend the night was about 50 yards through a no man’s land targeted by snipers. Ordering them to run in pairs, one after another, the sergeant said as he led the way, “Don’t turn on any flashlights, and don’t you smoke cigarettes or the sniper gets you at your third inhale!”
The house had been abandoned by its residents three months earlier as government troops began their siege of Donetsk. Inside, the soldiers stumbled over snoring comrades, machine guns, ammo boxes, helmets, boots and backpacks, collapsing into sofas and onto the floor.
Kosenko found a spot in the basement. Amid the artillery and missile barrage, it appeared to be the safest place in the house, but the temperature was near freezing, and Kosenko was still wearing only a T-shirt and jeans.
He walked from one wall to the other and chain-smoked as if trying to warm himself. Dust, earth and plaster rained down on him at every explosion. He had nothing to eat or drink, and his cellphone had no signal.
His wife and son had no idea why he hadn’t come home.
“Soon a soldier came down and brought me a rug and a sleeping bag, some water in a bottle and couple of stale biscuits,” Kosenko said later. “But I never managed to grab any sleep, as the artillery attack continued all night through and I was worried sick about my family getting no word of me.”
He would eventually find out that Tatiana had spent the night calling military units, hospitals, police stations and morgues.
Kosenko explained why he agreed to drive the men to the front lines, even though he hadn’t been a soldier since the Soviet years.
“I was about to say that that was not the deal with me,” he said of the moment the sergeant ordered him to keep driving. “But on the one hand I didn’t want to leave the boys in the lurch in the middle of the night, and on the other I was afraid the boys would just hijack the bus and head on without me.”
Peski is crucial to both sides in the 7-month-old conflict because it’s next to the Donetsk airport, the only strategic part of the city still under government control. The pro-Russia fighters attack the village every day, hoping to tighten the noose around the airport and compel its defenders to give up.
The village has no electricity, no running water. All the trees have been cut down or damaged by bullets or shrapnel. Abandoned dogs and cats roam among unkempt gardens, broken fences and abandoned houses with shattered windows and shrapnel scars on every wall and roof. Nearby fields and even gardens in the village are studded with land mines and booby traps.
Valentina Rozhko, 89, is the only resident left in the part of the village near the front-line positions. She remembers the Nazi occupation seven decades ago.
“I have no sleep at all with all this shooting from sunset to dawn,” she said. “It was much quieter during the last war down here, as Germans were not shooting at night. They were quite orderly.”
Maxim Dubovsky, deputy commander of the Dnipro-1 militia regiment, has been holding the government’s front lines in Peski for more than three months.
“We have no idea what we are doing here,” he said. “We get no orders to attack and no orders to retreat. We still have no proper means of communication, basically no logistical, artillery or air support.”
The batteries in one of the two old Soviet tanks assigned to the regiment’s positions had been dead for three days, Dubovsky said.
“Soon enough the rebels will discover that the tank is just a sitting target and will do their best to burn it,” he said.
He and his men recently buried four comrades who had been caught in an ambush. He said the truce reached in early September existed only on paper.
“In Kiev they think there is no war anymore,” he said of the Ukrainian capital. “Down here we are in a very bad war, every hour, every minute.”
Kosenko was shocked by what he saw. It was so different from what he’d seen on TV.
“What I saw more reminded me of a fierce World War II movie battle rather than a truce,” he said. “I saw nothing but dirt, blood, smoke and fire, and I was appalled to see that no one seemed to actually know what they were doing and why.”
As Kosenko ventured out into the first light of a foggy morning, he was deafened by the sound of a 70-year-old Degtyaryov machine gun.
The gunner, Ivan Kuryata, had a cigarette in his mouth and a large bandage on his left index finger. He pulled the trigger with his uninjured right hand, spraying the road in front of him with long bursts of gunfire.
Kosenko, wearing neither a helmet nor a bulletproof vest, crouched nearby, covering his ears with his trembling hands.
“Hey, Daddy, what the f— are you doing here, man? It is no ... f— vegetable market!” Kuryata asked him. He stopped firing and wiped the sweat off his face. “Anyway, do you have a cigarette, man?”
Kosenko gave him one. In the war zone, he joked darkly, everyone asked him for a cigarette, “as if they don’t know that smoking kills.”
Soon, a couple of soldiers and an officer ordered Kosenko to take them out of the war zone. When they reached the bridge at the end of the dangerous stretch of road, they were stopped by a group of heavily armed special services men who said they needed the minibus to take them on a raid in the village to look for “a terrorist suspect.”
Back Kosenko drove into danger. On the way to the village, they saw a couple of young men in civilian clothes on the sidewalk. A soldier got out and fired into the air, ordering the men to lie face down with their hands behind their heads.
One of the special services men put the barrel of his assault rifle against the back of the closest detainee’s thigh and said slowly, “I will ask you some questions and my gun is the truth machine. It hears the wrong answer, it shoots, OK?”
After half an hour, they let the shaken men go. The troops got back into the minibus and Kosenko made yet another trip to the safety of the bridge. The men got out, without a word to a driver who had no reason to be in the middle of a war.
Later that day, accompanied by Dubovsky, Kosenko finally made it back home. When they reached Dnipropetrovsk, the officer shook his hand and thanked him for his valor and perseverance.
Kosenko had tears in his eyes.
“Before that I had seen this war only on television,” he said. “I am appalled by the chaos and lack of everything they should have at the front line, but at the same time I am so impressed with these brave young men.”
On Wednesday, machine gunner Kuryata was killed in a mortar shelling in Peski. He was 41 — not that much younger than “Daddy” Kosenko.