‘Cannon meat’: The men of combat age stuck in Ukraine

The thin, brown trees grow right down to the edge of the cold, shallow Tisza River here in Ukraine, and I can see Romania only 100m away. One could remain concealed from border guards until the very moment that one starts to cross the river. Then, if one moved quickly, one could be across the border and into the trees in just a few minutes. 

It seems like a perfect place for Bodhan to cross the frontier. 

The leaves rattle in the light, icy breeze. It will snow soon. 

Life is a strange business. A month ago, it was inconceivable that I would be here scouting eastern European borders for the best places to illegally cross from Ukraine without getting shot. Of course, there’s no danger of that happening to me. If I want to cross back and forth, it’s easy. The polite border guards stamp my British passport and wave me into or out of the Ukraine. But that’s because I’m not a Ukrainian. 

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has declared it illegal for any adult male to leave the country. They are all required to stay and fight. That is why I have been seeing the same scene play out over and over again. In this scene a man and a woman at the border stand side by side or holding one another. They aren’t saying anything. At least one of them is crying. It will take hours for them to reach the front of the queue. But when they do, the woman and the children, dog, grandparents, friend or sister accompanying her cross over into Romania and the man wanders back towards dilapidated Solotvyno.

The cars arriving contain families. Those that head back, only men. 

It feels like unknowably cold, waves of sadness are sweeping over these flat steppes again. 

Although traumatised, these people react differently than people like I would. They know this world; they know its rhythms and spasms. They know pain. 

This is a place paved with holocaust, violence spread deep into its spine, and lymph nodes. Russia and Ukraine: two bloody siblings locked in a strangling embrace. 

Two armies do clash by night, but only one is ignorant. The other has eaten deeply from the fruit of the tree of knowledge: crippled, bandaged and eternal. All wars fought here are Winter Wars, and wars fought in winter are different to other wars. Harder. Darker. Men fighting in ice and frostbite (as they will be) are necessarily more desperate. Clawing, sobbing, stabbing, gouging.

Soon Russia will find itself a murderous former husband holding the body of his beloved. Because if he can’t have her, only the ground can. 

A cry for help 

A couple of days ago, I received a text message from a man who found me online after I travelled here and started writing about events in the Ukraine. We will say that his name is Bodhan, because that is a very common Ukrainian name. Bodhan is in shit. He had been living in Canada working in marketing for seven years, and was one month away from getting Canadian citizenship when the crisis in the Ukraine kicked off. 

He was pretty sure that it was going to be bad, so he flew there to persuade his family that they had to leave. I’m not exactly sure how it all happened, but it seems he got his parents to Poland, and was about to leave himself when the Ukrainian government announced the regulation about adult males not leaving the country. He is stuck. 

Although Bodhan hates what the Russians are doing, he isn’t sure that he wants to die fighting them. He says that his life is in Canada, and he wants to get back to it. He feels Canadian now. I sympathise entirely with what he is saying. His situation seems grotesque. He has had to drive up north because he’s heard that the police and soldiers in the border regions are especially vigilant when it comes to rounding up men and sending them to the front. I get the impression he is sleeping in his car. He is very afraid of roadblocks, because being stopped at one could be disastrous. 

We discuss ways that I may be able to help him. There don’t seem to be very many of them. 

I’m not sure what to do. 

In a story very different from Bodhan’s, some other media people were down at the Sighetu Marmației border crossing when a woman and her 19-year-old son tried to cross the border. The mother was let through, but the son was turned back. They became hysterical and had to be forcibly separated. 

It is getting dark. 

A man at a nearby table in the coffee shop in Tserkva where I’m writing, stands up and half raises his hands to say grace in Romanian before eating. The waitress tells me that he is somewhat mentally unstable, but likes his coffee. He stands to say grace again about 10 minutes later. 

The snow is starting to fall lightly. It falls very slowly. 

The next day I foolishly have breakfast at the hotel for the first time since I checked in. It’s a depressing buffet of bread and lukewarm eggs. I’m desperately trying to get a taxi to Cluj. The moustached teenage “concierge” either has no idea how to find me a taxi willing to drive that far, or no idea what I’m saying. Although, it is also possible that both these things are true.

The Sighetu Marmației border crossing between Romania and Ukraine. Photo: John Davenport

‘Cannon meat’ 

At the next table sits a man who I can immediately tell is also a foreigner. As I’m hoping he would, he leans forward and asks if he can help. We establish that he can’t, and then talk. His name is Steffen and he is here to try to help a female friend who is in the Ukraine with her teenage son. Being of combat age, her son is not allowed to leave. It does not matter that he has just turned 18, is an art student and has never touched a gun in his life. I cannot imagine how a teenager like that would be an asset to any fighting force, but the government disagrees. 

I tell Steffen about the Canadian who contacted me on social media and is also trying to find a way out of the country. We discuss how it seems the only solution (for either of them) is to cross illegally. There are hundreds of kilometres of border, and huge areas are unguarded. But it is tricky to know which ones are watched, and which aren’t. There are army units patrolling the border, and roadblocks on all the roads near the frontier. The border between Romania and Ukraine seems to be the best place for them to cross. 

I tell Steffen about the two-hour drive I took along the Ukrainian side, where the road, river and border run tightly alongside each other for miles. He tells me about the potential crossing places he has found from the Romanian side. We combine this information and come up with a shortlist of the best places to cross, either at dawn or early evening. It seems the further one gets from the bridge, the fewer patrols there are.

A woman I spoke to yesterday described young men like this who have never fought before as “cannon meat”. She had the English phrase “cannon fodder” a bit wrong, but the minor error made it brutally powerful.

Cannon meat? Jesus. 

Should anyone have to fight something if they don’t want to? Should it be a choice? Who knows? Certainly not me. I’m not equipped to make moral choices for anyone here.

Steffen and I continue talking. The coffee is terrible. I remark on the excellent vintage Omega watch he is wearing. We chuckle at the plastic Swatch I have bought on this trip, and discuss antique watches. I didn’t know that Trieste in Italy is such an excellent place to buy vintage Breitlings. We talk about Georgian wine. How the clay pot technique used in that region yields white wines that are very distinctive, but reds that are less so. 

This is exactly the kind of conversation that men like he and I normally have. Although usually it is after a meeting, or in a restaurant, and doesn’t involve the part about smuggling people across a heavily patrolled border in Eastern Europe. What madness has led to a conversation like this? The absurdity is spectacular. 

The Tisza River forms part of the border between Ukraine and Romania and it was this stretch that John Davenport scouted as a potential crossing point for Bodhan.

Negotiating the border 

Aware that we have been sidetracked, we move the conversation back to the border-crossing issue. It’s dangerous. But not for us, Our German and British passports insulate us entirely from the problem. In a crooked lottery of unfairness, a tragic detail of Bodhun’s story is that after many years in Canada, he was a month away from getting citizenship and a Canadian passport; a passport that would have meant being waved through the border, not having to cross the Tisza River at dawn, hoping not to be shot. 

Eventually my taxi situation resolves itself and Steffen and I say goodbye. 

I’ve changed my mind about going to Cluj-Napoca in Romania and am back at the border.

Before crossing I chat to Giacomo. He travelled here from near Rome, bought a food truck in Romania, and is now serving sandwiches and proper Italian coffee to the refugees crossing here. Happily he is also serving coffee to people like myself entering the Ukraine. 

The TV crews are still here. Every day they film the same footage over and over as refugees with wheelie bags and children in puffer jackets walk through the narrow gate into Romania. How many times will they need to shoot this? Apparently the media-industrial complex has an endless appetite for this one shot. Breathlessly, a TV presenter with pretty hair asks another refugee where she is from and how long the trip here took. 

The guards at the border know me by now. I talk briefly to one of them about how the Russian advance has slowed to a crawl in much of the eastern part of the country. He lights a cigarette. In a couple of minutes I’m across. 

It’s very cold and empty here. 

There is ancient blood frozen hard into this soil. Below the flat surface, battled-hardened ghosts swarm. Hacking at each other. 

This feels like a spiritual world wholly alien to the soft Western mind. Brutal. The cup of suffering passed steadily from hand to hand, generation to generation. Each reared on the stories of the last. A Viking land. The rubble and battered apartment blocks of Valhalla are always present. Purified in hate, narrowed by violence and pain. 

An endless Gethsemane of snow, pine trees and pogroms. So cold, clean. Screams muffled by bright white snow. 

I’ve been worried that I haven’t heard from Bodhun for more than a day. I’m not sure where he is now. Eventually he messages to say that he is driving a bit further north, where there are less soldiers. We come up with a plan that might help him. I will send him an official letter saying that I am a journalist and that he is my driver-translator, driving south to pick me up. This won’t get him over the border, but it will probably help him get through the checkpoints on the road here, and once he arrives we can get him to the place on the border that Steffen and I have decided is the best place to cross.

Although I’m not sure that Steffen and I (even given our considerable knowledge of vintage watches) are in any way qualified to be making decisions like this. It’s all a bit frightening. 

Later that day I chat to Steffen about the plan. He thinks it might work. His friend and her son are still driving towards the border. The roads are so busy that it is taking them far longer than they had anticipated. 

The next morning, everything has changed. 

Steffen’s friend and her son have crossed the border legally. She managed to organise an obscure visa document declaring her son to be some kind of special student. They are in Slovakia. Her parental relief must be gigantic. 

Bodhun, however, has a problem. His car has broken down. He is stuck in a town whose name I do not even try to pronounce, and will let me know if he can get it repaired. Even in text messages, in a second language, he sounds defeated; tired. 

I do not hear from Bodhan again. Guilty, I try again and again and again to get hold of him, but he has disappeared into the chaos. Gone. 

Tomorrow I fly back to Istanbul to meet my fiancée.

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John Davenport
John Davenport is the chief creative officer of Havas Southern Africa.

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