Fear in No Man's Land: The Day My Car Was Hit by Russian Artillery

The objective of my report was to reach the so-called “zero zone”, that is, the “no man’s land”, a strip of territory between the front lines of the Russian army and the Ukrainian army. I wanted to go there to show what was happening to the population of the village of Kamyanske, which had been under fire for days.

But on the way there, the road was bombed and the car I was traveling in was hit by an artillery shell, possibly fired by a howitzer or a heavy mortar. I abandoned the vehicle along with fellow journalists and we waited for over an hour for the bombing to end.

Fortunately, we were not injured, but we experienced the terror of the Ukrainian civilian population, subjected daily to this type of episode. since 20 February.

The journey began at the city limits of Zaporizhzhya, where the Ukrainian military had set up a fortified checkpoint with barricades and obstacles. antitank. There, I received a lift from two journalists, the Spanish Fran and the Ukrainian Koss. They went to the same place, had an armored car and kindly offered to take me with them.

In conflict areas, rides are encouraged by the military and competition between journalists gives way to camaraderie and solidarity.

After checking documents and press licenses by the military, we set off on the road M18, which connects Zaporizhzhya Melitopol – a medium-sized city that has been in Russian hands since the first weeks of the war.

The Kamyanske region is 80 kilometers from Melitopol and about 230 kilometers from Mariupol, where the last Ukrainian forces in the region hold out at the Azovstal steel mill – an industrial complex of 11 square kilometers and more than 20 kilometers of underground tunnels.

Villages such as Kamyanske are the main transit route for thousands of refugees fleeing Ukrainian territory. occupied by Russia heading towards Zaporizhzhya, the largest city in the region. But villages like Kamyanske represent one of the most dangerous parts of the refugees’ journey – as they are the scene of clashes between the two armies.

We were going the opposite way to the refugees and IDPs. We found dozens of them on the road, most of them stopped at Ukrainian army checkpoints. Refugees had tied white cloth to car door handles and antennas to distinguish themselves from military personnel. Our car had the word press written in large letters in English and Ukrainian (the word is also understood by Russians).

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But as we moved away from Zaporizhzhya, the road began to empty and the Ukrainian villages deserted. We passed two more checkpoints. In the second, the Ukrainians not only checked our documents, but also searched the car. Before releasing us, a Ukrainian officer approached and said: “From here, you are on your own, do you understand that we cannot protect you?”.

He only released our car when make sure we understood. We were entering “zone zero”.

Koss quickly drove the armored SUV down the deserted highway. A few kilometers ahead, we saw a large area with deep Ukrainian trenches dug alongside the highway. There were two tanks, possibly T-72 main battle tanks, protected inside armored shelters (holes in the ground camouflaged where the tanks are positioned only with the cannon out). There were also Javelin missile launchers and heavy machine gun nests. On the highway, three soldiers guided the few cars that passed.

From that point on, we were sure we were in no man’s land.

On the highway, there were numerous marks circular black marks that pointed where they had fallen by artillery shells. In the middle of the track, we dodged a crater that contained an unexploded howitzer grenade in the center. All the danger signs were there, but we kept driving with the certainty that at any moment we would see Kamyanske – where we would find destroyed houses and residents hiding in the basements.

We spotted yet another Ukrainian checkpoint. There, a soldier insisted on checking vehicle documents, causing a small line of four cars. I lowered the camera, as it is not allowed to film checkpoints, according to Ukrainian martial law.

The soldier started shouting, signaling the four vehicles to turn around, but the cars could not turn because of of a large number of anti-tank obstacles – which are cross-welded train tracks over a meter high. They are called porcupines here.

I looked out the right window and saw the same soldier running desperately towards a trench, stumbling and rolling on the asphalt. A paralyzing cold ran through my body in a millisecond.

Despite everything I saw, I couldn’t believe what was happening. I heard the whistle of the final part of the flight of an artillery piece and, when I turned my head to the left side, I saw the projectile touch the ground less than ten meters from our car, generating a dry bang. The grenade lifted a cloud of debris from the ground, brown in the center and gray on the sides, which reached the height of a house. The car’s glass shattered instantly. It was a Russian artillery attack and we – civilians in four passenger cars – were the target.

Koss reacted quickly and accelerated the car towards a small brick house. “When the car stops, let’s all get out,” Fran shouted. She just had time to grab the camera, the vests and ballistic helmets that were in the trunk—not that they would make any difference against artillery shells. I ran with Fran to the little house and we took shelter against the walls. I lost my glasses on the run.

Minutes later, Koss, who was in the military before becoming a journalist, showed up with his protective gear. We dressed as quickly as possible, and when we turned on the cameras (which had been turned off because of the checkpoint), we could hear the whir of another artillery shell. We threw ourselves on the ground and stood there listening to more shots.

At this moment, the worst comes to mind. I cursed myself for leaving the medical kit at the hotel, but remembered I had combat tourniquets in my jacket pockets. I hung them on a strap of my bulletproof vest, praying I wouldn’t have to.

There wasn’t much shelter in the area, we just had to lie on the ground and hope the next grenade didn’t hit us. . The feeling is one of total helplessness and fragility. Any change in howitzer or mortar aim or a variation in the wind can decide who will live or die. There is no protection whatsoever.

Dozens of civilians died near Kiev in or near their cars as they tried to flee their bombed-out neighborhoods. The terror I felt must be similar to what thousands of Ukrainians are experiencing every day here.

The Russians seemed to be in the Kamyanske region trying to advance towards Zaporizhzya. They were now targeting the Ukrainian trenches. I saw the clouds of dirt and debris rise from that region over and over again.

I thought we could return on foot so we wouldn’t be spotted by the Russians, but the last Ukrainian fortification was miles behind – it didn’t seem like an idea doable.

After about an hour, the bombing ceased and we agreed to drive back the way we had come. “Let’s go,” Koss shouted. Within seconds, we were rolling down the road again. I didn’t see the soldier or the other cars. My colleague accelerated the SUV to full throttle. Everyone was silent in the car.

We found an overpass and hid near the pillars. We stayed out of the car for a few minutes, trying to hear for new shots, but all we could hear was the sound of the wind. Some firefighters had also sought shelter there and we greeted them.

A few moments later – which seemed like hours -, we were back on the road. When passing through the previous checkpoints, the military sympathized and asked if we were all right. We said yes and continued on.

Those Russians had aimed at civilian cars, not military positions. Now there was no one talking to me, me and my friends had been the targets. I had heard that the Russians didn’t mind shooting at the press, but I didn’t imagine they would direct their artillery on us and other non-combatants.

Upon reaching the hotel safely and seeing the damage to the car, I felt the adrenaline and the joy of having survived. Koss, Fran and I hugged each other.

I knew that, as dangerous as that was the nature of our work, in a few weeks I would be back in my Brazil, and this journey into the darkness of war would become part of a memory of the past. But unfortunately it will not be so for Ukrainians.

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