The Road of Death. When one thinks of such an eerie title your mind is generally drawn to the death road in Bolivia or, of course, the road of death in Iraq made infamous during the Gulf War. But in the war-ravaged Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine is a lesser-known route with the same dark nickname: Highway 20. In the latest segment of our conflict zone reportage, we take you through our journey along this deadly route.
Located in Donetsk Oblast, Highway 20 (H20) connects the heavily polluted industrial port city of Mariupol to the city of Donetsk which is now the capital of the separatist-controlled Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) alongside the Luhansk People’s Republic. The Donetsk and Lugansk regions have been locked in a state of war since the events that engulfed Ukraine following the Euromaidan Revolution and annexation of Crimea in 2014. Donetsk hit the news when the infamous battle of Donetsk Airport took place.
On a winter’s morning in downtown Mariupol. I ascended the pitch-black stairwell of a Soviet-era apartment block and stepped out onto the street to see the unique orange hue that hung over the city. This was no sunrise, but in fact, highly poisonous pollution being spewed out of the gargantuan steelworks that have defined Mariupol since the days of the Soviet Union. The tap water here is undrinkable and you’re sometimes dirtier after taking a shower than you were before.
A few meters away was Anton. A Ukrainian Army officer who was currently on leave and moonlighting with me. He was my guide and fixer in Mariupol. Dour with an extremely dark sense of humor and the balls to pull anything off in this warzone, Anton was the epitome of a perfect conflict zone fixer. He was disapprovingly standing over his 1990s Russian made Lada with the hood up and two takeout coffee cups on the roof.
”Fucking Russian piece of shit!” shouted Anton as he kicked the tire and repeated the drawn-out daily ritual of warming up the Lada to make it move.
The engine kicked into action as I approached the car. We shook hands, slurped our lukewarm coffee, and threw on our covert body armor. Our time in Mariupol was over and we were heading to the frontline town of Volnovakha. Not that long ago, 12 people had been killed in the Volnovakha municipality after an MLRS strike hit their public bus at a checkpoint on Highway 20. Both sides blamed the other for the atrocity.
”Are you ready to ride the road of death?” Said Anton whilst drumming the steering wheel with an excited smile as though he was promoting a fairground ride.
The only way to Volnovakha municipality was along Highway 20. It earned the unsavory nickname of the Road of Death due to it straddling the frontline between Ukrainian Security Forces and Russian-backed separatists. The strategic road connects the cities of Mariupol and Sloviansk whilst passing through Donetsk.
Mariupol sits on the shores of the Sea of Azov. Once a thriving port, the sea to its west is under a naval blockade. The territory 4 miles to the East of the city limits is controlled by separatists. The economy has been strangled as a result. Even downtown, the streets are eerily deserted. On our way out we pass the city’s police station which sits bullet-riddled, burnt out, and abandoned. It was the scene of fierce fighting between Russian separatists and Ukrainian Azov Battalion during the Battle of Mariupol in 2014.
As we hit the road out of Mariupol we passed the dated buses of hard-bitten steelworkers being transported to the city’s two biggest steel plants named Azovstal and Illych. The latter named after the middle name of Vladimir Lenin. Mining, industry, and hard labor have been defining features to the Donetsk Region since the days of the Russian Tsars. Today, the entrances of the factories are fortified with concrete military bunkers, one of which is overwatched by granite Soviet figures representing the steelworkers who fell in the Second World War.
Despite the lack of people in Mariupol, we hit a small traffic jam on the city limits at the edge of Highway 20. This is the first Block post of the day and in my opinion, it’s the worst way to start your day in a warzone aside from being shot at.
Block posts are generally large, heavily armed checkpoints guarding strategic routes in the Donbass region. Soldiers check for weapons, contraband, rebels, and wanted people. The soldiers are either standing in the freezing cold or baking heat all day which is only broken up by being attacked by the enemy or annoyed locals who are sick of delays and interference with their life. The soldiers are always in a bad mood and aren’t afraid to show it.
”Good morning, girls!” Anton shouted effeminately at the hulking soldiers laden with ammunition and kit. Naturally, they weren’t impressed but Anton is an officer and a flash of his military ID card goes a long way.
The Ukrainian soldiers pulled our car aside to do a standard search and ask me if I was aware of the dangers of driving on H20. The minor risks consisted of unexploded ordnance and crashing into an artillery crater. The major risks were being kidnapped or attacked by separatist forces or caught up in an artillery strike.
Suddenly, through the Ukrainian and Russian voices around the block post, a broad American accent sounded out: ”Hey! Where you from, man?”.
Coming towards me was a short stocky soldier around 5 foot 5. Clad in two different types of camouflage, he partially removed a coyote colored balaclava from his face as he wiped the mud and dirt from his hands on his trouser legs before offering me a handshake.
I know I’m fighting for a good cause but I can’t get used to this damn cold and the food is shitty. But the women here are fucking hot. Shame there’s none around here though.
We conversed as the soldiers talked to Anton. This guy was American and from the State of Nevada. He had traveled over 6,000 miles to join the infamous Azov Battalion (a paramilitary force fighting alongside the Ukrainian Military) and fight in the war in Ukraine. Jutting out from under the bottom of his balaclava was a partially obscured neck tattoo of sinister angled spikes that screamed neo-Nazi insignia.
I asked him how he was finding Ukraine and he lamented on how he missed the Nevada climate and couldn’t get used to the cold of the Ukrainian winter or the food. He then lamented on his time in Kyiv and reeled off the catchphrase of every weird ex-pat in Eastern Europe: ”But the women here are fucking hot. Shame there’s none around here though.”
Thankfully, I and the Nazi parted ways when a car bearing Azov Battalion insignia pulled up to pick him up. Anton and I exchanged satellite phone numbers with the Ukrainian soldiers in case we needed help in an emergency. We were then cleared from the block post and hit the road.
”I know you like all of our old Soviet shit. So I want to show you something before we leave Mariupol,” said Anton who, despite being perpetually confused by it, always made efforts to allow me to indulge in my love of the aesthetic of crumbling Soviet era artwork and monuments in Mariupol. Whilst not a fan himself, he found a source of pride that a foreigner found a source of beauty in his war-torn and polluted home city.
Our car was soon alone on the bumpy, undermaintained road. What Anton wanted to show me was a Soviet monument built to honor the metalworkers of Mariupol. Standing as a guard to the entrance of the city since the 1960s, it now majestically gazed out into the road of death that stretched out in front of it.
Despite the fighting that has taken place around it, the monument still stands firm. Although someone had peppered its ass with a shotgun round or two at some point. We parked up next to a set of Ukrainian tank traps ready to be moved into position in the event of a full-scale separatist assault on Mariupol.
”Take as many photos of the sexy Soviet man as you like. But for fuck’s sake, stay on the concrete”. Said Anton as he delivered the foundation of staying alive in an area rife with landmines and unexploded ordnance.
After taking some photos, morbid curiosity got the better of us both as we approached the edge of the concrete to inspect the wet, muddy fields lining each side of the road. Scattered across the no mans land in front of us was bullet casings, military vehicle parts, unexploded artillery shells, and bones.
”Are they human or animal bones?” I asked Anton. ”Both” he answered nonchalantly as he finished his cigarette and made sure to throw it on the concrete so as not to tempt fate and disturb anything lurking beneath the field in front. ”Now let’s go. We’ve stayed still for long enough and this road makes me nervous.”
Hot Dogs and Body Armor on the Road of Death
At this point, we’d been on the road for a few hours. It was characteristic of Anton to run his car into the ground and only refuel when it was running on fumes, then blame the Russian manufacturer when it constantly gave him problems. On the road of death, however, a laissez-faire attitude to refueling your car is dicing with death. We soon pulled into one of the very few gas stations still functioning on Highway 20.
Aside from the creaking of a swinging fast-food sign and the distant crack of gunfire to the East, the gas station forecourt was eerily quiet. Suddenly, the door of a small guardhouse attached to the gas station store opened and out stepped a balaclava-clad man in military garb topped off with a leather jacket. He was clutching an AK47 in one hand and a smartphone playing a pirated Russian movie at full volume in the other.
”She hates men. That’s why she makes the guard sit outside in that shitty hut.
Fuel is a crucial commodity in war and Gas stations on Highway 20 need to be protected by armed guards like this. Whilst it’s a sight that would terrify most people in day to day life, this was Eastern Ukraine, and Anton just did things in the Donetsk way and loudly asked if the gas station was open.
”What the fuck do you think? Fill up and pay inside, she’s got food on the go too.” shouted the guard in a deep Russian voice. He maintained his glare as Anton began to fill up using the jerry cans available and I crossed the freezing forecourt to pay inside.
As I opened the door the heat of various electric heaters combined hit my face. The cash desk was manned by an overweight Ukrainian woman leaning of the counter and transfixed in a women’s gossip mag. As she stood up I saw she was wearing military body armor over a long-sleeve bright pink shirt decorated with butterflies and flowers. The features of her shirt were contradicted by the unforgiving scowl on her face. The bulletproof vest had crushed her breasts in which were spilling out of either side of the body armor.
”Just the petrol?” she asked firmly revealing flashes of gold teeth as she chewed on pungent strawberry gum.
I asked for two hotdogs and proceeded to grab snacks and water for the road. Aside from when she paused to itch under her ill-fitting body armor, the gas station attendant angrily stared at the revolving hotdog cooker. To cool down she repeatedly blew air over her face causing her bleached blond hair to fly in all directions.
‘Aren’t you hot in that?’ I asked in a friendly way to try to make conversation. But I was shut down with a glare and a loud ‘What the fuck is it to you?’ before she firmly stuffed the hot dogs into half cut baguettes causing the mustard and ketchup to spill out. After the truth, friendliness and manners are some of the first casualties of war.
He’s got a rifle but she still bullies him!
Back on the forecourt, Anton took a hot dog and some of the supplies off of my hands. The eyes of the armed guard were still transfixed on us until we moved back onto the road. That was his cue to return back into his hut and continue with his movie.
”Who was working in there? Was it the scary one with the big tits?” Anton asked me enthusiastically. ”She hates men. That’s why she makes the guard sit outside in that shitty hut. He’s got a rifle but she still bullies him.” As we continued on the road, he proceeded to reel off a series of urban myths surrounding this big breasted ‘gas station dominatrix’ that had been spread amongst Ukrainian troops.
As the winter sun was setting, this meant that visibility advantages had shifted for various positions along the front. Dawn and sunset always saw spikes in contact. Our time on the death road was coming to an end and as the sky began to turn dark, the distant horizon was illuminated by the impact of grad rocket impacts causing the windscreen of Anton’s Lada to rattle intensely.
Anton released a dour and pissed off sigh that his car was being shaken by the nearby fighting. But his mood was lifted as our headlights bounced off the sign that once welcomed visitors to the Volnovakha municipality of Donetsk Oblast. We were approaching the block post to enter the city. We made it.
The war in Ukraine continues to rage today. It has killed over 13,000 people and displaced over 1 million.