Faculty Stories: Salar Abdoh’s Dispatch from Behind the Front Lines in Ukraine

A pile of burned out cars piled on the side of a road. A woman walks down the street beside them.
Graveyard of destroyed cars outside Kyiv, in the actual parking lot of a cemetery. photo credit: Salar Abdoh

The war in Ukraine has gone on, depending on the point from which you choose to measure, either for just over six months as of this writing, or since 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea, or some time long before that in the tenuous circumstances following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, the most recent phase of this conflict has thrust the war into global consciousness, lending the world a new armed crisis to focus on just as the last troops withdrew from Afghanistan.

It was in considering that shift – away from the middle east and toward eastern Europe – that compelled Salar Abdoh, Iranian a novelist and essayist who has embedded and covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region, to once again travel into a conflict zone. Although he felt that it seemed strange to cover a war in Europe when there was still a conflict in his own region, among people who speak his own language, it was in fact that tension that he wanted to explore: “Ukraine gets the attention that Afghanistan no longer does. I wanted to see how that worked and what it meant to me, if anything.”

Salar’s reflections on the war, as well as the photos from his journey in Ukraine, were recently published in Guernica. Below is an excerpt. Click the link to read the full article.

Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle” blasts for the first couple of minutes in Brad’s van — yellow and, to my mind, alarmingly easy to spot — in Bakhmut, in the Donbas province, Ukraine. The salient, which is how the militarily trained describe the enemy, stands about ten kilometers from us. We are here in a frontline town waiting for a lumbering enemy who no longer even bothers sending infantry unless a place has already been battered beyond recognition from the skies. A war of artilleries. Savage, arbitrary, relentless. If it requires skill and precision, and it does, I don’t see it. The devastation is mostly a crapshoot; one building is sliced in half, while another across or next to it stands perfectly erect. Broken windows, yes. But those get fixed. The burnt schoolhouse doesn’t. Not anytime soon. And before all of this is over, Bakhmut and towns like it will cease to be the most basic thing they had been: habitable.

The town is already mostly deserted. The firehouse crew remains. Each morning, the crew sees to it that the inhabitants who are left have food to eat. Supplied by an international NGO, the large packages wrapped in white plastic remind me of whole turkeys on sale at American supermarkets before Thanksgiving.

It had, in a way, begun, at least for me, three weeks earlier, not in Ukraine but in a café across from the University of Tehran. R, a young commander of the northern resistance against the Taliban in Afghanistan, was suggesting a trip to the Hindu Kush, where the Afghan resistance barely hangs on. With a shrapnel injury to his hand, he was recovering in Iran surreptitiously, wearing an ill-fitting dark suit, his thick black hair combed carefully, yet awkwardly, to one side. The man was entirely out of place in that hip café away from combat.

“No, I cannot go to those mountains right now,” I told him.

“Why not?”

“Because I must go to Ukraine.”

He looked disappointed but did not press with the obvious question: There’s a war far closer to your home, among people who speak your language. Why do you need to chase battle in Ukraine?