The gaping crater, hewn by Russian missile strikes and flooded with water, cuts a jagged path through the middle of a city street. The small group of teenagers passing by found it amusing.
“Look, this is our local pool,” said Denys, 15. “We can dive to swim.”
In their baggy sweaters, backpacks slung over one shoulder, young men stroll through Sloviansk, a frontline city in eastern Ukraine, with nothing else to do on a spring afternoon.
They slipped past soldiers in full combat gear, carrying rifles and heading into a trench some 20 miles away, and watched as military trucks rumbled past, raising clouds of dust. They live their teenage years in a survival mode because of the wars raging around them — no prom, graduation ceremony, movies, parties, or sports.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused tremendous direct damage, killing tens of thousands of people and forcing millions of Ukrainians from their homes. But war too claims another casualty: the normal experience of teenagers like those in Sloviansk living near combat zones, hanging out in ravaged cities where rockets fly regularly.
“I wish I had an ordinary life,” says a 16-year-old named Mykyta.
His days, he says, are spent hanging out with friends and playing video games in his room. “We studied this whole city, we know every corner of it,” said Mykyta. “It's not so much fun anymore.”
While strolling around town one recent afternoon, half a dozen teens said they mostly handled the hardships of war, and the terror of the Russian invasion, with humor — making fun of everything around them, including one another. They are identified only by them first name because of their age.
Sloviansk, a small crossroads town briefly occupied by proxy Russian forces in 2014, has returned to war after a massive invasion last year. The front line was getting closer, and artillery barrages were starting to hit the town. That looks to be its next target if Russia takes Bakhmut, its eastern neighbor.
But many teenagers persist despite the danger, their parents stuck in the city because of work or reluctance to leave their homes and live as refugees. The youth's last day in the school classroom is February 23, 2022, the day before Russia invaded. Authorities canceled all organized activities for young people, lest rockets hit gatherings.
Russia bombards Sloviansk once a week, possibly taking aim at the thousands of troops stationed here. Residents are regularly killed by one and two, although last month's attack killed 11 civilians in their sleep.
As explosions echo through the streets, the teens crash to the ground for safety, lest a strike land and send shrapnel whistling their way.
Then the horses around started.
“Don't hit us!” they joked around, covering their heads with their hands, said Kristina, 15, one of the teenagers walking in town.
“It's easier to handle this way,” he says. In fact, she admits, “it's pretty scary.”
Denys, nicknamed Guitarist for his musical skills, said he sometimes gets up after a strike and does a bit of dancing, to break the ice.
“We fell to the ground and laughed,” said Daniil, 16 years old, another member of the group. “We have to be positive.”
Distant and hollow artillery explosions along the front line spread throughout the city. Daniel laughed. “We walked under a blast,” he said. “This is it! For us, this is typical.”
In the downtown square, a stretch of tarmac surrounded by fences and flower beds, teens merge into a mortal group that lasts for minutes and then fades away, as friends go their separate ways.
“Why won't he walk with us?” said a girl as she walked away. “We're the same age. Oh, he could go to hell.”
Mykyta, who has green-gray eyes and shoulder-length brown hair, has not been in a classroom in over a year. He wanted to be a chef, he said, and loved making food for his mother, who was an employee of the state railroad company and raised him alone.
He hopes the war will end by the time he graduates next year, having completed online classes from teachers who sometimes teach from abroad. Later he could move, he said.
But Mykyta also said he liked the city, even after the months of war. “There's nothing here,” he said. “But I don't want to go.”
The friends didn't talk much about the war, he said, or the battle in Bakhmut that could one day decide the fate of their own city. “There are much more interesting themes than war,” he said, such as movies and music.
The Russian invasion changed everything. The normal angst of adolescence, and the first attempt at independence, all now taking place amidst the ruins of a largely deserted city. With the danger ever present, a curfew is imposed not by parents, but by soldiers at checkpoints.
Parents were desensitized to air raid sirens, and in any case felt they had no choice but to let their children walk around after a long time indoors. War has not cured boredom.
Teens stop at a favorite hangout, the steps of a covered cinema near a park where the lawns are filled with shell craters. They are drawn to the bleachers of empty football stadiums, where no games are being held for no crowds, inviting an outcome even more tragic than a single rocket attack.
“There used to be more people, more shops, more cafes, concerts, cool holidays,” complains Daria, 15, sitting on a bench, looking at the empty field.
“I miss my city without the damage,” said Denys. “I miss my quiet life. I miss security.”
They laughed, he said, but without joy.
“What else can we do, cry?” said Daniel.
After months of practice, he said, he could very accurately measure from burst to strike distance.
Before the war, Daniil says, he used to attend barbecues outside of town, and he looked forward to a city holiday in the fall — now cancelled — called City Day. He used to spend time with much larger groups of friends, he says, around 20 people, but now only five or six remain. All the others have left town.
Sonia, 14, whose mother owns a beauty salon in Sloviansk, says she misses the time before the invasion. “No need to fear for my life,” he said.
He missed friends whose families left, seeking safety. “I get attached very quickly to people,” he says, “and it's very painful to let them go.”
“Once I was out with my friends and the shooting started,” said Sonia. “I panicked and started stopping passing cars and crying and asking them to take me back to the city center. Basically, if a lot of bombs fall then it's scary but if it's just one then it's okay.”
One attack in particular shook Rotyslav, 15. He was playing video games in his bedroom at around 1am when a nearby explosion rocked the building. “My parents told me to be ready to go, if needed.”
“I tried to prepare myself for that,” he said of the Russian attack. “I live in the middle between normal and this situation.”
After passing through a flooded missile crater, Denys saw a field of tulips in the front yard. He took one, walked over to a group of girls and gave one of them a bloom. “You are so funny,” he said.
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Sloviansk.