An invisible border divided the country in two. There are no border guards on it, it’s not drawn on a map and there are no road signs leading to it.
And, no – this time we are not talking about the ATO zone border.
While half a country is in suspended animation in the glow of pulsing strobe lights, flooding night clubs and lounge bars, the other half is fiercely fighting for the future of their children and grandchildren, while living a double life, for themselves and for others.
– My day has more than 24 hours in it. During the day, shopping at the warehouses, pharmacies, sewing uniforms… at night, we pack everything, in the morning we drive away. Then to work at the office… and so on by the schedule! – Sveta laughs.
Before Maidan she was a homemaker. The phone rings and she goes on a long complicated rant riddled with obscenities. Someone on the other side is coming up with excuses. Something about armored vehicles, spare parts.
– Who were you so hard on? – I laugh.
She says a last name. Ministerial. Leadership ranks. We laugh together. Sign of times.
Meeting at a café, over a cup of black coffee. Call signs instead of names, radio frequencies, cars without registration plates, cargo left, cargo is on its way, loading, delivery, abbreviations unknown to the outsider, customs cleared…
We turn our heads to a voice – behind our table a tan boy is asking to switch a bottle of “Perrier” for a bottle of flat water. Another reality, strikingly vulgar and out-of-place, bursts into our already-familiar life of volunteer procurement team.
In it planes are not being shot down, artillery doesn’t blast, and death doesn’t rattle so close to you. Their air is not poisoned by the sour smell of gunpowder, smoke screens and fields burning after shelling.
… A guy in a wheelchair enters a subway car. Someone frowns in disgust looking at the stump of his right leg. Someone is hiding their eyes.
He is not asking for money. He is not asking for anything at all, he is rolling the wheelchair into the corner of the car, looking at the floor, thinking to himself.
He is 27. There is a war in his country.
He is a volunteer. There are dozens of guys like him. And thousands of those, who after getting their summons, find a way to stay home.
* * *
For the past three weeks they wake up to a reveille. For the past three weeks next to me are those who volunteered to fight, to protect their homes.
They are not here for money. Not for the thousand hryvnia salary (about $80) and not for the soldier’s ration. Tomorrow many of them will be gone to the front.
It is late at night. But the officers are not sleeping. Smoldering cigarettes. Clattering roar of the wound up armored vehicles, dogs barking. In the distance, beyond the forest, a storm is gaining strength. Lightning keeps striking.
– Oh, AGS’s started! – Sergeant jokes.
His call sign is “old man”. At home in Kyiv, he has his own business, a wife and two sons. He is 48. He is a volunteer.
His phone rings. “Wife”, – he is whispering and conversations around go silent.
Tomorrow his battalion is heading to the frontline. He is not going to tell his wife. He will go, and every night he will tell her that he is still close to Kyiv, at his station, everything is quiet and they are not being sent to the front, yet.
“I want her to sleep peacefully at night…”
Every call feels like the last one. After he hangs up, Old Man keep staring at his old Nokia in silence…
They left their homes. From being fathers and sons they may become smeared ink statistics across lined A4 paper. Or will get stuck like a bone a throat, but come back anyway.
Every one of them keeps saying “if not us, then who?…”
* * *
Border patrol station near Odessa. We are transporting bulletproof vests, unloading, customs procedures, conversations, questions …
– Could you leave us a couple of those? – they are looking with hope in their eyes.
– No, Toha, let them take these to the boys, we are going to sit here for a week, and it’s hot there for the troopers by Horlivka! – interrupts his commander.
You can’t hear the war here. But it is close. A week later, a few of them will be moved to the front. To hold the border between Russia and Ukraine.
– Our guys were there. Rotating… our border guards are stuck between the rock and the hard place: with the Russians shelling in the back, separatists in the front and our army – far away.
How they survived – they don’t know…
I’m sharing a cigarette with a border guard named Vadim. Customs hold on military cargo – delaying them for several days. They are shrugging their shoulders – bureaucracy. There are problems with our cargo, too. I show them my car, they take me inside the station, where the chiefs are. We explain what, where, for whom.
Suddenly, with a grave expression I hear the major’s voice: “One thousand dollars, and the cargo will clear in an hour!”
It feels like a gush of icy water – I’m ready to tell them what I think, to call, to sound the alarm… Suddenly customs guys burst out in a loud laugh.
– Gotcha! – the youngest one of them is laughing.
This is how they do humor at customs these days. Professional humor.
Two flags on the table – Ukrainian and Euromaidan. They look tired. My heart warms with hope: could it be? Have things changed? Forever, maybe?
This is how we met. We are shaking hands.
Vadim has been a border guard for 11 years.
– You were saying that our army is corrupt… You know my salary is about $300. What is $300 these days? We don’t live – we survive.
They will send us – don’t know where, it doesn’t matter the war is everywhere in those parts. Look at my coat – showing me – it’s plastic. If it rips, what do you do? I bought my body armor myself.
– Doesn’t it cost at least three thousand? – I say.
– I had to save up for it… what else can I do?
Vadim flicks his cigarette, goes to work. I understand what stands behind “I saved up”. Two, three salaries divided in two. Three green hundred dollar bills, which may save his life in a few days.
– I just ask you to write the truth, people are telling all kinds of tales…
One of our guys got an award recently… he came back from Luhansk with a bullet wound, they gave him a medal and an envelope on camera. And in the envelope there was only 500 hryvnias. A week later they took those 500 out of his salary. He only gets 2,000 hryvnia salary – he is a private…
There are many Vadims like him in this war, which is called the ATO.
* * *
They say there is a profession – to defend your country.
We have a new one – it’s called an “Angel”. Guardian angels. This is how some soldiers call procurement volunteers.
We meet a girl named Tanya on the outskirts of Dnepropetrovsk. She drives up her pink compact car.
Coming into the hallway, she is taking a long time to get the dirt off her military boots, shaking off her muddy field coat. Somewhere in the trunk of her car she has a pair of shoes from Valentino, they lay there as a reminder of another life, which could be called “past” at this time. In the past she was a stylist at an expensive salon. Now she is a guardian angel. That’s her job.
“Look at this busy buddy! Crazy! Don’t drag the mud onto my floor with your boots!” – the concierge lady is yelling after her, in a mundane, mean way.
Tanya is biting her lip, tears running down her face, pushing the elevator button. Every day she sees the eyes of the guys, excited like kids on Christmas for every gift, every new thing: tents, field coats…
Over a cup of tea she tells me about her day. Her shaky tired fingers twisting a cigarette.
On the floor in a tiny kitchen is a bucket with water, with clothes soaking in it. Water is red from the blood. Today she was helping to save lives. Today she went THERE. Like she did every day last month.
Her charges – a battalion that has been in the ATO for two month now. At night body armor is delivered and in the morning she is delivering to them, tiny fearless girl in a pink compact car.
– I would cover them with my soul!… – she say, in tears, rinsing off camo pants up to her elbows in soapy water, red from the blood.
* * *
Volunteer battalion. Over 300 people. Almost no young ones among them. Afghanistan, Chechnya, second Chechnya veterans. Some were Maidan defenders in the past. They took on the responsibility and are carrying this cross.
There are no mandatory drills, hazing or senseless orders. No one is checking how your bed is made and if your pillow is smoothed out. Simply because no one has any of it here. Bunk, mat, sleeping bag.
There are only grownups here. They are ready, if needed, to give their lives for the destiny of their country.
No one is giving big speeches here, fashionable poets from Kyiv and pop stars don’t come here either.
Only the radio is playing from the window on a second floor. Broadcasting…
Military encampment, the barrier and an APC at the entrance. Behind the barrier another life. Colorful, full of summer. Here the forest is quiet. At night you can hear the rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns, the muffled coughs of SVDs, the cold air buzzes with training explosions. The training post is working nonstop.
Here they get ready for war, they breathe war, they live war. They learn to survive. At home they have families. They have kids.
First 24 hours of full combat readiness.
The full moon is round and red like the neighbor’s dog. Formation assembly at the square today is at midnight. There, in Kyiv destinies were decided. Anyone who is not ready to head out to the front is offered to stay back on base. In reserve.
No one stayed behind.
At night in the tent, by the light of the flashlight, a soldier is writing on a piece of paper. If he gets killed his family gets 200,000 hryvnias. He is calculating if his mom would have enough to pay off the house sooner. He is sweating, working hard.
TV in the hallway flickers and hoarsely broadcasts. About different things. Hope. They are saying that maybe tomorrow it will be war. We are watching in silence. We want it to end sooner. And, it seems that far away, in our memories we see the windows, freshly cut grass at the threshold, milk on the table, the smell of her hair, and the lamp quietly breathing in the corner…
All of this is behind. And eye, clutching with thorny pupils are looking ahead and wait. Waiting for their turn, with impatience, passionate desire, one word on their lips – “sooner”. “Soon it should be us…”
* * *
If you could hear their whispering conversations in the dark… about life, about grief, about joy.
They are thinking of you, nameless people, whose faces they never saw. About your future, about your children, about their mothers.
Tomorrow they will give their lives in the in the vortex of destiny, the crushing mill of war. Many of them won’t come back.
… Cars starting outside the window. They are brought, readied.
A wound-up watch on the wrist is measuring the night. In the open eye – desire to live, to save your country, Ukraine, to go till the end into your own, now enemy land.
One of many battalions, nameless number. It got lucky. It has an Angel. Every day he/she for the second, third time is calling friends, endless times writes online, yells “Help!” Maybe today someone else would answer. And these exact 100 hryvnias would save another life.
Every day they say “If not us, then who?” And a few hundred people are holding the heavy, blue sky.
If every second, or third one of us would say “Who, if not me?” and would live one day of their lives not for themselves, but for them – they will return home.
Possibly – all of them.By: Cristian Jereghi, exclusively for UP Life.
Translated by Nata Abbott, EMPR.