Ihor, a sergeant major from the 72-nd brigade of the Ukrainian army and his comrades-in-arms say they left the encirclement and went into Russia because they saw no way to keep fighting. All of them want to go to go back to Ukraine, but don’t want to keep on fighting.
Yuri Vendik, BBC Russia reporter, visited the tent camp near the Gukovo border checkpoint and talked to Ihor, a Ukrainian army sergeant.
BBC: How long have you been in the region?
Ihor: I’ve been in Eastern Ukraine for three months.
BBC: What about here, in this very region?
Igor: Here, near Chervonopartiyzansk – for about a month. Maybe a bit more. We stayed near Krasnodon, and then, after a Grad rocket shelling, fell back to Chervonopartyzansk because we took heavy losses.
BBC: Were you trying to enter Krasnodon?
Igor: We did not try to enter anything, we were just staying there for a month, watching the territory, the checkpoint [Izvaryne – BBC]. It was under rebel control. Our border guards had to be there, but when we came there, the guys were bombed withinin a week. We stayed a bit further from the place, didn’t do anything – just watched. That was before they started shelling us regularly.
BBC: What was your objective when entering this corridor near the border?
Ihor: We had a plan, where we should encamp, entrench and prevent armed people from entering Ukraine. That is, we sort of backed up the border checkpoints. Because the so-called militia entered our territory on Russian vehicles and started shooting. Either from Russian or Ukrainian side.
Shelling from the Russian Side
BBC: Were you also attacked from here, from Russia?
Ihor: Yes, regularly. Every night, sometimes even in daylight. These were either SP [self-propelled] howitzers or regular cannons… The shelling came from 6-7 kilometers – we got the visuals: a shot flare in Russia and then an explosion on our territory, at our positions.
Mostly it were Grad rockets shelling us – I understand it’s the weapon mostly used.
BBC: Did the shelling come from Ukrainian territory as well? From both?
Ihor: Right. Vehicles came from Russia… They even came in from Russia, shot and went back.
BBC: Did you see the vehicles that came in?
Ihor: Yes, whole convoys. We saw what we saw with the optics we had. There were armored KamAZ trucks – Russian-made, we don’t have anything like this.
Tanks entered as well and “disappeared” within towns and villages. And we were forbidden to fire on residential areas.
During the ceasefire we didn’t fire at all, while we were shelled regularly. All the while vehicles were coming in from Russia. They just kept coming, shamelessly, through official border checkpoints.
BBC: But, as we know, there are many roads through the border without any checkpoints.
Ihor: Yes, there are roads in border settlements, and the vehicles used these roads. There was a whole base near Provallya, close to Chervonopartyzansk – around 60 vehicles. I think common militias wouldn’t be able to get ten tanks and six Infantry Fighting Vehicles.
We didn’t even had the ammo for the Grads that we had, while around six Grads from their side fired all night long. They switched positions and kept firing.
BBC: Did you have air support when you were surrounded?
Ihor: No, we didn’t. Maybe an aircraft or two appeared, people heard them, but I didn’t see any.
BBC: Why was there no support?
Ihor: Well, from what I heard, the planes got shot down.
We couldn’t fight Grads and mortar fire with ancient assault rifles and vehicles.
BBC: How many people did you lose during these months?
Ukrainian soldiers tried to leave positions together.
Ihor: I can’t tell – we were scattered. I believe we lost about 30 percent killed or seriously wounded. We called our guys in hospitals – they were overflowing. All the surrounding hospitals that could offer any help were overloaded.
BBC: Where were those hospitals?
Ihor: Dnipropetrovsk, other cities. We tried to send people further away…
BBC: How did you do it when you were surrounded?
Ihor: Recently it was through Russian territory mostly. There were no other possibilities because they shot the convoys – even those with the wounded. They shot everything that moved,
BBC: How do you hope to go back to Ukraine?
Ihor: Some of the guys have already left. We are waiting now. They promised to send us to Ukraine tomorrow.
BBC: What to you think will the Ukrainian government’s attitude to this be?
Ihor: To what? That we did not surrender! We just got a corridor to withdraw.
BBC: But you also left your weapons.
Ihor: We did not leave our weapons, we destroyed them. We acted according to the situation at hand. I believe human life is worth more than a piece of metal, isn’t it?
Should we have left the guys to be destroyed by artillery? We also did know there were about 10 tanks and four or six IFVs around Chervonopartyzansk. Leaving infantry with assault rifles there would be stupid, hopeless, and, should I say, careless.
BBC: Didn’t you have vehicles of your own?
Ihor: We used to, in the beginning.
BBC: Did you lose all of it?
BBC: What kind of vehicles?
Igor: IFVs made back in the 80’s. Vehicles tend to break. They also burned them down. They had stuff like anti-tank guided missiles – I wonder where they got them…
“I Doubt Someone Else Will Go”
BBC: The Ukrainian side has said tha part of your men escaped the encirclement through Ukrainian territory. What do you know about that?
Ihor: Rumors, mostly, no reliable information, but I’ve heard some men could make it through in the night. I don’t know how many. If we had vehicles in fighting condition, we would all break through, no one wouldn’t leave destroying the weapons. But we just didn’t have anything to load the men on. The vehicles were either damaged or just had no fuel. And carrying people up there on the armor plates means more casualties.
I know some of the vehicles that tried to break through got shot. I don’t know about the casualties.
BBC: Is anyone still left encircled on that side of the border?
Ihor: I don’t know. We tried to take everyone whose location we knew. We tried to leave together.
BBC: What do you think will they do to you when you’re back? Will you be court-martialed? Or drafted again?
Ihor: Maybe. But I doubt anyone will go back to the war voluntarily. Because we’ve seen what supply looked like: people didn’t wash for two or three weeks, drank water from a lake, tried to wash with rainwater, and I won’t even mention food… I doubt anyone will go there with such an attitude.
Most of the people drafted at first stage didn’t pass the medical assessment – no one was interested whether a person was ready for service or not… Most people – including me – were drafted for 10-day exercises.
BBC: Where did you work before the war?
Ihor: In an American company. We were doing maintenance. Nominally I’m still working there.
BBC: Who do you think will win?
Ihor: I wish common sense would win. This is a useless war no one needs.
BBC: This are broad words. How will the conflict end?
Igor: I don’t know. I only wish that people like me will stop being killed.
Source: BBC Russia
Translated by Kirill Mikhailov, edited by Myron Spolsky