September 7, 2014
Dear Petro Oleksiyovych,
Good evening. Pardon me for my approach. It’s not as if I don’t know the rules of Ukrainian grammar on how to address a person, but I simply wish to speak with you informally.
Where I am now, a battle has only recently ceased. The enemy bombarded our position intensively, here in the village of Pisky, near Donetsk. They fired everything imaginable. Our battalion “OUN” has been defending the front lines from this location for the past three weeks.
One day here is the same as the next. The shelling regularly begins at about 17:00 hours and continues until 24:00 hours. The hit us with artillery, mortars, and all manner of small arms fire. At other times of the day we are stalked by snipers and subjected to random volleys of ordnance such as mortars. But let’s think nothing of it, Petro Oleksiyovych. We are holding our own. That’s war. Slowly we are growing accustomed to it. Life goes on. We realize that this war will be a long war.
Now, about the ceasefire, I must say that from what I can tell, the other side knows nothing about it. That’s the way they are. When a bombardment ends the silence is over-whelming. It is a bitter and harsh silence, silence like a scalpel. If you listen closely, it’s as if God himself is tearing the world as we know it in half, separating his children from the children of the devil, after having separated their souls from their bodies. The devil must be with those people; they have no soul.
Our soldiers find rest in trenches. “Dolyna” stores his cigarettes in his gloves; “Yurist” crawls into the fox hole in order to catch a few hours of sleep, cradling his rifle the way he used to embrace his wife. “Skyba” has to change his sweat-soaked shirt after the battle, while “Bilyi” appears to be praying, from what I can tell.
We won’t disturb them. They are listening to the silence, and every one of them, other than the sentinels, are hoping to fall asleep. Petro Oleksiyovych, you’d never believe how good it is to fall asleep in a slit trench after surviving a battle. This earth is our land, reassuring, and warm, and soft, just like one remembers of baba’s comforters back in the village life of our childhood.
This is our homeland. We are one with it. When we are in these trenches we could stay underground forever if events turn out that way. Truth be told, however, each of us would appreciate another chance to emerge from them, if only for one more time. Today our combatants did everything possible within their abilities, and they more than earned this rest under the protection of our native land. They have survived, and have defended the front lines. They are true heroes.
Petro Oleksiyovych, you might wonder why I am writing to you for a second time, neglecting other more important things, but my men are the ones who really do the work. After our video address to you a week ago, when we asked our government to supply us with weapons, my men told me, ‘write to him. Write to him on behalf of all of us. He is our President. He will listen to you and send assistance.’ I asked them, ‘why do you suppose Petro Oleskiyovych will listen to me? He does not know me; we are not acquaintances.’
‘But you know him.’
‘OK. I know him, in the same way we all know the leader of our country. He is our President.’
‘Is it possible that the leader of the country, whether the President or some other government functionary, does not know who the country’s poets are? If a government representative does not know our poets, then we don’t need any foreign Khuilo, we have enough of our own. (This term, Khuilo, is the one they themselves used, so I ask that you forgive them for it; it really is the most appropriate description, given the circumstances.)
‘How many poets does the country have?’
‘Two, maybe three hundred.’
‘There you have it,’ they say, ‘it takes a thousand, or maybe several thousand other activists, political or otherwise, to equal one poet. Those in government simply must know their country’s poets.’
Further, activists come and go, but a poet is remembered in life and in death, always remaining with his nation. In a word, my men were very convincing.
I can honestly say, Petro Oleksiyovych, that if possible, I would be a poet for the rest of my life. Now, however, because of this war, everything is turning out differently.
The options are very clear: one is either born a man, or not born at all. What I mean is that if you are born a real man, then in the event that a war comes to your country, you will be ready and willing to defend her or to die for her, as the case may be. You will not wait for someone to summon you, or demand terms and conditions, a verbal or written contract.
We are the same age, you and I, Petro Oleksiyovych. We are both 49 years old. Now, at our age, who could possibly tell us how we ought to defend our homeland? For your part, you are defending Ukraine as best you can, and we are grateful. As for me, simply put, I approached the active forces, but was turned away. I came to the volunteer battalion, Azov, and they accepted me.
Then the occasion presented itself for the establishment of one more battalion. Imagine that! We were able to send to the battlefield an additional five hundred volunteer combatants. It would have been a shame to let the opportunity pass. A commanding officer was easily found in the person of Mykola Kokhanivskyi, an incredible man.
We approached (Valerii) Heletyi (Minister of Defence) and he said ‘no’; then we went to (Arsen) Avakov (Minister of Internal Affairs), and he likewise said ‘no’. I have personally known some other ministers for quite a long time, including Serhii Kvit and Zhenia, I mean Yevhen Nischuk. Unfortunately, neither the Minister of Culture nor the Minister of Education had the authority to grant official status to our formation as a volunteer battalion, or to put weapons in our hands. And the ministers you have for armed forces are rather strange boys.
But do I, Borys Humeniuk, really need someone’s blessing or permission? So we gathered together ordinary hunting rifles and proceeded east. Very quickly we came to an understanding with the army stationed there, and were given our own section of the front lines. The rest is predictable: one battle nets us enemy weapons we can use; there are more “trophies” from the next battle; our spoils of war increase with the third battle.
When these guys flee the battlefield, they leave all their heavy equipment behind. Not only the machine guns, and the RPGs, and the boxes of ammunition but also their wounded and their dead. We provide medical care to their wounded, and return their dead to the earth, but their machine guns and grenade launchers become our armaments. Our battalion constantly experiences a dearth of rifles, so when we find some, we definitely keep them.
It is precisely the question of small arms, dear Petro Oleksiyovych, that is the reason for writing to you now, and the source of other difficulties. We depend on the Ukrainian nation, volunteers from all over the country, to provide us with food and clothing. In the meantime, it is the separatists, our enemies, who provide us with weapons once they are defeated. It is our hope that the Ukrainian government, the same government we are defending, will consider our needs and provide us with the weapons we so desperately need.
Dear Petro Oleksiyovych! We are not asking for salaries or for official recognition as combatants. Our request is for 300-400 automatic rifles.
I promise that you will be hearing a great deal about the exploits of our battalion, but this will be the last time we will bother you.
(A story is told about an old woman who had come to the Maidan, but was too poor to buy a flag, so she knit one from yellow and blue yarn. This same woman has now made the decision to mortgage her home, one can say her very life savings, in order to obtain a loan with which to make a donation to those at the front. My own efforts pale in comparison to what she has done. See the quality of people, Petro Oleksiyevych, who make up our nation! It is a great joy and honour to risk my life on the battlefield for person like her and a people like this.)
P.S. It has been over 20 years since my last book of poetry, but this war has inspired me to write once more. These are now words steeped in blood. Some friends have published these poems in a new book which will be launched at a book fair in Lviv. My brothers in arms have made it possible for me to travel there. I would like to take this opportunity to invite you to the Lviv Publishers’ Forum. All the best Ukrainian poets will be in one place. You will have lots to speak with them about.
Borys Humeniuk, author
Deputy Commander, Battalion OUN
Source: Video: Звернення бійців батальйону «ОУН» до Президента України, Translated by Jeffrey Stephaniuk