Article by: Valeriya Burlakova
She was still a law student when she first travelled as a volunteer to the Anti-Terrorist Operation zone in 2016. She surprised everyone, including herself, when she signed a contract to serve in the military.
In her interview, this young woman, nom de guerre “Perlynka” (Little Pearl), describes watching aircraft landing with their cargo of wounded soldiers, a request from soldiers to bring a smoothie blender and exercise weights to the front, as well as recollections about casualties, her first encounter with battle, and arguments with individuals now that she has returned back home.
How did you become a volunteer?
It all began during the Revolution of Dignity. I wasn’t there on a regular basis, and I suppose that to make up for the guilt I felt not being with all those people at the Maidan continually, I slowly began to collect warm clothing, which would then be sent to Kyiv.
When the war began, I would search for information, from television, or Facebook, because I knew that our men were being killed… But the war really hit home for me personally when a member of my extended family lost a foot in combat. Then there was the incident when men of our Rivne battalion were taken prisoners of war. I remember watching on television the parade of captured soldiers they had in Donetsk. My mom looked at the line of prisoners and recognized a good friend of hers from a neighbouring village. There was our close countryman.
I was a student in Kharkiv at this time. It was 2014. Our semester was underway. One of Kharkiv’s major airports was just across the road from us. There were all these airplanes landing, one after the other, carrying wounded soldiers. Our lectures were often held on the top floor of our building. We had a clear view across to the airport and could see the line of vehicles departing for the hospital. I could tell the casualties weren’t counted by one or two, but by the tens and dozens… In the springtime the same scenario unfolded: airplane after airplane landed there.
Truthfully, I didn’t have any idea what I should be doing, how I could help, even how to begin organizing a project. I remember my first attempt in November 2014, when I collected money at our law academy. We collected some money. I went to the Barabashovo department store and bought mitts, hats, a few pair of pants… Around that time my friends who were volunteers were planning a trip to the front lines in eastern Ukraine, so I passed along everything I bought with them. Later, it was with these same volunteers that I would make my first excursion out east to our soldiers.
What were your thoughts just before you left?
I clearly remember my first mission to the war zone, I couldn’t sleep the entire night before we left…
My thoughts were about what I needed to do to stay alive, and also not to cause problems for others, not to make their lives harder. “There can’t possibly be shooting where I am going?” I thought. “But what will I do if I am caught in a volley of fire? How do you fall down properly? Where would I find cover? Maybe I should read up on these things…” I felt a lot of stress because of the uncertainty of where I was heading.
And what was your destination then?
I was going to the ATO headquarters, located at that time in Kramatorsk. That is where our Rivne battalion, “Horyn” was deployed as security for headquarters. They were also providing support for various combat units. It was at Kramatorsk that I became acquainted with fighters who had recently been prisoners of war. They left a powerful impression on me. It was such an eye-opener to reality that I went home with a new motivation to gather together as much help as I could for them…
You were only twenty years old at this time. Did your parents know that you were on these missions to the war zone?
My mom knew all about these volunteer trips. She didn’t know about other things, like that I was missing lectures and going to the front lines for three and four days at a time. I would make meals for them, do cleaning, give haircuts for the men. I began to ask them to teach me how to fire a weapon, how to take them apart and put them back together again, and how to clean them. I would do that for them after they returned from assignments. I helped everyone in any way I could. I wanted to be involved with everything they did…
Which units did you bond with the most at this time?
First and foremost, it was with “Horyn”. This battalion was bursting at the seams with volunteer fighters, and there was only one rank, because the premise was that they were a brotherhood. Then later with the 30th brigade.
My fellow countrymen would often approach me for assistance. I would send something to someone, and everywhere my circle of contacts was increasing… That’s how I became close with the 130th reconnaissance battalion; then it was with the 54th independent mechanized brigade, and the 92nd independent mechanized brigade, which was deployed at that time at the power generating station in Schastia.
What kind of items would you take there?
Everything. Binoculars, auto parts, uniforms, blankets, food. And even water. I remember how much easier it became when it was no longer necessary to transport water to the front. On one occasion, men who were deployed far away had a request to bring them exercise weights. They were using wooden logs as weights, which was less than ideal… And once I bought a food blender for them. That time it was for Aidar. They kept themselves busy with sports and drank protein shakes. Hence the request for a blender to make their smoothies. That was for an outpost near Dokuchaievsk.
What do remember of the first casualties, were they known to you, and not just statistics on the news?
I had just left from home at the time, and during that trip out east I spoke with the men by phone. The next day, when I was nearly there, I called them again, but this time no one answered. I tried phoning the commander. It turned out that he’d been killed. I phoned others, and they answered. “We’ve had a tragedy here,” they said. But they wouldn’t be more specific. When I finally arrived at my destination, I learned that there had been a pre-dawn attack by an enemy patrol. They killed three of our men and took two more as prisoners. On other missions, I would do my best to cheer everyone up. But this time, you get there and it’s clear to you that you’re not going to pick up anyone’s spirits, because you yourself are now depressed. Everyone is walking around gloomy as rain clouds, the spark has been extinguished within them. And there’s nothing you can do…
There’s another incident that until now I haven’t ever mentioned. It is about a young man I met by chance when we took the same bus on the Lviv-Kyiv route. He went by the name Yakudza. He was originally from Chernihiv, and his unit was deployed at Avdiivka. We had a really good conversation, and as often happens, quickly realized we knew many of the same people who were at the front. Some time later he phoned me to ask if I could bring a pair of tactical headphones for an acquaintance of his as well as camouflage coveralls. I spoke with him once after I had already left on the trip to see him, and he mentioned that in the morning he would be waiting for me. But in the morning, I was unable to contact Yakudza; his phone wasn’t working. I remembered that I had a cell phone number for his brother-in-arms, Poliak. He answers and says that Yakudza is gone. A sniper got him… I continued on my way to Avdiivka nonetheless and gave everything I brought to his fellow soldiers. “He requested all this for himself and for you…” I’m pretty sure that was the 13th battalion, “Chernihiv.”
…There was also one time when were escorting the body of a dead soldier, intending to entrust him to his parents. That’s one incident I’ll never forget. I remember going to get his coffin. And how his brothers-in-arms said farewell to him at Krasnohorivtsi. I can still imagine the highway we travelled. And how his father came up to meet us…
In the summer of 2016 you arrived at the Svitlodarsk Bulge for what had been intended to be a short stay, but then you stayed for a long time. You came as a guest but were also prepared to make a commitment to remain at the front. Or was that a spontaneous decision?
Honestly, my mission then was on behalf of doctors who had said that a soldier was diagnosed with encephalopathy, (damage to the brain that affected the functioning of his body, possibly caused by repeated craniocerebral trauma- ed.) I imagined that I would give him some medicine, bring his symptoms under control… to stay awhile as their guest and to lend a helping hand!
I soon realized that I would contribute more if I were to take my turn at various posts as a soldier than I would just bringing them something to eat. It was at that moment that I clearly realized that I should stay with them…
When you were stationed with your first brigade, the 54th separate mechanized, you managed to learn a lot of skills in a short period of time… Was that difficult?
You mention it, and I probably did that job for a while: political education officer, nurse, rifleman, cook, and radio operator… Which made me realize that the army has taught me that there are never situations in one’s life that are too much for us to handle. There is no such thing as the impossible. The main thing is that no matter what work I was doing, I was always needed. There was always work to be done. And what was great about it was that I could learn to do it. What this all meant was that in a small way, I was doing something at that time to bring us closer to victory… Or another way of looking it is to say that I made it possible for someone else to take it a little easier, to work a little bit less.
You were there when there were a lot of casualties. Mif (Vasyl Slipak-ed.) was killed, and Rozpysny (Vlad Kazarin-ed.), then the men who were killed in December… You learned to cope with all that?
Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think I did ever learn how to cope with the losses. I might have reached a point where I “programmed” myself to say that this is a war, and people die in wars, and that I, too, might be killed, or those who are with me. But each and every time it’s damn hard.
No matter what happens, you must conduct yourself in such a manner that you give the appearance that everything is fine. Maybe being cynical will help us survive… You need to keep yourself together, because if you let yourself go, it is easy to have a negative effect on the morale of others. It is simply not possible to throw up your hands and give up or become apathetic and stop working all together. So long as you are with your brothers-in-arms you keep yourself together… The tears and the weeping will come later. For me it was after I returned home from the war. I’d be sitting there, thinking about everyone, and the intense grieving would start.
There came a time when you were with the 46th battalion, and you learned the skills to be an aerial reconnaissance operator…
Not right away. At first I was given the job of firing grenades. Then I was with the medical staff. I was paralyzed by fear over that job. There is an internet meme where someone says to the medic, “It’s really good that we have you as a medic!” He thinks about that and says, “I only know how to cure diarrhea, nothing else.” I was so worried that this would be me, only knowing how to treat one problem. Or that I would be incompetent and someone would be harmed because of me. As it turned out, thank God, I was fine. I consulted with the doctors, and no one suffered because of me…
A group of volunteers brought us a “bird.” Another soldier planned on operating the drone, but he had no luck with it. I thought, here’s such a great tool that could be used, it is just sitting around. There’s no reason we shouldn’t get it to work… The first thing I did was to phone Masha Berlinska, and she gave me a good tutorial. I turned on the power to the controller, and the power to the drone, hoping to solve the problem of why others couldn’t get it to move from right to left… I took it apart, refit it, learned about it from video searches, took notes… until I was ready for the first test flight.
I remember the first combat flight very well. The instructions stated that you are never to fly over water, and here I was needing to fly over the Kalmius River. I kept thinking, it’s going to crash, its going to crash!…
It’s at just such a moment, when you temporarily lose the signal, and the drone is being fired upon, and you’re making maneuvers, that you find yourself holding the controller and praying that the drone flies back to you.
You must really have a feeling that the drone belongs to you?
Yes… With it you can see footprints in the winter snow, and you can determine where the enemy is walking, follow their path… You can pinpoint their weapons, the location of their military equipment. And it is the “birdie” that is gathering all this intelligence, not a soldier who has taken a risk to go forward and learn this information. It’s incredible. When I am flying the drone, I know that I am saving someone’s life.
In my opinion, these drones should be standard issue military materiel. They should be able to log flights (even if it something like at 200 metres high if that is what’s needed) in order to get a clear picture of everything. This is work for drones, not human beings, who have to stick their heads up above the safety of the trench. It is impossible to buy a human being, but we can buy these machines, for a thousand dollars, or fifteen hundred dollars…
Recently you were released from the army, made necessary after the death of your father. This is understandably an intense and stressful time in your life. Sometimes, though, the lose of a close family member forces a change of perspective, a change of one’s worldview… What bothers you the most now that you are back here?
That people really have no idea the price that is currently being paid by the entire country of Ukraine so that everything here can be so orderly and happy. No one here understands me. The majority of my friends from before the war look at me as if I were crazy, that somehow I had grandiose fantasies of heroism and that’s the reason I went to war.
I sometimes get the impression that the sooner more of us are killed, the easier it will be for everyone else. Once I was visiting a military hospital, and one of the older Afghan vets said to me: “When there were no ATO veterans, my medicine was free. But now I must pay for them out of my own pocket, because it is needed for the seriously wounded, for the ATO vets…”
On the other hand, what encourages you the most?
That children are being born into this world. It’s remarkable, and it means that life continues. It’s a great motivator to want to do something, to contribute something.
On another occasion when I was at a hospital, I visited with veterans in wheel chairs… It was refreshing for me to see their spirit, that they are trying everything in their power to walk again. I know their attitude applies to all of us, that we must return to life, and make the effort to live. Simply to live.
But I won’t say that I’ll never return to the army, that I’ll remain here where it’s peaceful. I know that in fact there is much more work to be done here, however… It never fails that when you return for a short visit, someone will always say, “It’s fantastic what great work you were doing there!” Unfortunately, if you ask a few questions, you soon realize that the majority here are just making noise when they speak, and they know very little about what is happening at the front lines. They live quiet lives, in peace, and are not stressed out about what goes on in the East.
What do people who knew you before the war say about you now? Have you really changed a lot?
Even my sisters tell me that there was a time when I was much more feminine. My older sister says that now when I speak, I sound like “one of the guys.”
I find that now I don’t try to avoid conflict. Sometimes I get testy with people. It may seem comical when a small girl picks a fight with grown men, but I don’t care. What’s important for me is that my actions bear results. Or said another way, that if I argue with someone I am able to stop them from some unjust action…
In one incident, they were playing Soviet era music in an establishment. I went up to the owners and the musicians and complained. I even took to the microphone. I said, all of you here are taking it easy, having a great time, and while you are listening to Russian music, our men are military prisoners in Moscow. Surely there is enough of a choice of Ukrainian and international music (and not Russian), that would suit any festive occasion without having to listen to this “And I will drive away in a convertible” genre of music.
Compared to me now, there was a time when I was very tolerant, very reserved. What will come of all these changes within me? I’m not sure. I do know, though, that we have no right to give up, that all these losses must not be in vain. There’s so much we can do in their memory.
What are your plans for the near future?
I was asked this same question recently by an acquaintance. My answer to him was that so long as I am not at the front lines, my plan is to live. I want to live. I want to make the kind of contribution to the world that will be really worthwhile. I want to start a family. I want to raise the same kind of patriots of which our country has lost so very many.