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Interview with a ‘Cyborg’: “Ukraine above all else”

Interview with a ‘Cyborg’: “Ukraine above all else”
Article by: Roman Malko
Translated by: Jeffrey Stephaniuk
Edited by: Lisa Spencer, Mat Babiak

Ukraine above all else

In the words of the “Cyborgs”: “I hope the war does not change me.”

A chance meeting:

“It’s essential to have a shovel when at war, indispensable,” says Hatylo, jokingly. He is one of those men the terrorists refer to as the Cyborgs of the Donetsk airport. He knows of what he speaks, having had numerous occasions to learn that the safest way to see the enemy is through night vision goggles or the scope of a gun. He is a volunteer soldier with the 5th Battalion of the Volunteer Ukrainian Corps, (DUK), an officer with Pravyi Sektor. He says that sometimes, in the absence of the commanding officer, as the commander of the reserve corps, he has been placed in charge of the screening and training of the volunteers. However, while at the front, he’d rather be known as “just another ordinary fighter.”

“We look at authority as a punishment, since you are no longer responsible only for yourself, but also for numerous other soldiers, feeding them, clothing them, securing arms for them, and in general being in charge of everything.” In peacetime, Hatylo was a martial arts sports trainer. He trained young men and also cared for orphan children, organizing camps for them in the Carpathian mountains where they have been building their own sich [fort or encampment]. When he was passing through Kyiv recently, we had the chance to meet together at a military supply store. He was there to pick up supplies that they had ordered earlier. Soon he would be returning to the front lines.

On the silence one experiences when a battle comes to an end

There’s this feeling of pressure, a powerful anxiety. The Hutsuls have a saying, that it is good to go into the mountains when it is raining, because there is a chance that the rain might stop. When you venture out in good weather, it might turn into rain. What that means here is, the moments of silence simply mean that an artillery barrage might start at any time.

Why he went to war

It could not have been otherwise. That’s where everyone is, so he went, too. It’s not so much to kill or die in battle for Ukraine, but more because he could not consider himself to be a man if he had stayed home. One of his brothers-in-arms from Luhansk oblast, with a common Russian last name, I won’t say who he is, but a very common name, stated very simply that he was ashamed to stand by and just watch while men from Western Ukraine were doing all the fighting for his land, for his country. “I had first gone after some young men I had trained and taught, men just like me in every way, men who began dying. Orest Kvach was one of them, and his death became for me a point of no return. I understood that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t go. It was a decisive moment, and so I got organized and went. Just as they who died before me, the ones who are no longer with us…

“I vowed to be the best and most effective volunteer soldier and instructor possible. War is truly a very complicated phenomenon. Those at the front depend on help from those behind the lines. The most effective people now are not necessarily the riflemen, or even the mechanics repairing the equipment. It must be stated that the soldiers at the front are the greatest of heroes. Definitely. It’s just that if it weren’t for the individuals behind the lines, it would not be possible to sustain the efforts of those at the front. They would lack food, armaments, everything. The point to remember is that everyone has something to contribute, good people doing good works, anyone who is not indifferent.”

Weapons and uniforms

“The weapons were purchased a little earlier. Our genius Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko once wrote that even “God kept handy an ax near the doors.” In light of all these recent events… Of course, I bought supplies, but once I get them to where they are needed, we’ll see… In general, the more fashionable the volunteers are dressed, the sooner they either desert or get killed. Guaranteed. Kotliarevskyi said it well, and his words are very appropriate for our times, “the enemy has no chance when we fight out of love for one’s homeland; the heart is stronger than the gun.” It goes without saying that weapons and protective vests are essential for defense, but they pale in comparison to the defense that comes with having the proper spirit and character.  If you are well-prepared, these are your best defenses and your most important opportunities. It is this preparation for the worst, for the most difficult of times that will be your best help. The right equipment may or may not be at hand, but that is of secondary importance; important, but secondary.

“It’s true that I bought everything with my own money, though not entirely mine, since it was never really mine to begin with. Actually, several friends heard about my plans and they came forward with the money. When I was in Ternopil, I did my shopping and then the owner came and said, “You can keep your money.” I told him I couldn’t just not pay, but he had a very simple response: “Why should you be embarrassed? I am ashamed for not being the one going. This is my way of helping.” Such incidents have occurred more than once. But here have been other times when even the bullets have been purchased with private funds. Ironic. At first the members of the Volunteer Corps would buy shells and transport them to the front, only to have the army and others steal them with the intent of bringing them back behind the lines. That’s the paradox we faced. We don’t have that problem any more, it being settled after we began fighting alongside the army. We don’t lack anything now for all intents and purposes, except for rifles, which the government still does not want to supply. Such weapons cannot legally be obtained otherwise. So we rely on captured weapons. The army helps us get them. After a battle we confiscate the weapons from the separatists. The machine gun I use, for example, came from a dead separatist from Luhansk. I use it and it works fine.

On the cost of bullets

It varies. The cheapest would be around seven hryvnia each, although now they are around 15 hryvnia each.

Who is the one making money from these sales….

Low-life. Bandits. Criminal-minded individuals. Some people value war more than they do their own family. It’s not very encouraging to realize who benefits from this market once you look into it. Foreigners are also involved.

War changes you

I’m not sure yet. I don’t want it to change me. The late Andrii Yurkevych, Hrysli, wrote about this in one of his posts. Any chance he had he would write about what was happening and post it to the internet, keeping in touch that way with the volunteers. He was of the opinion that war does not change a person, but does intensify the traits for which a person is known. If a person is fundamentally a bad person, then war makes him ten times worst. If a person is a good man, it is that goodness that is seen even more. As for myself, I don’t think any characteristic of brutality has emerged from within me. If I see a dog, for example, I will feed it. From one point of view it might seem strange: all around us the buildings are destroyed. And yet, when the medics happened to find three bags of dog food somewhere, I don’t know where, here we are going around feeding the dogs. Their owners seem to have been well-off, but they didn’t take them with them when they left. These animals are strong and healthy, but one person shoots at them while another feeds them. Life is very simple here: if a person hates animals, he will shoot them, but if someone likes animals, even in a time of war they will take care of them.

One time someone found a parrot and brought it to me. Half the company was on a mission to learn what the bird needed, what it ate, and they looked to find it food wherever they could. Until one day a mortar exploded exactly where one of the young men was playing with the parrot. He was killed, and since the concussion from the explosion ruined the cage, the parrot flew away. Not that they were unsympathetic to the death of a human being, but in their muted acceptance of his death, they were also worried about the bird. It may sound strange, but that’s how we cope in order to avoid going insane.

I truly hope that I am not affected by this war. My awareness of my surroundings is definitely heightened. For example, if I’m driving and I see a water tower, I think that from that height an observer might be there sending my coordinates back to someone who will open fire on me. Or, I’ll be driving along, and if I see something burning in the distance, like stubble on a field after harvest, I’ll start assessing the quality of the smoke to determine if they’ve just fired a volley of grads or mortars. I’m sure I’ll recover from this trauma. I am worried about what the future holds for all those soldiers who have had the experience of hell from defending the airport, who have suffered concussions, and what kinds of problems they will have later, even if they survive. War is such a terrible thing.  So many human experiences are intensified. Friendships are incredibly strengthened. In civilian life, you might not do what you said you would for a friend; you might be late for a meeting or not show up at all. But after this experience of war, all that changes because your life has depended on others being there for you when you were risking your life for them and they were risking theirs for you. We follow that Christian principle, “there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Back in civilian life, when those who haven’t shared that same experience don’t do something very simple that they said they would, it bothers a veteran.

Another example is what you start worrying about when away from home. And it’s often just the ordinary things. One time at the front I started obsessing over my garden back at home, and how I needed to take care of it. I hadn’t cleaned it up properly for 5 years before that, but suddenly I felt bad for not taking care of it.

The ceasefire

I really wonder what those who came up with the ceasefire actually think it is supposed to be. The East is full of criminal groups that are constantly fighting us. They call themselves LNR and DNR, but they are not anywhere near a unified structure. Even among our military, we don’t have a coordinated system of intelligence-gathering or communications structures. The general staff issue some idiotic order and expect it to be communicated. Compare that to the LNR and the DNR. It is ruled by various criminal clans, and who knows who else. Who has ever really spoken with them as a group? Who has thought of asking them if they want a real ceasefire, if they honestly support it or consider it to be a necessity? I know it is not needed for their plans. What they really need is what our government is giving them: that our army stop shooting at them. We now have a situation where our side has stopped shooting, but their side continues to shoot. And this is what is called a ceasefire. The ceasefire was declared on September 5th. Since then, right in front of me, one friend became a cripple and another perished. That’s just the beginning. As soon as a “peace” is announced, I know it means to expect casualties. So you can understand why we are skeptical about the ceasefire. We engage in combat only by returning fire to something that they have initiated. There is no ceasefire in the true sense of the word. There is continual artillery fire, mortar attacks, and such intense grad barrages that the earth shakes. These attacks are the hallmark of your typical warfare. The word ceasefire even sounds strange to the ear, and it is definitely counter-productive.

Is it true what the president says, that we don’t have the troops or weapons to fight….

I think that we have an army that can fight, on the condition that no one exposes our plans and operations, that no one sabotages our work. We have the ability to fight. It’s true that countless pieces of weaponry are out of commission, and the air force has problems. I don’t know the exact numbers, but I know how things work around here. The fact is that the hardware exists, the people exist, but the manpower is just wasted. For example, we liberate a territory but then are ordered to retreat. Or one time a friend calls me up from Debaltsev to inform me that we have been forbidden from using artillery and tanks. But the enemy is still using both. We have been given some orders that are simply criminal in their negligence. Who is giving these orders, why, and based on what rationale? Honestly, we don’t understand any of this. We simply don’t know, and we no longer care. We have realized what we need to do, in order to defend the strategically important airport, to help our soldiers keep possession of it. We’re focusing our efforts on that.

On coordination with the army

We have very good coordination with them. We fight alongside the 93rd brigade, and have a sense of being a well-constituted fighting force, except for the absence of government support. In all areas, from rations to communications to coordination, we are doing much together. For our part, we are a great morale builder for the army. To them we seem like larger-than-life special forces, fearless, soldiers who fight well and intensely, and won’t allow anyone to get captured.

On the Cyborgs

It’s true that the separatists refer to us as “Cyborgs”. To be sure, we have a way of reassuring the regular army soldiers, and they know we will not abandon them, and that we have their backs. Consequently, they have started to fight as they’ve been trained to fight. We support each other, train together, help one another. They have the military equipment we need and we have the human presence and manpower they need. For example, our role at Pisky is in support and assistance to the combat soldiers of the 93rd. They have their own organizations and equipment; we are a complete support role. In return, they provide covering fire for us. It’s a symbiotic relationship. The same is true at the airport. The special forces and our volunteer fighters stand together, dividing the work equally. There are times when we reinforce the army. We work together, almost as if we have been seconded to their units.

It really is the case that we learn how to be better soldiers when we are with an army that we respect, an army that has professional officers and commanders. They help us improve. We have the greatest of respect for those we can fight alongside. For example, they informed the soldiers that anyone could leave if they were under too much stress, but everyone stayed where they were. By contrast, there are others with whom we cannot find common ground.

We often receive supplies brought to us by volunteers, and we always share these items with the army, especially medical supplies. We have our own medics with Pravyi Sektor, our “hospitalers”, but we don’t keep them to ourselves; ours are not only ours. Everyone belongs to everyone. The army casualties are brought to our field hospitals, and in return they help us on the battlefield. Thank God we have been able to rescue many a soldier from danger.

On the training of volunteers

When people realize how great is our need, they truly come forward to help, and to offer training. War is such a strange phenomenon. Often the specialized training is really never used, simply because you generally never see the enemy. It’s only the shells that come our way, from out of the fields, the bushes, the buildings. A person will only see the enemy on television, or through the lens of high-powered goggles.

On the reaction of local residents

If they hate us, they keep it to themselves because it would be foolish to show hatred to armed men. It is difficult in these places because it is predominantly older people who have been left behind. We help them any way we can. A large number of civilians have been injured from the shelling. Unfortunately, they they have been abandoned and there is no one to help them, no medical staff, no police, not even family, because no one dares come out there. Pisky is the absolute front line. We are there, and so we are the ones who take food for the civilians. Our volunteers bring so much food that we are happy to share it so the food doesn’t go bad. We expect nothing in return, and we take nothing in return. People treat us like people. And those who hate us, communists, for example, who hate all things Ukrainian, are people we will never change, and so we leave them alone. They have brought their own punishment upon themselves. I’m afraid those civilians will have a hard time getting through the winter. People are already gathering firewood. If a mortar destroys any type of a tree, they pull away the branches and make firewood. They also take away the wooden doors from damaged houses. We are generally speaking about older people doing this work, as well as a few families, even one with children. It’s awful, honestly, it’s terrible.

What is the situation like in those areas designated as the buffer zone?

No one really speaks about what is happening there, but in Luhansk oblast, in those villages from which our army has retreated, where the so-called buffer zone has been created, people suspected or known to have been helpful to us have already been killed. These people earlier had phoned us, panicking and asking, “What will happen to us?” We have been told that one of the Cossack officers,  one “barbarian” man, was presented on his birthday with some of our men who had been captured, and they were tortured in front of him. That was what they considered to be a birthday present. This incident has been verified, but thankfully there is no video evidence, because I for one would never want to see such a video.

On cruelty

For me this entire war has a precedent in the Holy Scriptures: fallen and sinful human nature. When a person lives for a very long time with the effects of sin, they become so rotten both internally and externally that it is possible to lose one’s humanity. Then there are no barriers to stealing, or killing, or adultery, dishonouring one’s parents. It’s one thing to say that we are all sinners, but in my opinion, the people who are currently supporting the war effort of the LNR and the DNR have crossed a line of sin and have even gone way past it. That’s how I explain the extent of their cruelty. I don’t even want to be the one to judge them; it just makes me very sad to think of all the innocent people who are suffering as a consequence.

After the liberation of the East, what are we to do with the Donbas citizens who have sympathized with the terrorists

We need to remove them. Never before in my life have I understood as clearly as I do now, a phrase I heard from my grandmother: “not every idiot got killed during the war.” I am convinced that when this long war is finally over, unfortunately not all the idiots will have been killed during the war. There will be many of them left. There are of course all sorts of incredible, wonderful people who live there, it is after all part of our country like any other part, but a majority of them are deathly ill. Ideally, in a powerful, just, united country, the best solution would be to create a type of Gaza Strip, build walls around it, relocate all the Lenin statues inside its territory, and let them enjoy these statues and their life behind these walls, but never let them leave. This might prove to be the only solution. As it is, their ideas are so widespread, it is like a bloated cancer. The fact that they began to torture and kill right away when the people began to attack its own army, and before the army even retaliated in any manner, is evidence that they are not normal. How am I supposed to relate to those residents of Donetsk who gladly associated with those Chechen rebels who came here in their military vehicles, greeting them and shouting for glory? What could such people possible be thinking? On the one hand they call themselves the “Russian Orthodox Army,” and on the other hand they hail the Islamic terrorists who go around slaughtering people. There is such a disconnect happening….

On the other hand, we cannot forget the countless normal, perfectly civilized human beings who live there. And in addition, they are ordinary people who, in principle, simply want to live. They don’t bother anyone and are neutral. They own property, orchards, gardens, and simply want to be left alone to live their lives. They are not rich, but live honestly and rightly. What about our relations with them? First, whose are they, the enemy’s or ours? They are simply people. In my opinion, our government should take an interest in them. We cannot abandon this region. On the other hand, once again there is the question of how much amnesty do they justly deserve, if at all, since they have destroyed so much? Would it be right for us to be the ones to pay [to rebuild and restore]? Like a growth that must be removed through a medical operation, it goes without saying that care must be taken in the recovery of health, unless it is too late to halt the metastasis. If we merely cut off this region from the rest of the country, if we do not try to heal, we will not be any further ahead. We’ve come too far to give up now.

What is your prognosis for Ukraine

In my estimation, events in the East are a cancer that have made Ukraine sick. Perhaps she is sick now because she hadn’t been living right. All the effort expended now on war could have been better used to teach people to love one another, to show who we really are and what we are made of. Then perhaps the war would have been avoided. In my work, the education of young men, we have individual students from central Ukraine, but also from Donbas. These young men are all Russian speakers, but they are very certain that they do not want to live in Russia, because they wouldn’t survive. The struggle of their generation is that so long as Russia exists, and so long as we are [not] separated by any kind of barrier, this cancerous growth will continue to swell.

I said at the beginning of this interview that I became a volunteer soldier because I couldn’t not become one. I’d like to add that I am absolutely convinced that there is no way I want this festering wound to spread its reach to where my family lives, to my ancestral homeland. I would rather live in a house in Donetsk while keeping these criminals at bay. Let them hide in the forests if the alternative is to have them coming to occupy my parents’ home. This is the reason I am there, and why so many other men are fighting there. So long as we are fighting for the long term, they won’t be coming after our families. Anytime we must give up one step, they are able to regain two. If the government does not understand their intentions, all that means is that the government is doomed to defeat. And even worse, they are taking our country down with them. Fortunately, they are here for a limited term, and are not here permanently.

Translated by: Jeffrey Stephaniuk
Edited by: Lisa Spencer, Mat Babiak
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