The war in Ukraine. “Little green men” (aka unmarked Russian soldiers) entered the Crimean peninsula at the end of February 2014. In spring of the same year, Russian troops moved into the Donbas, taking over the main administrations and setting up two puppet states – the “DNR” and “LNR”. Despite political negotiations, agreements and truces, the war has not ceased and has penetrated the life of each Ukrainian. Western media have tired of reporting on these battles as daily combats are bland and boring, not spectacular… and this “hybrid conflict” is just too difficult to understand. The war in eastern Ukraine is entering its third year, men are dying, many are maimed or severely injured, others are traumatized for life. Here is but a small chapter of individual lives – soldiers and their personal hopes and fears: of death, of never seeing their family, of the camaraderie, despair – and evil – of war.
Andriy is 37 years old, from Kyiv. He has a 16-year-old daughter. Before the war, Andriy worked as a construction worker with a group of friends, building and repairing roofs.
On July 15, 2015, Andriy joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine as a volunteer. After two month’s military training, he was assigned to the 54th Separate Reconnaissance Battalion, an elite and combat-ready unit specializing in difficult and dangerous war missions.
“I wanted to defend my country. I needed to respect myself in this critical period of Ukraine’s history.”
Andriy was sent to the war zone on September 25, 2015 where he participated in reconnaissance missions along the front perimeter – in Zolote (Luhansk Oblast) and Zaytseve, Shyrokyne, Hnutove (Donetsk Oblast). As members of a reconnaissance unit, the fighters were not allowed to communicate with the few locals that remain in the occupied territories, but Andriy says that people are suspicious and very frightened. Everything is in ruins, factories and homes are completely destroyed, the countryside is devastated…
“We have a distinctive sign that identifies us as reconnaissance fighters. Our only fear was of falling into the hands of those “separatists”. They were merciless with intelligence officers. Some of our comrades were tortured and severely beaten…”
During a mission near Mariupol mid-March 2016, Andriy and his unit of four men hit a mine. One of his friends died instantly, two were unscathed; fragments penetrated Andriy’s left arm and lungs, lodging in the spinal column. He was immediately evacuated to Mariupol Hospital where he underwent major surgery. Then he was transported to Dnipropetrovsk Hospital, followed by Kyiv Hospital where he was admitted to the intensive care unit. His lungs were treated, all fragments were removed from his body. He was finally transported to the Lviv Military Hospital on April 22, 2016 where he will follow rehabilitation therapy for his legs. Andriy is in a wheelchair….
“I can’t imagine spending the rest of my life like this! I will walk! The doctors are hopeful and I have great faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ… I’m in touch with my comrades on the front lines; they call me regularly to inform me of ongoing events and inquire about my health.”
“Something has changed in our country… small, but significant changes. Before the war, people were apathetic and quite selfish, suspicious of everyone and everything. Now, I’m surprised to see that many ordinary citizens are so totally involved in the war effort. A special thanks to volunteers and doctors… The war will end by New Year’s, that’s what I think. They’ve stolen everything, there’s nothing more to loot. Russia can’t support them forever. The so-called “DNR” and “LNR” will be hybrid criminal states on our border, so we must have a strong army posted there…”
25-year-old Vadym, call name “Elektryk”, hails from Berdychiv, Zhytomyrska Oblast where he lives with his mother and younger brother (9 yrs). Before the Revolution of Dignity, he worked as a security guard in his native region. When the Maidan movement started in November 2013, Vadym traveled every weekend to Kyiv and took an active part in protests and rallies. In summer 2014, when Russian troops invaded the Donbas, he bid goodbye to his family, underwent one month’s military training and was assigned to the 128th Mountain-Assault Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
In the fall of 2014, Vadym and his comrades were sent to Debaltseve, where they were stationed until February 2015.
On February 11, 2015, the town was heavily shelled by Grads. The Ukrainian soldiers had no cover and lay completely exposed on the ground. Vadym was hit, felt searing pain in his head, legs and spine as fragments penetrated his body. He was quickly evacuated, given first aid, but the shelling continued… seven comrades died in a vehicle nearby. The Ukrainian troops were forced to withdraw from the Debaltseve hellhole on February 18.
Vadym was taken to Artemivsk, then Kharkiv where he underwent several operations; doctors operated on his skull for four hours, removing shrapnel. Thanks to volunteers and NATO funding, Vadym was transported to Budapest, where a polymer plate was inserted into his head. Unfortunately, nothing could be done for his legs. Even though Vadym was protected by a bulletproof vest, the blow to his spinal column was so great that it damaged the nervous system, causing extreme pain and severe limping.
Vadym has been in rehabilitation therapy at the Lviv Military Hospital since February 2016 and is full of praise for the doctors, medical staff and volunteers. Why did he go to war?
“I want to live in a free country. I don’t want some foreign authority dictating what I can or cannot do. I refuse to live in the “Russkiy Mir” (Russian World). I will get well, and if need be, I’ll return to the front lines. My brothers are still there, stationed in Shyrokyne, Pisky and Avdiyivka… they’re in good spirits.”
“Yes, we saw Russian troops and many Chechens. The Russians are very well trained, real professionals. But, they stay well behind the front lines and send local “separatists” forward… cannon fodder, you know what I mean. We captured two young men, not more than 17 or 18… They were scared, crying that they’d been coerced and didn’t know what this was all about. We also ran into squadrons of Kuban Cossacks.”
“My dream is to live peacefully in a free country, help my Mom and my little brother.”
33-year-old Roman comes from Lozove (Khmelnytska Oblast). I spoke with his father Mykola (55 yrs) as Roman is in a severe state of shock; he understands very little, can utter only a few words, needs constant care and surveillance. Mykola is constantly at his side, sleeps on a small couch in the corner, feeds his son and tends to his daily needs.
There are two other young men in the family – Maksym (22 yrs) who’s been serving for one year and four months and is currently stationed in Popasna; he’ll be demobilized in the coming weeks… and Lionya (32 yrs) who’s been in the army for 10 months, serving as a deminer.
Before the beginning of the war, Roman worked in construction and the police, Lionya was a woodworker with his father and Maksym was with the Khmelnytsky “Bohdan” Special Forces.
Roman served as sergeant in the fire support squadron in Bilovodsk, Luhansk Oblast (60 km from the Russian border) from April 24, 2015. He was severely beaten by his own own comrades in January – the circumstances and guilty parties are as yet unknown. The case is being investigated and in the hands of Lviv lawyers.
Roman has been in hospital since January 15, 2016 (first in Severo-Donetsk, then Kharkiv, Kyiv and finally in Lviv as of April 20. He fell into a coma three times and spent two months in an intensive care unit. He is now awaiting a major operation whereby a titanium plate will be inserted to replace part of his crushed skull.
Father Mykola, an Afghan veteran, also wanted to join the army, but was refused because of his age. A recruitment officer told him: “Don’t be in a hurry. If they come here, we’ll all have to go and fight!”
“Our children – all of them – are defending our country, they’re protecting you and me, all of us. None of my sons refused to go and serve. They fought and are still fighting those Russian mercenaries who have no right to be on our land! It’s their duty and I fully support them.”
“I do not seek revenge… I only want the truth and I will get it! I cannot give up, I must save my son and help him recover from this terrible beating. I know that the truth will prevail and goodness, honesty and kindness will conquer evil.”
“I thank the doctors and medical staff for without them, my son might have died…. Wonderful people! And, I humbly kiss the feet of all the volunteers who have helped Roman and my family.”
War brings out the best and worst in men…
All photos courtesy of Juan Mora. Juan Mora is a photographer and volunteer with Con Ucrania. He is currently based in Lviv.