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Hearts Pierced by War

A series of interviews with people affected

There’s a war going on, one that unfortunately has been forgotten by the rest of the world. This war is not in the Middle East, nor is it in Africa, but in Europe. I am speaking about the conflict between Ukraine’s forces and Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass region. Over the past six years, there have been an estimated 41,000-44,000 casualties. According to the UN’s OHCHR/HRMMU, around 13,000 of these were fatalities; the rest were injuries of all types. Day after day military personnel and civilians die, yet these ongoing tragedies receive little to no media coverage internationally. Because of this, people have started to feel as though the world had forgotten about them.

This webpage will let you see the people whose hearts have been irreparably pierced by the war. I think that the least we can do is listen to their stories. Each of these interviews were conducted in Ukraine and translated from Ukrainian into English. You can listen to the original recording at the bottom of each story.

Andriy Poluhyn

CHAPTER 1: ANDRIY POLUHYN

Andriy is a chaplain who fought in one of the most tragic fights of this war to date, namely, the Second Battle for the Donetsk Airport, which took place in January 2016. I feel that it is appropriate to start this series with someone who fought on the frontlines, someone who experienced the horrors of war to the fullest.

“Let’s start with my first question - “What were you doing before the war and how did your life look like?””

“Before the war, I studied in a seminary - specifically the Kyiv Seminary which was a brotherhood of independent churches and missions - from 2010 through to 2014, and received a diploma of a choir regent. Around 2013-2014, when the revolution took place in Ukraine, I was invited to join an organization based in the east of Ukraine to work as an administrator of a team of missionaries. Being an administrator, I also started to take part in the movement of the chaplains, called the Chaplains’ Battalion.”

“I know about this because I have read an article about you, but could you describe for the readers who haven’t read it how exactly the war entered your life?”

“I think it was mainly because of an understanding that since I had taken part in this revolution, I couldn’t just turn a blind eye to the whole situation. This was because Russia had taken advantage of Ukraine’s lack of leadership and marched straight into Crimea and Donbass through the use of mercenaries and special ops. At that time, I started to keep an eye out for the situation on the front, and also in that time period I suffered a case of PTSD after the revolution. As a result of my emotions being highly volatile, I decided against going and helping the war effort and instead just staying and praying at home. However, I was soon approached by a deacon (who had been a chaplain) and he invited me to participate as a chaplain on the frontlines. Well, actually, that happened in December 2014 - he asked if I knew of someone who would be willing to take upon this job, and I started to look for anyone who could potentially be the one. Eventually, I decided to take it upon myself, and just like that we came to an agreement and started preparing to leave for the East.”

“Alright, thank you very much. I know that a lot happened on the 15th and 16th of January, but which day do you think was the most damaging for the Ukrainian side in the Donetsk airport?”

“In the new terminal, where I was stationed, I can definitely tell that there were more casualties on the 16th. One soldier was instantly killed, while another received fatal wounds. Other than that, however, there was little to no information as to what was going on around us. If anything, the losses on the 17th were the biggest, as we were trying to make a corridor so that cars could pass through; later, we retreated by cars, some of us getting…worse outcomes than others.”

“Another question. On the 15th, when there was a gas attack, were there any casualties because of that or did people manage to get out safely?”

“Luckily, there were no casualties because of the gas. We all prayed that we would stay safe, and the gas simply went away from us. Thank God that there were no losses, because I don’t think the soldiers would be able to handle it psychologically. Physically, they might have, but I doubt they’d be able to take it psychologically. So, like I said - there were no losses or injuries from the gas attack, and we managed to successfully hold our ground."

“In that time, when you were defending the airport, which death/loss was the most vivid for you personally?”

“I’d say that every one of these deaths hit hard because I was a chaplain and hence I was close to them. However, the one that was most painful for me was the loss of Ostap from the 93rd Brigade. They brought him and at first weren’t even able to recognize him - they thought that maybe it was one of the commanders, but soon a commander came and everyone realized that it wasn’t one of the commanders that had been hit. Still, no one could figure out who it was, even though we frequently talked to him, and we tried to talk with him, to no avail. We were still trying to save him as he was still alive, wrapping bandages around his head as he had gotten a bullet to the head, but life was draining straight out of him…In that moment, Igor - who was the medic - said that we couldn’t help him anymore, even though I wasn’t set on giving up just yet, saying to him, “Let’s do what we need to anyway so God can do the rest.” Someone found his phone at some point - most likely his wife was calling him, but no one could find it in themselves to pick it up and answer….Later on, when they were bringing back his body on the 18th, they tied up bodies in the car best they could, but his body had to be tied up to the roof. Because he was a big man, an artillery shell hit the car and blew up everything. They found his remains a day later, which is why his date of death in the records is also written as the 19th. Officially, that is.”

“I’m sure you’ve heard the next question quite a bit, but how would you feel that you’ve changed as a person because of this war?”

“Well…like I said before, this change actually started before the war, during the revolution, when I as a religious person started to understand my place in the country - as a citizen, as a believer, and realizing what kind of things I should be doing. When the war started, I began to understand how far this can go and how much I really have to fight - that it is also not only a physical battle but a mental one too. In the airport, there was a moment when the fighting died down for two days and there was nothing but silence, when we were waiting for the cars to extract us and started to understand that we were all on our own, that no one was going to come for us. We all started to realize that these days could very well be our last, and in that moment you start to realize what you truly value, what’s most important for you and what isn’t, how you lived and what you’re doing now, what you’ve achieved in life. You start to let go of the understanding that death will come for you sometime in the future, that there’s still life to go live through until then, as death can come near instantly and can happen very easily when you see all the fallen, when you are in the exact same situation as every other soldier. You start to do important things and not just leave them for another time, because you know that your life is even shorter now and that you might not do everything that you’ve wanted to. You don’t want to ask yourself why you even lived in the first place because you didn’t achieve anything, and that understanding still remains in the hearts of every soldier. I remember saying to someone when asked a similar question like yours, that I bought Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, and in one moment when he compares humans with elves, he says that humans are more desperate to leave behind a mark that they existed, a change, a legacy, anything. I believe that soldiers understand this quite well too.”

“I actually wanted to ask you something about that silence you faced for several days on the front line. Did you feel that those days were actually more vivid than those days when there was constant fighting and gunfire, or was it the days in combat that truly stood out to you?”

“Well…I’d say I’m more of an introvert/intellectual, so a lot more happens on the inside than on the outside. For me it could have been more lucid and more affecting, but I understand now that I couldn’t understand it in any other way at that point in time. I think it was actually harder for me to cope with the whole situation for example morally, but at that time I just didn’t know what was happening. So, I can’t really say that it was louder than the days filled with combat, because most of it was actually happening subconsciously.”

Andriy playing guitar

“Other than the PTSD that you received, was there any other lasting impacts on your life after the war?”

“I managed to somewhat cope with my PTSD after the revolution, and managed to understand what my place in society was. I’d say that after all these events were said and done, I didn’t look for any sources of trouble and just managed to live life normally at the bare minimum that I needed to, really. When I married - and I married someone who was also willing to do something for the war effort (she heard that I was a chaplain and wanted to know if she could become one, too. Unfortunately, I had to tell her that at that point in time it wasn’t possible--)

“Excuse this question, but was this before or after your time at the airport?”

“After. We started talking, and since we were both quite similar, we quickly became close. She didn’t want to give up, which is why she went to a missionary institution and alongside that was involved in some other projects such as a youth center in Svitlodarsk. When we were wondering where to build our life, we decided on Svitlodarsk and I was invited to work in the youth center, which is where we both work now.”

“That’s good to hear. What are your biggest hopes and dreams while this war is still ongoing? Other than wanting this war to end, of course?”

“Ah, I actually have two things that I’d like to talk about. The first of them is that I’d like more people to join our cause of Christianity, and I work with chaplains as well as various organizations to try and make this happen. The other thing I’d want is for the youth to be more active when it comes to religion as well as citizenship, especially the youth on the frontier territories which have been affected by communism and Russian propaganda. When we were in those territories, we felt as if we were back in time in the Soviet Union. So, really, it’s just spreading the word of Christianity and that the youth has an impact on our future.”

“What do you think the rest of the world should know about this whole situation that they don’t know yet? For example, is there anything that the world should know about MH17 or Donetsk airport that was never brought to light before?”

“Before I answer, let me say something else. First, I can understand what kind of propaganda is being fed by Russia, so I’ll tell what’s obvious in Ukraine - which is why people should understand that anything that happens on the east of Ukraine is under direct influence of Russia on Ukrainian politics and world politics as well. Essentially, when Russia participates in conflicts in Ukraine and Syria among others, it’s nothing short of terrorism. It’s necessary to understand that the political situation in Russia should be eliminated as their own citizens are suffering because they can’t establish their own country, simply because the Kremlin is currently running the show. As a result, people are now suffering in Ukraine, Crimea, and Syria as well as other hotspots where there’s Russian involvement, like in Africa and the Middle East. People need to understand that these are nothing short of direct and planned actions by Russia. Everything else which they come up with is simply to cover up their traces from the rest of society. Wow…that’s a lot to take in for sure.”

“On to the next question. I think that everyone in Ukraine knows how this war started, but different people have differing ideas on how to end this war. So, in your opinion, what’s the best way of ending all this?”

“In my opinion, the best way to end this war is to really keep pushing Russia’s economy through sanctions so that Russia simply won’t have the resources to keep going. That’s probably the best method. Realistically, though, it doesn’t seem like it will end anytime soon, and while I want it to end, it looks like it’ll remain an open act of military aggression with consequences.”

“When the war will end, and we all know that it’ll end someday, as everything has an origin and an end, would you want to return to the east of Ukraine and see what the war has done to it, like the Donetsk airport or these villages, these cities? So in short, would you like to see what has happened to these areas?”

“A definite yes - me and the soldiers who were in the airport alongside myself intend on going there and making a big memorial to the fallen. We’ll be pushing the idea of an open museum designated to the history of what happened during the war. Also, because I currently live in the East, I understand that I could remain there to have an impact on society so that it isn’t like the current one that is under Russian influence, so that they can decide their fate themselves.”

“What will you remember for the rest of your life resulting from these situations?”

“When peace finally comes, I’ll remember the price paid that was necessary to achieve it. The people who fell - and I will say this as a faithful person - they sacrificed their lives for others. The conflict has not advanced, but has instead narrowed compared to its beginnings in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and when this is all over, there will still be losses, but they have to be remembered. Not like it was after World War 2 during the Communist regime, where each soldier was insignificant, but where everyone’s lives are remembered, like they remember their fallen soldiers in Israel. We could learn from that, you know.”

“Understood…Given your background, I’m assuming that you hear about updates from the front quite frequently. In today’s situation, which frontline do you think is going to be more problematic, the Donetsk one or the Luhansk?”

“I don’t really differentiate them based on intensity. Nowadays, I’d say that the Luhansk region is better in terms of shelling and fighting in general - which was always the case, I’m not sure why. The Donetsk frontline, however, is always much more aggressive, but that’s probably because the frontlines are much closer to the city. I think that when we do push on all fronts, they’ll be equally as aggressive, which is why we’ll need to do it in one clean sweep. At least, that’s my thoughts on it. I’m not really a military expert, after all.”

“I’m sure that you’ve seen the movie on the Cyborgs, but do you feel that it was able to portray the conflict inside the airport accurately?”

“In some aspects, yes. If we’re talking about what happened in terms of fighting, then no. It’s not really that accurate simply because there was no hand-to-hand combat, let alone close range fights as a whole. I doubt the movie would have gotten the reviews that it got if the movie focused on the whole truth of the battle. As for the feeling, it was very good since they made sure to consult the military that were there, and as a result made the setting as well as the atmosphere very similar. I definitely would recommend the movie to people who want to learn a bit more about the situation as it shows the spirit and the atmosphere of what it was like to be there - not absolutely, but good enough.”

Andriy (on the very right)

“You’ve been with a lot of people in the airport, but are you still in close contact with the veterans that were there?”

“Yes, absolutely.”

“I remember that you wrote in the book about someone who got shot in the head two times but still survived. Do you know what happened to him?”

“Yes - what I wrote about in the book is a good story for me - he had an open head wound, and the medics had to tie around bandages multiple times as he just kept taking them off (four times in fifteen minutes, in fact) and we didn’t think that he would survive because after all, he had an open wound. However, in the evening - the 16th, specifically - he kept losing consciousness but kept getting back up and trying to do something because he didn’t consider the wound as fatal, and just went to the toilet. I started to think that maybe if there were no repercussions, he might actually turn out all right. Again, this was an open head wound, and he was half-dressed in freezing cold, even without any shoes. I’m not even sure if he wrapped a blanket or something around himself for the two remaining days (the 17th and the 18th). When we were extracted by car and stopped in a city, I saw a body bag coming out of one of our cars and was told that that was the machine gunner (which I automatically assumed was the soldier), that maybe he didn’t make through the evacuation, even though I remember him consciously going into the car and even going back for his shoes. Half a year later (for the next two years, the bodies from the airport were being sent back and being given funerals, and hence was the only way for me to meet with the other soldiers), when I went to a funeral, I asked someone if they knew anything about this particular soldier. Surprisingly, he was sitting almost right next to me. When I asked him how exactly he survived, he told me that he was hospitalized for a long time and lost a bit of his eyesight, but was otherwise all good. I was happy because I really did think that he had died, and I’m glad I asked about what became of him. I had been asking quite a lot of people even though I didn’t even know the soldier’s name, so this was definitely a moment of closure for me. As for what happened to that machine gunner, I’m still not entirely sure.”

“So it seems like the majority of the soldiers that were there survived, yes?”

“It’s hard to say whether it was even the majority. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the majority survived. Out of everyone that was there with me in that week…now that I think about it, most of them did make it through. However, when the explosion happened in the new terminal, about 58 people were lost. That’s taking into account everyone who was with me, everyone who stayed behind, everyone who came after me…I really can’t say if it was the majority or not that survived. A lot of people survived, thank God, but as for the people that I can recognize? Not a lot of them are left, mostly because of the explosion. From all the people that I met and remembered by name in my time there, eleven died, among the others which I didn’t have time to get to know.”

“To say that this is sad would be an understatement. You said in your story that you got hit by a mine - what thoughts were going through your head at that time?”

“When I got hit, I immediately felt a sharp pain as if it was a burn and a cut combined, but it wasn’t that pain that was the most affecting - the explosion deafened me for a while, and while I stood and remained standing, I desperately wanted to sit down and rest a little. Somehow, even though I was the closest to the explosion, I didn’t receive as many injuries as the soldiers behind me, even though the shellshock was immense. I started being less and less active, falling asleep and tried to do something, anything, but I didn’t have the strength necessary to do anything. It didn’t really hurt a lot in that moment, but more so after the adrenaline settled down when we were extracted. I remember that I was taking off my body armor and helmet, and when I stood up in one fluid motion my whole body just erupted in pain, which forced me to trudge for around two weeks more, even though I had not trudged once before the injury. It wasn’t because I was hit badly, but because of the cuts - internal cuts - which when in contact with trousers were quite uncomfortable.”

“How much time exactly did you spend in the hospital?”

“A day. We came first from the airport and were immediately sent to some kind of blood experts. I remember the news talked about us - 7 of us, I should mention - that came back from the terminal on the 18th. I think there was some kind of video as well. We left the airport at around 4 in the morning and made it to the hospital 14 hours later at 6 in the evening. They first made sure to wrap us in bandages and do the necessary tests before sending us to psychologists and then sending us to the military hospital in Dnipro (petrovsk).

“If I remember correctly, there were 2 cars exiting the airport on that day, one of which was blown up by RPG fire?”

“That was actually before us, on the 16th. One of the cars came too close to take the wounded, and was immediately hit by 2 RPGs into the driver cabin - the person who I mentioned earlier - who eventually died from his wounds. The other car saw what happened and immediately turned around as the driver realized that it was much too dangerous to attempt it. In our case, one came, and we were talking about how to make sure that it came so that it would be as safe as possible. It worked to say the least - the Russians saw it only as it was leaving.”

“Were you the first who was extracted?”

“I went by the first car, although I got on last. If you’re talking about how many extractions there were, I was in the first of the two extractions. The second brought back soldiers from the 90th Battalion as well as their commander, Spartak.”

“Was the 93rd gone?”

“The 93rd Brigade had various people from all over. I don’t remember which brigade the 90th was from, but it was specialized for assault, even though it never came around to doing so. So both the car that was hit by RPG fire was from the 90th and the second convoy was also the 90th.”

“And these last two convoys were really the last ones?”

“Yes. There were around 60 people left in the airport after that, including all of the people who came there later. From what I’ve seen through photos, the explosion made the second floor collapse onto the first, which instantly killed everyone who was either in the middle or close to it. As for the prisoners-of-war that the Russians caught, that would be around 15 people.”

“Was there any explanation as to why the explosion happened in the first place?”

“You’d think that it was from regular mortar fire, but it seems to be from something of a higher calibre. There’s a lot of theories going around as to the cause of what happened there, and there’s no way to actually confirm or check because we simply don’t have the territory anymore. Some say that it was two mines, the first of which failed to explode, and the second which exploded and as a result set off the first as well. Others say that the foundations of the terminal were simply shelled enough to the point that they collapsed. I personally agree with the first one, that something of a high enough calibre hit the building and blew it up, because looking at the photos, the radius is abnormally big. The explosion itself must have also been massive, because they were only able to identify a soldier by his arm. Every other part of him was gone. Because of this, his parents had reason to think that it still wasn’t him that died.”

“…Too many losses.”

“That’s war. When we talk about war nowadays, the biggest number of losses was probably during the acts of terrorism, because there are so many unofficial and unknown conflicts, like in Africa or 9/11. Usually, we tend not to care about that, because it’s far away from us. Besides, the information you get is unreliable at best - it goes through so many different media that it’s most likely quite far from the truth in the end. However, when it comes to Ukraine, we know many who died on the front and take it close to heart.”

“As for the airport itself, do you think it will ever be repaired?”

“I doubt it will, as probably no one would want to invest in it, even though people say that the runway can still be fixed. Then again, who knows? The territory is still under the conflict, and right now it’s in a no man’s land, really. At this point, it’s just something in the middle that serves no further purpose to either side. Either side can take it but decide not to hold it for long before leaving.”

“I think you answered just about everything that I wanted to hear, and thank you for that. Would you like to say something to the readers?”

“Other than the things I said, not really. Like I mentioned, we never know when death will come for us, so do something now instead of later, and make sure that it’s something truly valuable.”

Andriy (on the left)

CHAPTER 2: SERHIY KUSHNIR

The second interview is with a tank driver who fought in one of the most tragic fights of this war to date, namely, the Second Battle for the Donetsk Airport, which took place in January 2016. He was responsible for the destruction of several spots of strategic importance for the enemy, and was subsequently captured and held there for a month.

“Let’s start from the beginning. Who were you before the war, and what was your life shaping into?”

“Well, I finished school - actually, it’s quite close to here, the #25th community college of Kyiv - where I studied for 3 professions (tiler, veneer, painter-plasterer). After that, I worked a bit in this field, but I didn’t really like the job that much. Later, I joined the army, and spent one and a half years learning how to be a mechanic-driver of a howitzer unit. After the army, I worked as a security guard for two years, got married, and had two kids. Once I had enough of being a security guard, I moved on to making furniture for a while. In 2013, I became a security guard, but this time it wasn’t guarding the shop, it was a private/hired security work which I still do to this day. Back to 2014, though. I was called to arms three times in total, but they only accepted me for the third time. I remember asking if I was going into any sort of branch or not, and they laughed, saying that I got into the tank division even though I wanted to be in the artillery at first. And in 2014, I had to start getting used to the tank, since I would be the mechanic and the driver of the tank, as we would soon go to battle on the frontlines.”

Serhiy in the army

“Is this already during the time of the battle for the Donetsk Airport?”

“The Donetsk Airport? Yes. When we were blowing up the Putylivskiy Bridge - it was the 18th of January, 2015 - we also blew up two enemy BTRs and then the bridge itself, which was important for the enemy as it was their only way to go from the city to the airport. In that battle 4 of our tankers were captured. There was a prisoner exchange not long time ago, and the last member from my tank finally came home. Later, I went to see him in the hospital… I guess that’s that.”

Serhiy reunited with the last member

“In the whole time that you were in the army, was there a loss that was particularly close to you, like a friend or a commander?”

“There were losses, but some of them were because of drunken stupidity. Those weren’t losses in the battle - just losses because of stupidity. Some others…even turned out to be suicidal. As for when the soldiers started coming back here to live a normal civilian life…they started to die one by one. How can I say this exactly…there weren’t exactly any losses explicitly from the battle. I just waited to get all of our soldiers back from capture, which is why I always went to meetings that would promote that. Even today, I still help out in other things from time to time. Mainly, there were no losses from the battle.”

“What would you say was the ratio of our forces compared to the enemy forces - were they even in terms of firepower, or was one side lacking?”

“In that battle, they had a huge advantage simply because we were attacking and not retreating, and they were also familiar with the area. When we were advancing towards the bridge, we had to travel two kilometres through the village without really knowing its layout. Once we started retreating, enemy tanks started advancing from all over the place - from the back streets, the alleys, you name it... Eventually, they encircled us, leading to my capture…We also had the massive issue of poor contact as well as bad spatial awareness of the surroundings. All the commanders did was show us a map, show us what point to capture, and that was it, that was what we had to do. And we ended up doing that. In that village, though, we were sitting ducks. We had no cover, nor any reinforcements, meaning that the Russians could bombard us with grenade launchers and we would be done for.”

“How long did the battle last for?”

“Somewhere from two to three hours.”

“From what I hear, your release from capture was quite fast?”

“I was there for a month. The first tanker was there for a week, maybe one and a half weeks passed until his release. After that came mine.”

“So we can say that that battle was the most intense experience of the war for you?”

“Yes, very much so.”

“Before I ask you about how war changed you as a person, could I ask you about how it felt and what happened in the time when you were captured?”

“When I was captured..I was beaten up a bit. The worst of all, though, was them saying that my tankers were scattered on the sides of the road, dead. In that way, they were trying to destroy my morale. Recently, I found a photo on the internet and recognized myself. I was among many prisoners in the photo.”

One of the photos Serhiy found

“So the Russians are posting this everywhere?”

“This photo in particular was found on some sort of English website and was reposted. When I saw this and recognized myself, I instantly saved it.”

“I can’t say that I would have expected anything better from Russia… Let’s talk about life after the war. How did the war shape you as a person? Not physically, but morally.”

“Well…everyone thought that I would break. Everyone was worried because they thought that that would happen. At first, when I was exchanged from capture, I did struggle a bit for around 6 months to adapt back to normal life. What I still don’t understand is that others were morally destroyed from this experience, while I somehow held up alright. Technically, my life is as it always was. After those 6 months, I found a volunteer movement and helped them out for a while. After that, I heard that there was a group of war veterans just like myself, and went there as well. I worked as a clerk in a office for 2-3 years there and acted as someone who would tell the other soldiers about what kind of things they need to obtain in order to get settled back to normal life smoothly. I told all this to the fourth, fifth, and sixth wave of soldiers that came back from capture so that they would have it easier.”

Serhiy on the frontlines

“Did war explicitly change your quality of life?”

“I think it changed the quality of life for everyone. I had many civilian friends, but now I only ever talk with two of them. As for the others, I talk with them quite rarely. My life itself changed, with me getting government pay for my “disabled” status as well as my pension. I also got an apartment (which I’m trying to customize right now, but as they say, more important stuff presents itself), some compensation for my injuries in the war, and a car, since I really don’t feel comfortable using public transport. Right now, I might even buy myself an electric scooter.”

“While this war continues (and I doubt that it’ll finish anytime soon), what do you dream of the most? That is, except for the war to end, because we’re all wishing for that.”

“For me…of course, I wish for peace, because our boys are out there dying, and it’s sad to see them go and to bury them, to see the tears of their parents, and that’s the saddest part of it. Other than that, I already made myself a list of the things that I wanted, and slowly bought all of it. That is, to get a metal detector, to get a dog, a car, and a garage. So yeah, I guess I’m finished with everything - oh, right, I forgot the electric scooter!”

“Alright, on to our next point. We all know how this war started, but what would you say is necessary in order to finish it? This view matters from person to person, which is why I’d like to hear your opinion on it.”

“Let’s start with the fact that war is actually a business of sorts. Someone benefits from it and gets money, while others dig with a shovel and die, so money to them is worthless. They sold, sell, and will sell more arms and shells. When it all ends, I have no clue how the Donetsk and Luhansk regions will react, whether they will stay separate or they’ll join back Ukraine. Of course, I can’t see the latter happening, because when I was captured and taken around all those squares, I saw how people there were being treated. We had to work for a power station where we would fill up bags with sand and then put those everywhere so that when an artillery shell would hit, the sandbag would soak it up and the power in Donetsk would still be operational. They also had artillery of their own close to that power station, where they were shooting us with the area of Donetsk in its trajectory, so they could also hold their own people in constant fear. Of course, they then say that we are responsible for all the shelling in Donetsk. I can’t imagine, how, even if there is peace between us, how we will have good relations. We have our own truth, they have theirs. While in capture, we listened to both the Donetsk radio and the Ukrainian radio. The Donetsk one says that they killed 30 Ukrainians and injured 30 while our radio is saying that 20 were killed while 15 were injured. That should give you an example of what kind of information they’re feeding their people. To answer your question, I’m still not entirely sure what to do. I just don’t know.”

“What would you like the world to know about this whole situation in Ukraine?”

“I’m certain that the world knows about it. It’s just that it doesn’t really care. I guess it all comes down to the fact that many countries signed agreements to guarantee peace between Ukraine and Russia, but when Crimea was annexed in 2014, they didn’t even bat an eyelash. It’d be nice if they could care enough to help us.”

“I mean, if the world can’t even get together and collectively address global warming, I doubt that they’ll be able to do anything about Ukraine. When the war ends, would you like to go back to the east and see how that region has changed?”

“Well, first of all, it ending in one or two years is one thing, but there will still be a lot of shells lying around, waiting to explode. All those regions will need to be cleared of mines so that people can safely move around, as those shells will explode at some point. For at least a year or two after peace begins, that region will need to be watched over for sure. As for whether I want to go back there…Yeah, I’d like to go back there and see the bridge I brought down. I know there’s literally nothing of it left now, but I’d still like to go anyway. In short, yes, I would go back to all those places we fought in.”

Serhiy with other war veterans

“We know that our current president Zelensky is planning to put an end to this war. Obviously, that means that there’ll have to be some sort of agreement with Putin and the Kremlin. So, do you think that the soldiers on the ground fighting there would support this plan?”

“The Ukrainian soldiers would gladly just shoot Putin.”

“Second of all - would you trust Putin? I’m pretty sure I know your answer, but still…”

“Of course not.”

“Do you think it would be possible after this to integrate the Donbass area back into Ukraine?”

“You obviously know that the people supporting Ukraine either quickly escaped from that region or stayed behind to fight. Many of the people there had businesses, and the separatists took it all from them, leading them to fight so that they could get back what was theirs. I’m sure that those people want to come back there, back to their homes, which by now would have certainly been inhabited by someone else. To tell the truth, I honestly can’t see a future for Ukraine there.”

“Do you think that the people in the Donbass region under the rule of the separatists, who listen to Russian media, would be happy to take the Russian flag upon themselves, in the same way that Crimea did?”

“I think it all comes down to the authorities in control, namely the ones in the DNR. They’ve built up quite a bit of debt over the years, so if they were to come back to Ukraine, they would have had to pay all of it along with interest. A friend of mine who’s also a veteran (currently working as a teacher) had some debt built up in a Russian bank, so when the collectors call him and tell him to give back his money, he says to them that they’re an aggressor against Ukraine, and that he won’t give back the money because he doesn’t want it to be used to kill Ukrainians. Essentially, that’s his way of telling them to go to hell.”

“Probably would’ve been more entertaining if he told them to give back the Donbass and then a piece of Russia, and that then he would pay off his debts. So, in these past 6 years of war (2014-2020), we’ve lost many people - soldiers, civilians, and many more. Do you think that it’ll be worth it at the end of it all?”

“I would say that it will be worth it. The thing is, a lot of civilians here have the mindset that the army seems to only care about defending all these politicians. In fact, I’m fighting for much more than that - my family, my friends, everyone. I went there to make sure that they would never get this far. And yet, they believe that that is the only truth and run away from conscription. Everyone has their own reasons. When I try to explain this to them, they still don’t understand and say that I fought for those politicians that are still in office. That’s their mindset in a nutshell.”

“Well, they’re just stubborn.”

“What kind of role does the Russian Orthodox Church play in this whole thing? I’ve heard that they’re using the Church as an incentive in the army, so I’d like to know to which extent the Church takes part in this war.”

“First of all, yes, they do play a role. Some pastors from the Russian Orthodox Church don’t even want to bury Ukrainian soldiers which die on the battlefields.”

“So you’re saying that they act as chaplains there?”

“Well, if you were to listen to our “propaganda”, then there’s a lot of FSB involvement. Of course, with every joke that is made, there is some grain of truth behind it. Some of these Russian Orthodox people even want to participate against us on the frontlines. Of course, everyone has their own reasons. I know a person who frequently goes to the east and blesses the fallen, regardless of who they were fighting for.”

“Do you feel that we’re winning so far?”

“No..I think we’re just holding them off.”

“Do you think that we will win when we gain back this territory from Russia?”

“Well, once we take back the Donbass area, I’m not sure if we’ll win yet, because there’s also Crimea. We’ll also need to invest heaps into there, because a lot of infrastructure and industry is simply gone because of Russia. We’ll lose a lot in the end, that’s for sure; but we will win in the fact that we’ll stand our ground successfully.”

Serhiy with his tank

“Do you think that our soldiers are ready to sacrifice their lives in order to end this war?”

“Yes. While I can’t say that this is the same for everyone (because everyone has their own breaking point), I was ready. If it hadn’t been for the fact that I have a family with kids, I likely would have died there.”

“So the majority would have been ready?”

“The majority, yes. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can say the same nowadays, because for a lot of people now it is a way of earning money, while others simply believe that they are doing the right thing. There’s also people that come from the villages because they were ordered to, and volunteers that come and treat it like it’s a vacation. Everyone has their own…style, so to say. Everyone thinks differently.”

“When you were standing on the frontlines, and saw all those collapsed mineshafts, abandoned villages, cities, destroyed bridges, you looked past many things - fear, torture, tragedy. Was there anything else that kept you going until the end? I know that you already answered this a bit, but I’d like to know if there was anything else that fueled you.”

“Like I said, I fought in that territory so they couldn’t get here, and my family wouldn’t have to see all of the things that happened there. The most scary thing of all is when children see this, feel it all, and then have lasting impacts for the rest of their lives….and for me, that’s what I feared most.”

Serhiy today

© Pavlo Olenchyk