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Memories of an ordinary volunteer fighter #8



I’ve just brushed my teeth for the first time in a week and felt that a long, grueling cycle of four days of road, the enemy tanks breakthrough, the dangerous encounter with our own artillery, and even the liberation of an entire settlement by our battalion had finally ended.

And it all started with the morning packing into luxury tourist buses. All the companies of our battalion were moved by it from different bases to the city, which name is censored. There, a parade order was waiting for us. A pure farce.

We were greeted by the local oligarch, Ivanchuk, who promised to buy us everything and a lot, the mayor of Kolomyia, Stanislavsky, who thanked us for taking up arms, our commanders, and bellied representatives of the church.

The commanders loudly declared that they were doing great and were able to deploy a full-fledged combat battalion in forty days. Although it consists of 80 percent of yesterday’s teachers, coaches, baristas, and narrators without military experience, often old, lame, chronically ill, and with many old domestic injuries. And these people do not know each other very well and can not even give the name of their company commander. Moreover, we have a combat medic in our platoon who has completed one-day courses given by a military enlistment office — and this is all he knows about medicine. That’s how we were prepared.

Then we laughed loudly as colonel Nah-Nah, the acting battalion commander, declared even louder that we were fully equipped and provided with everything. And at this time, a volunteer walked between us, handing us military hats purchased by volunteers, so that we would look the same on camera. And before that, we were lined up so that only those who are fully dressed in uniform and shod in army boots stood on the front line. And many still wear their own jackets of different colors, civilian boots, and sneakers. And most of those in camouflage had bought everything themselves or got it through volunteers.

I remember the phrase of the battalion commander from the same parade order:

“How many tactical gloves do we have? Nineteen? Give it to everyone!”

And there are five hundred of us in the battalion. Ninety-six pea jackets for everyone. Provided and equipped, they said.

The commander also said that we had passed combat coordination and learned well. But in reality, we had several classes with a volunteer, who most of the time boasted about himself, what a cool warrior he was, and how he went to his woman on his moped. And the army, in forty days of training, gave us as much as one lesson in tactics lasting two hours. Good work, I admit. In the lecture of a marine explaining the specifics of infantry movement, I counted only fifty-three obscenities per hour, which is very little for the military. And he pronounced it as if he was trying to make it clear that he was a real marine and not some random guy. Over time, he stopped swearing at all and simply explained how to lie down effectively, how to get up, and how to turn around. It turns out that this one training is enough to prepare a combat battalion.

Then we were greeted by a certain chief from the church. His belly is bigger than my apartment. On his wrist, he had an expensive gold watch with the diameter of a saucer, and on his thick sausage fingers, there were massive gold rings encrusted with some colored stones.

He said something about God in the heart and our righteous work. But it was not very audible because even his throat was obese, and he was breathing heavily.

In general, all these (not) respected men thanked us and praised themselves for such wonderful work done by the volunteers and our own hands. They filmed it all on camera for local television and, in military terminology, got the f*ck out.

And we stayed in *censored city name*, in a school next to our luxury tourist buses, waiting for orders to start the march. We were supposed to receive the order at 2 pm.

We drank coffee, ate some goodies, talked about everything, and half the day went to sh*t. The clock passed 2 pm, followed by 3 pm, and there was still no order. Around four o’clock, the order was received: to unpack the buses and move five hundred people inside the school. We never saw our luxury buses again.

Our platoon settled in the assembly hall of the school. We crowded the rows of chairs tighter and slept on the floor in sleeping bags. As further events have shown, people underestimate so much the ability to sleep lying down, even on a hard floor.

At the time, we found it very inconvenient that the school has only six toilets for half a thousand adult men and only two showers. But it was a five-star hotel compared to where we ended up in a few days.

The last time I took a shower in the school of *censored city name*, I studied the room very carefully in the light of my flashlight. Posters reminding of children’s personal hygiene on the walls, small toilets, and miniature sinks that can only be used on your knees. A small hanger on the wall with cloth envelopes with hair combs. One hook was free, and I decided to hang my things on it. But I noticed an envelope with the comb on the floor, and I felt so embarrassed in front of the kids of *censored city name*. For interfering with their space, creating a mess, making their toilets and showers dirty, and maybe destroying something. So I picked up the envelope from the floor and hung it on a free hook. A little less mess after me.

During one of the night air raid sirens, we were standing in the basement, which turned out to be the changing room of the kindergarten at that school. The time of active life of the school was preserved on the walls. There were drawings, crafts, and dioramas on the theme of winter and New Year’s celebrations. Snowmen, angels, snow-covered Christmas trees, and Grandfathers Frosts and Snow Maidens [the soviet version of Santa Claus and his companion, his granddaughter — Ed.]. I examined it, feeling nostalgic for the days when I took my daughter to kindergarten and happily looked for her creative work among the many similar works of her group.

And a few days later, on the other side of Ukraine, I got into the same rural school in the Donetsk region, and there was the same wall with the same works on the theme of winter. The same preservation of the time of school activity, which was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, and the war later extended the break in the school’s work.

At 4 am on the third night of our stay at school, we were ordered to move out. In the evening before, we saw that we would be taken by school buses. Then we didn’t worry too much about it because it was obvious that we would not be taken somewhere a thousand kilometers away on the school buses. So we would either be transferred to convenient buses somewhere else, or we just didn’t have far to go. This was as obvious as the fact that putin would not attack Ukraine because it was suicide for russia. I mean, we were wrong once again.

We packed up at 5 am and waited another two hours for the arrival of the colonel, who was supposed to lead our column on the march. We had even assumed that we would unload our stuff again. But at 7.30 am, the column moved.

It took us almost half an hour to drive out of the gate. And in the first hour from the departure, three buses from the column failed. At first, we laughed at such clumsiness, but after three days on the road with such jokes, it was no longer funny. The column moved unbearably slowly.

One of our people had a walkie-talkie with him. Therefore, we could hear the secret negotiations of the column’s leadership through an open channel, which anyone could listen to apart from us.

Our bus was placed at the end of the column, occasionally allowing us to drive in the middle. The command at the head of the column stopped at gas stations. They drank coffee, went to the toilet, and bought food. Meanwhile, the column was coming together. And when we arrived at the parking lot last, there was already a command to go further. So we had time to go to the toilet and smoke or move our feet a little. And since everyone was smoking, and you couldn’t get far from the bus, the cigarette smoke was coming into my face again. This is an additional inconvenience.

During the first stop, the officers were the first to shop at the supermarket, having all the soldiers load it into the buses. That’s why they left their own goods at the checkout where they were waiting in line and were left with nothing.

As it turned out on the second day, on the first day of the march, they did not plan to give us food because the company commanders reported that the personnel was provided with food. But neither the company commanders nor the personnel has heard anything about the fact that we, people who are fully supported by the army, must get food for ourselves.

Therefore, on the first day, we ate the remains of our personal supplies and what volunteers forcibly threw into the buses on parking lots. Although we are strictly forbidden to take anything from volunteers because it can be poisoned. Those who allegedly has provided us with everything, forbid us to receive anything from those who have truly provided us with everything.

At the end of the first day of the march, the battalion commander very seriously retold on the radio:

“F*cking squad leaders, count the fu*cking personnel, and tomorrow issue the f*cking dry rations.”

For a long time, we were trying to understand why they might not know how many of us are going and why they didn’t count us then. It looked like the food was not planned in any way, they just threw some food supply seemingly enough for us into the trucks and went on. By the way, those dry rations were issued in Croatia. Again, some kind of humanitarian aid.

I tried to eat and drink less so that I would have to go to the toilet less often. From the beginning of the march, I was able to take a sh*t for the first time 48 hours after the last time I went to the toilet. And only because I quickly reacted and was the third in the line to the WC at the gas station, when we voluntarily left the column and stopped. But not everyone took a sh*t. And not everyone got their coffee, which they paid for in advance because we had to drive on.

Our bus stood out among the others in the column. This one was a school bus. The chairs are slightly smaller than in a regular Ukrainian bus and were positioned more tightly to each other to make it more convenient for children. But not for the 90 kg (198 lbs) soldiers. Among us there was also “Baby” Yura, weighing 140 kg (308 lbs). We asked the command not to take him to war, but no one listened to us. Yura didn’t even have the 40 days of “preparation” that we had. He signed up for the Territorial Defence troops, and a day after a one-day course in medicine, he was assigned to our platoon as a combat medic. When someone brings something for the medic, Yura hears that the medicine arrived and hurries up.

The first long stop took place in a barren somewhere at the entrance to Uman [a city located in Cherkasy Oblast in central Ukraine — Ed.]. Wind, cold, no toilets. We sleep inside the buses. No one could put their knees between the seats. They need to be taken to the side. The one who sat by the window takes up almost one and a half seats. And whoever is closer to the aisle was forced to balance on one half of his bottom. There is no backrest for the head. To fix my body for sleeping, I lifted my knees higher, rested them on the back of the seat in front of me, and put my head on it. I also tried to sit sideways, put my feet in the aisle, hug my own jacket, and tilt my head to the side and put it on the same back in front of me. This is a very uncomfortable and unpleasant nap, accompanied by an all-encompassing cold, pain in all parts of the spine, and numb legs. But then it got worse.

On the second day of the march, we wondered where we were being taken. We went through different options with fear. We really hoped that the destination was Kyiv. But we didn’t take a turn in its direction. Then we thought that it would be something in the Kharkiv region, but no. We drove on and stopped in the Donetsk region.

Passing through the Central part of Ukraine and even a little bit of the Eastern one, we came across people who greeted us from the street. They saw Ukrainian soldiers and were happy because of it.

Afterward, we saw the first dead body. It was a victim of an accident, not a war. A man was hit on the highway.

The weather worsened, the sky darkened, the rain began to fall, and we started to stumble upon traces of war by the side of the road. Destroyed gas stations. Broken roofs of the estates. Burned communication towers. Rocket remains in the fields and so on. But people swarmed around it all, life raged as if nothing had happened. Later, we walked just as carelessly around the ruins and debris.

Eventually, minefields began to form outside the window. We saw columns of refugees heading toward us. Someone was traveling on passenger buses of volunteers and those of the Red Cross. Others were traveling by their own cars, often with broken windows. Inside, on the roof, and on trailers, people dragged the material remains of their lives to new places.

And we drove on. We passed more and more solid roadblocks and greeted well-equipped soldiers. According to the map, we were already in the danger zone, but then we continued to move east. The mood on the bus was very bad. We were indignant that we were deceived, betrayed, abandoned, and taken to the slaughter. This discontent was getting bigger until our driver addressed us:

“You’re volunteers. You knew where you were going. Why are you whining?”

“We weren’t trained.”

“You had the time, you should’ve trained, done some workouts, not just waited.”

Really, how simple. Hung on the horizontal bar — and now you are ready to conduct combat operations. Is this how it works?

When we entered the border zone with russia, there were more missiles shot down in the fields. The faces of the soldiers who met us at the roadblocks showed real surprise. Because if they are here, on the front line, then who is being transferred further, even closer to the enemy?

On the second night, we stayed in *censored city*. There we first heard and saw our BM-21 Grads. In the night sky on the near horizon, lights flash, rapidly rushing high up, and 20 seconds after you can hear a long sound of rumbling rustling. Some other artillery was being launched somewhere nearby, but we didn’t see it. Among our people, some rumors started to appear that we were taken to the zero line. In reality, it was the second line of defense. But the company officer of another company explained this to us only in the morning. Our company officer, whom we called “Fuckicer”, did not talk to us about anything.

The local authorities openly told us to go f*ck ourselves and did not give us any accommodation. We arbitrarily moved the column to different parts of the city center and again slept in buses. But before that, at 1 am, we were given bulletproof vests and helmets. Why this wasn’t done during the day, in a safe place, or even at the beginning of the march is a mystery. We were also given a second box of dry rations.

We went to bed with sentries posted. But very soon everyone woke up alerted. One of our people twisted the bolt, sending a bullet into the machine gun because it seems that someone was waving at our bus at night, but ran away.

In the morning, we were worried. I even saw the Z symbol drawn by someone’s fingers in the mud on the surface of the bus, near the front passenger door. Everyone was looking for answers to the question of Why are we here? Why is a Territorial Defence troop in a war zone? Why is everything hidden from us? But no one explained anything.

A few days later, we learned that our guide on the march had led us in roundabout ways. And our stupid intelligence stumbled upon our artillery with their headlights on at night and almost became victims of friendly fire. The whole march went awry. We were even mocked in Kolomyia:

“Are you those soldiers who got lost?”

No, didn’t get lost. The command lost us. And we were tormented by meaningless instructions and tasks.

The clerk Andriy told us in the morning that by all the rules we had taken an entire settlement. No one had captured it before us. But this wording of our arrival in *censored city* inspired me. It sounds cool: soldiers of the Kolomyia TDT took control of a settlement in the Donetsk region. I hope that the other victories and achievements of our army, which are happily announced in the news, are not as stupid and insignificant as our capture of *censored city*.

Closer to lunchtime, the column lined up again, and we hit the road. About ten kilometers from the overnight stay. We stopped in a park near a rural school. The battalion’s headquarters and kitchen were located there.

In the park, we stayed idle for several hours. We were on duty for a little while near the trucks with our belongings. The soldiers were given various things, and this process was painful to watch. Everyone needed everything, and there was very little of everything. The poor caretaker refused two of the three applicants. Soldiers received pea jackets and army boots of the wrong size, and there was nothing to choose from.

In the same park, we were told that Barvіnkove, which we were passing yesterday, was bombed right after us. Then, somewhere nearby, an S-300 air defense missile was launched, and we ran to lie down for the first time. It rumbles terribly and then explodes in the sky, knocking down the target. And on the same day, the platoon commanders warned us that enemy tanks had broken through about 25 kilometers away and would soon get to the road where we had stopped. Therefore, we must immediately hide in the park. So, for the first time in three days, I laid down and straightened up. I slept for about an hour.

“Let’s go to the red zone,” I heard from our platoon commander Slavik in my sleep, and everything went cold in me. The tanks have reached us, and this is our first battle. I blew myself up, put on my armor, helmet, and bulletproof vest, picked up the machine gun, and ran after Slavik. Everyone looked at me like a complete moron. In fact, the platoon commander said, “Let’s go on duty.” And it wasn’t my turn.

When it got dark, we loaded the bus again with our belongings, which we had previously unloaded, as we were ordered, and went to spend the night in the forest.

Before that, I observed two absurdities. The leadership of our military unit in Kolomyia demanded that we return the buses we used. And the battalion commander on the spot demanded to leave the buses with us in order to have something to transport people to the positions (the bright yellow buses, unsuitable for off-road conditions). The driver had to follow both orders simultaneously.

And when the alpinist Ruslan and I were the last ones to stand on duty near the trucks, the command wanted all the duty posts to stay for the whole night, but at the same time all the personnel, including the guards, should move to the shelters for the night. How?

It was dark in the woods. We were driving with our headlights off. We focused a little on the parking lights of the car in front of us. Somehow we disguised the bus with a net and branches and went to sleep. Some people were sleeping inside the bus and others were outside. It was a quiet night.

In the morning, the duty in the kitchen was announced. I volunteered and went to help the cooks all day. During the break, I managed to do my stuff in the bathroom with an actual toilet and a shower. It was gorgeous. We were peeling carrots and onions with the clerk Andriy, and he noticed:

“We, two people with higher education, are sitting here and discussing how happy we are that we were able to go to the toilet. Where did we end up?”

I returned to the platoon late at night with dinner. The mood was wonderful. Busy with my work, I was less worried about going to war. And no one around me panicked all day. Suppose I could say that I had a rest.

In the morning, I put on some dry, clean underwear, brushed my teeth, and felt that our big march was over.


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His wife will spend the transferred funds on parcels to his place of service. Thank you!

Ukrainian Text by Oleksa Melnyk, a volunteer fighter, translated into English by Ukrainianvancouver team — Aug 21, 2022

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