Monday, March 09, 2015

Ukraine's Ragtag Army Digs In For A Frozen Conflict

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Underfunded and underequipped, the Ukrainian army that photojournalist Christopher Bobyn documented on the frontline near Donetsk is a crew of professional soldiers making do with limited resources.

Waiting patiently for a photojournalist on the platform of Dnipropetrovsk train station, Lieutenant Ihor and his skipper Artem immediately betray the condition of the Ukrainian forces facing modern Russian weapons.

Their uniforms are mismatched hand-me-downs from western allies, one wearing British camouflage, the other German field-gear.

Their shoulders are even still emblazoned with the Union Jack and German flag respectively, though both have matching new Ukrainian flags sewn onto the other shoulder.

"Just yesterday we got this car to replace our old one. It was a van, but now we have this, much faster," says Ihor as he drives toward the war, three hours away in Donetsk.

"A gift from Holland, from the government. But they won't send us weapons."

The gift is a mid-90s Passat now taped with military markings, filled with humanitarian supplies and military kit.

An RPG launcher sitting casually on the passenger seat of a VW is a disconcerting sight.

It's made worse when terrible roads send the car bouncing, threatening to lurch off with each pothole.

Ihor and Artem are shuttling food and medical supplies from the NGO Yellow-Blue Wings" as members of the Ukrainian Army's CIMIC Unit - formed to supply civilians and soldiers with crucial items in the "ATO" (Anti-Terrorism Operation), as the war is called in Ukraine.

They drive to the frontline daily, encountering displaced residents and exhausted troops.

Both citizens and soldiers in the ATO now rely on the donated goods from aid groups.

The army is forced to supplement its own resources with offerings from Ukrainians - it is a military with a government so broke that it can't properly care for its own men without private contributions. 

Arriving at the frontline, the dismal Ukrainian Steppe becomes harsher still: earth pockmarked from artillery strikes and reduced to mud by maneuvering tanks, crossed with freshly dug trenches and dotted with bunkers.

It's a scene out of World War One, complete with soldiers cooking in the mud and peering over sandbag trenches with periscopes.

Here, pro-Russian snipers are a constant concern.

Pointing at church steeples or factory roofs, the two officers repeatedly warn, "If we say move, then you move fast, because we aren't getting shot by a sniper for a photographer."

Moving fast is hard with a 12-kilo (26 pounds) flack vest, helmet, three cameras and a bag full of lenses.

Despite no apparent snipers, running out of the Passat to the closest bunker or sandbag was still a must at every stop made to frontline positions.

The soldiers of the 28th motorized infantry brigade in the town of Marinka saw a running photographer as a welcome break from the monotony of reinforcing positions.

The recent combat that left Marinka in ruins had given way to boredom and anxiety amid the tentative ceasefire.

"This won't be a long break, so we must use the time to prepare for more war," said two young soldiers of 9 Company, stocking a basement-turned-bunker with boxes of ammunition.

Underground only 400 meters from the separatists, they looked uneasy in their Polish army kit, unwilling even to leave their guns.

Further up the line at Station 9, the Passat of the CIMIC unit is met with happy waves.

The prize item the car holds isn't food or the new long underwear in the trunk, but newspapers.

Something to pass the time while the ceasefire holds.

The trenches of Station 9 have been home to the men of 6 Company for over three months.

The mechanized unit has two APCs buried into trenches so that only the guns protrude above the mud, an aging anti-tank gun pre-locked on a separatist position, waiting only to be fired.

Commander "Storm," as he is nicknamed, recalls:

"We were last shelled on February, Friday the 13th, which seems fitting. But they didn't hit us directly, the Russians can't aim."

Nonetheless, in the distance smoke rose from a supposed artillery volley, meant to intimidate rather than hit a specific target.

It's ignored as the men take their newspapers behind sandbags to read with breakfasts of donated lard and homemade jam.

The scene cements a new status quo: holding the line from entrenched positions while the region remains uninhabitable and disputed.

Over evening coffee in a cold metal bunker, some soldiers show off mobile pictures of killed comrades, others make calls home.

A benefit of fighting a war within one's own country is calling home to wish kids goodnight, without long-distance costs.

It makes the bunker setting surreal, seeing soldiers call home from their mobiles as if working late at the office.

Also surreal is the return to Kiev.

Before putting me on the train, Artem and Ihor insist on using the time in Dnipropetrovsk to eat something proper: McDonald's.

At midnight the two wartime officers revel in drive-through luxury, downing double cheeseburgers.

Later on the train, the camera bag is tied to my leg for fear of thieves while I sleep, the man on the lower cot snores as the smell of McDonald's fries fills the cabin.

Meanwhile, officers Ihor and Artem drive their donated Passat back over Ukraine's crumbling roads that lead either to war or frozen conflict.

Source: Deutsche Welle

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