Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Priest, The Pianist, A Cat, And A DIY Sauna: One Week In Ukraine’s Forgotten War

PISKY, Ukraine -- The day passes to dusk, and then to darkness, bringing with it the nocturnal chorus of a ceasefire that stops nothing.

Skeptic, the platoon commander, with faithful canine companions Misha and Mukha. Before the war, he was an animal rights activist.

The first mortar round falls close to the platoon's canteen — a cramped metal box, riddled with mice and dug deep into the cold earth.

The explosion prompts the pair of soldiers to glance up from their bowls of stew, their faces lit by a naked electric lightbulb.

A subsequent rattle of a heavy machine-gun encourages the younger one, just 19 years old, to close the door and stop the smallest chink of light from betraying their position.

A second explosion signals the end of dinner.

"I think we should go," says the older one.

They traipse back to the trench, heads ducked down amid an intensifying fusillade of fire.

Do you know the Ukrainian night?

So asked the Russian writer, Gogol, as he waxed lyrical about this once-pleasant swathe of Slavic steppe.

The men of 2nd Platoon know the Ukrainian night, and there is little enchantment left here.

For hours, they were pinned down by a deadly hail of bullets and rocket-propelled grenades.

For months, they have held this small stretch of the front in their country's industrial east.

And for more than a year and a half, their allied units of Ukraine's army have been locked in this devastating war, the intensity of which dips and rises with the passing of each truce.

The first day of September saw the signing of the latest peace deal.

For weeks, it was remarkably successful, raising hopes that it could herald the beginning of the end of the worst conflict on European soil since the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Those hopes are fading fast.

This month has seen a flare-up in fighting and fiery rhetoric following a two-month lull, shredding the credibility of the fragile ceasefire.

Raids and rocket attacks, pitched battles, and trench warfare — all are now returning with greater frequency and ferocity to this war-torn corner of Europe, where more than 8,000 have died and 2.2 million have been displaced since the conflict erupted in April 2014.

For seven days, VICE News embedded with the men of 2nd Platoon, a close-knit and eclectic mix of conscripts, career soldiers, nationalistic volunteers, Soviet Army veterans, ex-cons, and a chaplain.

They hold the line on the outskirts of Pisky, a once-affluent neighborhood on the northern outskirts of Donetsk, now dealt near-total destruction by the relentless pounding of artillery.

Undersupplied and living in squalor, the soldiers are fighting a forgotten war.

They feel neglected by their own country and the West, and hold the purported ceasefire in contempt.

Now they're hungry for a new push.

As fighting flared along the 280-mile eastern front, the platoon's warren of muddy trenches offered a ringside view of Europe's latest conflagration and provided powerful evidence that Ukraine's tentative peace is, yet again, on the brink of collapse.

The battered Vauxhall sped south-eastwards towards the front.

It belonged to an unusual pair of Russian journalists, clad in full military fatigues, who had offered to give us a lift.

The name of their on-board wifi network revealed their unexpected allegiance — "Putin Khuylo," politely translated as "Putin is a dickhead."

Slava, a gentle giant who regularly broke into high-pitched chuckles, was behind the wheel; Anna, with cropped hair and an elfin face, sat beside him.

"We run a pro-Ukraine channel on YouTube," Slava explained.

"My parents are very supportive of me but, for Anna, it's more complicated."

His girlfriend chimed in: "They don't really understand. My brother's blocked me on VK [Russia's equivalent of Facebook] and we don't speak anymore."

The couple live in exile and cannot risk returning to Russia, long accused by the West of actively supporting the rebel military campaign in Ukraine's eastern rustbelt.

"We can't go home — it's forbidden," Slava continued.

"We constantly move around the front and stay in nearby towns. These are our homes now. We're here to tell the truth."

The day had dawned cold and grey but by midday, the sun had burned through the mist.

We checked in at a forward operating base, jumped into a yellow Citroen Berlingo and hurtled towards frontline positions, swerving potholes and shell craters at 80mph.

The road passed bombed-out cottages, half-abandoned villages, Red Cross jeeps and the occasional figure toiling in a field.

Our driver, Yarik — a young soldier with a Cossack mohawk and easy grin — put on Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and cranked up the volume.

As we approached the final checkpoint, a pair of soldiers waved us through, and we headed down an off-road trail leading to the trench held by Kuprum (Copper) — the short name for the 2nd Platoon of the 7th Company of the 3rd Battalion of the 93rd Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Their position fringes no-man's land, an overgrown expanse of field littered with mines and unexploded munitions.

Rebel lines are within a couple of miles.

Kuprum's network of trenches, bunkers, and firing positions is home to a martial tribe who have shed their former civilian skins to adopt a colorful range of wartime identities.

Among them are Casper and Conan; Boar and Dragon; Pianist, Papa and Primus; Sabre and Skeptic. 

This last man, real name Yevgeny Pakhomov, 50, is their commander — a softly-spoken First Lieutenant and former animal rights activist who used to campaign for the protection of dolphins.

His hopes for peace are swayed by a gritty realism.

"There will be more fighting, then another ceasefire, then more killing, and so on. This war will never end," he told VICE News.

"Give it 10, 20 years and then Putin will be dead. Things may get a little better then."

Two armored personnel-carriers sit like sentinels above the trench, their cannons pointed into no-man's land.

Construction material is dumped haphazardly while cigarette butts are strewn over the parapet.

Weaving through mud and freshly-turned earth, the labyrinth of trenches provides scant shelter between each fortified position.

Boredom and danger dominate.

But even here, amid grime and a ramshackle existence, there are odd flashes of luxury.

Enter a bunker and a very different scene presents itself.

Our home for the week was a subterranean, rectangular room, panelled in wood and furbished with three bunkbeds, lined head-to-toe along one wall.

A log-burning stove pumped out heat into the night, a wifi router sent a reliable internet signal, and a large television, mounted in the corner, broadcast a daily diet of news, action films, and gameshows until midnight, when the generator was turned off.

A mini-galley boasts a microwave, fridge, kettle, and cupboards stuffed with cookies, chocolate, coffee, and herbal teas.

Alongside piles of body armor sits a saucer of milk for Shlyoma, the resident ginger tom-cat.

Boots, camouflage, combat medical kits, helmets, and military-grade radio sets fill every corner and dangle from every bed.

There is even a DIY sauna attached to a neighboring bunker, though scant supplies of water can put it out of action.

Clearly, these men know how to look after themselves.

The platoon's nickname, Copper, allegedly stems from a former proclivity for purloining metal from the local ghost town and selling it for scrap.

Among the most welcoming and charismatic of the fighters was Pianist, the resident chaplain.

With a flaming red beard and large metal crucifix hanging from his neck, he conjured up the presence and philosophy of a medieval Slavic warrior.

"Faith in God is nothing without deeds," he said.

"If I need to take up arms and kill separatists, then I will. I am a soldier first and a chaplain second." 

Despite the deployment of this man of God, formal services are kept to a minimum.

"We don't do anything special on a Sunday — every day I'm on duty for these men. In our ranks we have Orthodox Christians, Protestants, Muslims… I will help any man of any faith who needs it." 

After sunset, a soldier approached us.

"It's time for dinner," said Boar, real name Ruslan.

"Follow me."

He led us through the darkness, down a muddy slope and into the galley dugout.

Officially, this burly man in his late 30s is a machine-gunner, but the men here hold Boar in high esteem as their resident cook.

After a brief flurry of chopping, dicing, cracking, and frying, we sat hunched over a pan of potatoes and a 10-egg omelette.

As cigarette smoke filled the gloom, mice scurried among sacks behind us, and the occasional crackle of gunfire echoing around us, Boar began his story.

"All my friends now are fighting for the separatists. When they took Kramatorsk last year [a town now held by the government in the east], they went round looking for anyone who supported Ukraine.

"I got a phone call from an old friend of mine who had become a separatist commander — he told me I was on their list. I grabbed my daughter, a few possessions and drove out of town as fast as I could. I later learned that a few minutes after I'd left, they smashed into my house. But I had already gone.

"I began a new life in Poltava further west and spent all my money trying to get things going. Eventually I decided to return to the war. I planned to join the fight with Right Sector [an ultra-nationalistic Ukrainian militia] but the 93rd Brigade offered me a contract and I ended up with them. I've been here ever since."

It must have been hard cutting ties with old friends, I suggested.

Does he ever get to speak with them?

"Of course — sometimes, we exchange messages," Boar replied.

"They tell me they will hunt me down and slit my throat."

In the half-light, he gave a faint smile.

"But I'll get them first."

A particularly ferocious volley of gunfire resounded over the field.

"You hear that?" he asked, his eyes catching mine obliquely in the half-light.

"That would be the ceasefire."

Take a trip to the front and you would be forgiven for thinking that war had never stopped.

In recent weeks, its intensity has shifted up a gear from post-ceasefire calm to sporadic outbreaks of violence, which are now escalating into something altogether more concerning.

The peace deal signed in February, followed by September's truce, helped dampen the return to the firestorm of blitz and offensive that had raged through the summer of 2014 and the subsequent winter.

After this summer's intensifying wave of violence, there were indications that the Kremlin was looking to stabilize the crisis as Moscow turned its attention to the ongoing military campaign to bolster President Bashar al Assad in Syria.

Ukraine's war, however, now appears to be again spiralling out of control.

The international watchdog monitoring the conflict, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has reported an increase in the use of Grad rockets and mortars — both banned under the February deal.

In recent weeks, OSCE monitors have reported a spate of attacks involving anti-aircraft guns, automatic grenade-launchers, and large mortars around the battle-scarred regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Dozens of howitzers and other artillery pieces have been confirmed to be absent from Ukrainian holding areas, despite agreements for the heavy weapons to be mothballed, while the OSCE reports that a "considerable" amount of military hardware continues to move beyond respective withdrawal lines.

The latest attacks do not appear to be freak ruptures on the front nor the action of a local rebel commander gone rogue.

Rather, they fit into a wider pattern of escalating violence which threatens to derail the peace plan.

On just one day during VICE News's embed on the front, the Ukrainian Army reported rebel attacks across nine towns as well as explosions and sniper fire in the demilitarized zone of Shyrokyne, a former seaside town long feared to be a possible springboard for an assault on the strategic, eastern port city of Mariupol.

Daniel Baer, the US Ambassador to the OSCE, has warned against "a slide back into full-scale violence" and said that the "worrying increase in violence could cause the ceasefire to deteriorate altogether."

In recent months, the Ukrainian military has had some successes, in so far as it has stemmed further territory loss to the country's breakaway statelets, the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics.

It has also managed to mobilize more than 200,000 troops in a year — a sizeable figure in a relatively short space of time.

But issues remain, not least with its clunking command structure — an unwieldy relic of the Soviet era.

Top brass have been keen to publicize the army's compliance with the crumbling ceasefire deal and insist its forces resort to using heavy weapons only in defense.

Many of Ukraine's fighters, however, are frustrated by the limitations placed on their firepower and complain about red tape curbing counterstrikes.

In short, they loathe the current truce.

"We're not just frustrated — we're angry. We should be allowed to fire back whenever we want. They can tell me otherwise but this is still a war," said Doc, real name Alexander, a former psychiatrist and 45-year-old deputy commander of Pisky's 18th Platoon.

"There is no diplomatic solution. The war will only end when the feet of Ukrainian soldiers touch our border with Russia."

Scanning no-man's land with a pair of binoculars, he stood above a trench in a quarter of the town that lies now in utter ruin, tiny cottages reduced to rubble and a couple of walls.

"The ceasefire is one-sided," Doc continued.

"They're building up with heavy vehicles and heavy weapons directly opposite us."

As if to substantiate his claim, the distinctive noise of a tank rumbled over from rebel-held positions. 

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has condemned "a net escalation in the conflict" and blamed it on "a rise in the number of attacks" from pro-Russian forces.

He has also issued a presidential order allowing soldiers to shoot back "as soon as our troops' lives come under threat."

While this promises to streamline a notoriously inefficient chain of command, it puts the ceasefire on even thinner ice.

After weeks of relative peace, Poroshenko said this month that Ukraine's armed forces were on a renewed war footing:

"We've substantially increased the level of combat readiness and steps the Ukrainian army will make for the defense".

His comments came just hours after Kiev reported the deaths of five soldiers from direct rebel attacks in the previous 24-hour period — the highest daily death toll since the ceasefire was agreed in September.

Despite the heightened rhetoric among Ukraine's political elite, the troops feel forgotten — both by their countrymen and foreign allies.

"Before, we were heroes. Now, we are nobody," said Viktor, 45, a.k.a. "The Priest."

"The rest of the country doesn't want to know us."

This swarthy, middle-aged father-of-two earned his nickname after making a bombed-out, frontline church his home.

Despite claims that his country has abandoned him, The Priest remains sanguine.

"We have a job to do and that's all it is."

The US has pumped more than $250 million of "non-lethal" aid into the Ukrainian military since March 2014, from body armor to night-vision gear, advanced radar systems and an array of battlefield vehicles.

And in coming weeks, the next cycle of the American train-and-equip program is due to commence.

But what soldiers here want are weapons.

And, as far as they are concerned, talk of negotiations are pure anathema.

"There's only a military solution," said Artur, who was among a group of soldiers, smoking cigarettes and sipping cups of sweet, black tea outside Viktor's church one bright, chilly morning.

"Anyone who chooses diplomacy is a pussy."

But, I asked him, wouldn't an offensive just provoke a fierce response from the other side and provide an easy pretext for Russian aggression?

He shrugged off the idea with boisterous defiance.

"We're ready to push all the way to border. We'll take on Russia."

A few nights later, an unexpected battle suggested that such a move would not be taken lying down. 

Dinner was abandoned by the second blast.

The mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades began exploding in the pitch-black chill.

Arcs of red tracer-fire scored the night sky above a crescendo of assault rifles and heavy machine-guns.

Both sides, each stoked with hundreds of fighters, unleashed a barrage of fire for hours.

The men seemed well-accustomed to the pitch and timbre of this deadly reprise.

The swift staccato pops of a PKM light machine gun.

The heavy hammering of a DShK .50-caliber.

The thump of pressure to the chest and persistent ringing in the ears as Soviet-era SPG-9s released their explosive loads.

In 2nd Platoon's trench, a couple of hundred metres from the battle's epicentre, the radio buzzed with frenzied exchanges — "Heavy incoming fire"; "18th platoon getting hit"; "Enemy unit advancing towards Lynx".

Meanwhile, almost grudgingly, the soldiers ducked down in ditches beneath the mosquito whine of ricocheting bullets.

They chain-smoked through the worst of it, alternating between laughs and curses whenever a shell landed too close for comfort, rocking the earth.

One man poked his head up from a bunker during a particularly ferocious exchange.

Amid the shadows and repeated flashes, he joked: "Welcome to Disco Partisan."

A pair of dogs — abandoned at the outbreak of war and now adopted by the platoon — faithfully followed the commander, Skeptic, as he moved between firing positions in the trench.

They flinched at every explosion but barely let out a whimper as the bombs rained down within 100 meters of the dugout.

One infantryman, Viktor Bogan, 46 years old and a carpenter before taking up arms last year, continued to tinker away in his makeshift workshop on the edge of no-man's land.

He had lost half his hearing in previous fights and seemed nonplussed by the latest outbreak.

"I'm only here so my children and grandchildren don't have to face war for themselves," said Viktor. 

He was clad in a leather waistcoat, a bandana and worn gauntlets, the Mad Max aesthetic round off by a huge, homemade blade tucked into a deerskin sheath.

During lighter moments, his grizzled face would often crease into a generous smile and he would talk of his dream to rebuild his hometown's church, destroyed during the 1917 Russian Revolution.

"Only the older men should be here," he sighed.

"It would have been better if the young boys were never sent to this front line."

Once morning dawned grey and cold, the fighting had subsided — some of the fiercest in weeks.

Positions remained the same but Ukraine's fragile truce appeared to lie in tatters.

"I had a dream two nights ago that the war will begin again in 121 days. I don't know why that number came into my head. It's silly, really. But these visions of war come to me most nights. Now is not the end of the fighting — it is just a break and it won't last."

We talk of dreams and death and the coming winter through a darkening afternoon.

Anatoliy and Svetlana, both on the cusp of 70 and married for 46 years, are decent people cursed by war, yet not corrupted by it.

They defy the conflict's occupation of their home in Pisky and refuse to leave.

Svetlana tells us of her strange premonition while we enjoy homemade blackberry wine, endless cups of tea and biscuits spread with honey from their beehives.

Somehow, despite the devastation around them, despite the storms of artillery, despite the hatred, their house remains unscathed.

It's hard to fathom. "God," says Svetlana.

"That is the only reason. There's no other way. We have survived."

Laughter still fills their modest home, as do fleeting hints of darkness.

I first met the pair in August, when their garden was still blooming with flowers and fruit at the end of a hot, bloody summer.

Their spirited bond clearly remains but recent months have etched fatigue upon their faces.

"The rest of Ukraine has forgotten us," says Svetlana.

"They could not imagine what we experience. We've lost more than any politician in power, on either side, ever could."

Our conversation continues for an hour, maybe two.

Memories of Pisky before the war and of distant family members intermingle with talk of fear, politics and loss.

Putin is mentioned, as is Poroshenko; the couple describe their hopes of holding their 70th birthday parties in the new year.

Finally, Anatoliy rises from his wooden chair and tops up our tumblers with wine — the last round of the day.

Dusk is falling and the threat of battle hangs as ever over this little European town.

He raises his glass.

"Za mir", he says.

"To peace."

Source: VICE News

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