Shells Silent, Stressed Ukraine Fighters Face Alcohol Threat

MARIUPOL, Ukraine -- Some Ukrainian troops play hours of football while others take dips in the sea as they try to adjust to a sudden drop in fighting following a fresh ceasefire deal.

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have spent the past 17 months fighting pro-Russian insurgents across the former Soviet republic's separatist industrial east.

Kiev's war commanders are ready to allow almost anything to save soldiers from the gravest danger facing them during the current tentative truce -- booze.

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have spent the past 17 months fighting pro-Russian insurgents across the former Soviet republic's separatist industrial east.

Now, yet another in a failed series of ceasefires, agreed on September 1, appears to be mostly holding. 

And troops who have learned to take out their anger on the insurgents by manning tanks and firing rockets are now struggling to deal with their emotions in the current lull. 

"Many drink a lot," said a 30-year-old soldier who prefers to be called "Hunter".

"Our army is still a little Soviet," he said shortly after finishing a boxing workout in this government-held outpost on the Sea of Azov.

"The elite US units constantly do sports to relieve post-combat stress," says Hunter.

"Alcohol and drugs are not the solution. They only make matters worse."

- Post-traumatic stress disorder - 

The Mariupol battalion's sole psychologist says she likes taking agitated soldiers out for relaxing walks in the park or along the sandy beach while trying to soothe their problems.

"They have been coming to see me a lot more during the ceasefire," Yelena Trubetskaya says.

She describes the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder -- the same problem suffered by US soldiers after fighting for two decades in Vietnam as well as the Soviet troops in the wake of their 1980s misadventure in Afghanistan.

"Soldiers feel during combat like they are performing their duty by defending the motherland. But they lose sight of what they are doing when things turn quiet," Trubetskaya explains.

"They suffer from sleep disorders, a loss of appetite and bursts of aggression."

One Ukrainian defence ministry adviser told the Novoye Vremya weekly that up to 20 percent of those involved in battles had sought psychological help.

There are no official figures about how many actually took part in combat because of both draft dodgers and volunteers who formed their own units at the front, but officials polled by AFP believe that at least 100,000 Ukrainians have fought the separatists.

Independent psychologists cited by the publication said the number of those who suffer from shell shock may be as high as 80 percent.

- 'All for nought' - 

The top brass in Mariupol are clearly worried and trying hard to keep the restless fighters engaged. 

The battalion's deputy leader both encourages and -- in some cases -- requires his charges to do tactic training and play sports.

The outpost at times resembles a peculiar summer camp as young men roll around in the sand and kick balls not far from spots where shells obliterated everything around them just a few weeks ago.

"I can say from experience that when you return from warfare, you become maladapted," commander "Sedoi" (Grizzled) says.

The 54-year-old believes symptoms are most prevalent among conscripts who went to the front for a few months' duty but were forced to stay much longer because so many Ukrainians were skirting the draft.

"If you fail to rotate soldiers and change combat missions of the ones you have, they can simply break down. And we all know that breakdowns are treated here with alcohol."

Vodka and beer had been available throughout the field of battle and consumed by both sides in the war.

Yet many Ukrainian units -- especially ones made up of volunteers -- had strict rules about liquor consumption and severe punishments for those who disobeyed.

AFP teams in the war zone saw some drinkers put in solitary confinement for days at a time.

And endless battles kept even the most undisciplined soldiers too busy to hit the bottle too much.

Now many are not only restless but also upset that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has signed up to a truce deal that lets rebels keep land under their control.

"The guys watch the news and wonder what all that fighting was for -- whether it was all for nought," commander Sedoi laments.

Source: AFP