Journalist Radiomaker Schrijver Stadsgids

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Ukrainians die for freedomUkrainians die for freedom
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Published in weekly Vrij Nederland, 3 september 2014

Ukrainians die for freedom

Highly educated and enterprising Ukrainians are the driving force behind the war against the Russians. ‘Our future is being decided on the battlefield.’

‘If you are being raped, you might even fool yourself and try to enjoy it. But if someone is trying to murder you, you have absolutely no other choice. You fight back, if necessary until death.’

Commander Yaroslav of Donbas Battalion is eating sushi in a restaurant in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. His wife listens with tears in her eyes and doesn’t move from his side during the few hours’ leave that he allows himself.

Four months ago, Yaroslav (41), in everyday life working as manager of an Internet company with a staff of sixty, presented himself at Ukrainian army headquarters. He and his friends wanted to participate in the fight. ‘The general on duty kept us all waiting for two hours and summoned us to park our cars neatly in the line of military vehicles. This won’t work, I thought. I phoned the artillery brigade. ‘Come and help us, please’, they begged. So we went to the front.’

Yaroslav attended a crash course in drone technology and is now one of the commanders of the Donbas Battalion, a collection of brawlers who presented themselves as volunteers to defend Ukraine. Drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, are now indispensible in war; they establish the exact position of the opponent so that the artillery can fire accurately.

The number of highly educated soldiers in the battalion is quite striking. Top-level managers, entrepreneurs and university graduates have put aside their jobs or studies in order to fight a war with an uncertain outcome. ‘There are forty people with Master’s Degrees fighting in our battalion. We call them ‘botaniks’, the Ukrainian word for nerds.’ Yaroslav says with a grin. ‘Our men are motivated to the most rigorous level. Two brothers even sold their Rolls-Royces and used the proceeds to buy ammunition.

The battalion is complemented by people with a lot of military experience, such as a group of ex-combatants who fought in Afghanistan. The Donbas Battalion is currently involved in heavy fighting somewhere east of Donetsk. Yaroslav doesn’t want to discuss the details. ‘I bet that the generals haven’t got the slightest notion of the highly dangerous work we carry out there. Without us, the battle would have been lost long ago.'

Unfair struggle

The war in Eastern Ukraine is increasingly coming to resemble a guerrilla war without a fixed chain of command, while thousands of men voluntarily risk their lives. The men realise that Ukraine is waging this war on its own. ‘From the very first moment we understood that nobody was going to help us, we stopped running away’ continues Yaroslav.

Donbas Battalion takes pride in not receiving a single cent from the government in Kyiv. They fight at their own expense and call upon Facebook followers to donate money. The official army also goes to war largely thanks to a hard core of activists, who provide them with food, uniforms and weapons.

One of these activists is Michajlo Dovopol, a forty-year-old management consultant from Kharkiv. With his car crammed with water, clothing and cigarettes, he is on his way to a village close to Luhansk where the front is currently situated. These past weeks the Ukrainians have achieved a measure of success in this region; cities such as Slavyansk and Lysychansk have been regained from the pro-Russian rebels. The war has left a devastating trail of destruction.

At his final destination, a Ukrainian army encampment close to a checkpoint, Michajlo's aid is badly needed. 'We depend on volunteers like Michajlo for a lot of our things,' the soldiers say. They point at crates of tomatoes, bread and lard. ‘The locals bring us food. And we have harvested these watermelons ourselves.' When asked the question about whether they get help from the government, the soldiers respond with sneering looks. They stopped counting on that a long time ago.

The soldiers also relate how the army leadership fails to defend the regained territory. ‘It is such an unfair struggle. The separatists are much better armed than us. They can protect themselves easily against our ammunition but their bullets go straight through our vests’.

‘No way could we allow ourselves to drop our guns and run away from the battlefield’, agrees Yaroslav of the Donbas Battalion. 'In that case our weapons would be lost and we don’t have any new ones to replace them. Our opponents have an inexhaustible arsenal of weapons. Recently we regained possession of a small town. With the number of mortars we captured there, the Ukrainian army will be able to fight for three months. We stopped counting when we reached a thousand. We didn’t even have enough trucks to transport it all.'

The men of Donbas Battalion only train for three weeks before they go to the front. ‘In one of the conquered positions we found a booklet with training methods. These Russian mercenaries allot three weeks alone, to the practise of quick changes of uniform! They have twenty years of experience in killing people. This is reflected in the number of dead. If there is one casualty on their side, five of us are killed.’

Grim determination

Their sheer grim determination increases with the number of dead. ‘We have no other option’, Yaroslav says. ‘Putin applies the scorched earth policy. We see how the separatists destroy well functioning factories when this destruction does not serve any military objective. That should never happen in Kharkiv.

In Kharkiv, the second city of Ukraine, over two hundred kilometres from the front, the war approaches quickly. For several weeks now, a hundred wounded arrive daily at the military hospital. Meanwhile, the official number of soldier fatalities is around seven hundred, but not included in this figure are the dead of the volunteer battalions - the most fanatical fighters at the front.

The war also brings a sense of unity and patriotism. Kharkiv seems ‘more Ukrainian’ than ever before. The blue-yellow flags hang everywhere and on every street corner a support centre has been set up to raise money, clothing and food for the army, and medicines for the wounded.

In early spring, everything was different in Kharkiv, say Alesia (21) an entrepreneur and Oksana (23) a student. They too drive a minivan towards the front each week. ‘There were a lot of pro-Russian demonstrations then. That was frightening. Ukrainian activists were beaten up mercilessly. We have known since then what it is like to live under Russian occupation. The Russians would treat us as half human beings.'

Their voluntary work is perilous. A few days ago, the tyres of their van were shot to pieces from the side of the road. The escort vehicle behind them, an army truck, was hit by mortar fire; two soldiers were killed.

‘We are prepared to die for our freedom’, the women say. ‘See how they live in Russia. The secret service reads your private correspondence; the State spies on you every single day. Free media do not exist. Waving a Ukrainian flag could land you in prison for years. There is no entrepreneurial culture. It is impossible to start your own business or pursue a career independently. Russians don’t believe they can change their society. Ukrainians do.’

Soon a battalion of forty women will head for the front. Alesia and Oksana consider joining them. ‘If we don’t fight now, there will not be a future. If all our men are dead, us women will take up arms.'


It is this militant language that was also heard on the Maidan (Independence Square) in Kyiv last February. So it’s no surprise that the core volunteers consist of highly qualified Ukrainians and entrepreneurs who also formed the backbone of the Maidan revolution last winter. With the same mixture of patriotism and fighting spirit with which they withstood the cold and the snipers, they are not giving in to the Russians now.

‘We are young, pro-Ukrainians and averse to corruption’. Graphic designer, Ernest Lobanov (23) is now a commander of the police battalion in Kharkiv, which also fights regularly at the front line. He is responsible for the recruitment of volunteers for his unit. He too gets many applications from young people who demonstrated on Maidan.

One of them is the 25-year-old Anton. ‘Ernest and I met during the revolution in Kyiv. I had just finished my studies in architecture. When I was young, I wanted to join the police force but my father, a policeman himself, discouraged me. Much too corrupt, he said. But after the revolution in February and the Russian attack on Crimea I opted for this battalion. I realised that I had to defend my country and my ideals.’

In the selection process for their unit, Ernest tests applicants’ level of patriotism. ‘They have to know the Ukrainian national anthem by heart and respond with ‘Glory to the heroes!’ to our call of 'Glory to Ukraine!’’ In order to make sure that the boys are not corrupt, he holds long conversations with them and a few psychological tests are done. ‘An intensive training of a week and a half follows, and after that, the men go to the front.’

‘Many young Ukrainians realise that their personal future will be decided here on the battlefield’, Michajlo Dovopol says in his now-empty car, on the way back from the front line. ‘That is why this war concerns all of us. Putin wants a resurgence of the Soviet Union. But for some time now, this has been a thing of the past for Ukraine and there is no way back.

Dovopol stresses that it is a positive fight as well. ‘When the Soviet Union collapsed, people didn’t trust each other anymore. It was everyone for himself. During the Maidan revolution, for the first time, Ukrainians were bonding together again. That is a great source of inspiration for us.'

After the war

The revolutionary ideals may well be a motivating factor for the battle in the east, but it is by no means certain to what extent they are still alive within the government in Kyiv. The demonstrators back then, reformers and civic organisations complain that until now, president Poroshenko has done extremely little to suppress corruption.

At the end of next month, there will be early parliamentary elections. The old clique of former president Yanukovych will probably disappear. But this will not subvert the power of the corrupt clans and the oligarchs. Paradoxically, they play an even more decisive role. The immensely rich businessman Kolomoyskyi, for instance, governor of the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk, finances a few volunteer battalions that fight at the front.

‘The lack of decisiveness by political leaders results in frustration’, battalion commander Yaroslav says. ‘The price we pay is high. The government owes us a lot. They should purge Ukraine of corrupt judges, administrators and politicians. The bureaucracy hampering entrepreneurs must be pushed back. And if the government does not comply? That will bring a new revolution. This will be extremely dangerous, because there are a lot of weapons in the country.'

A growing number of activists argue in favour of a new weapons act. IT entrepreneur Roman, another activist who transports wounded soldiers from the front to the hospital each week, says: ‘We want a law that allows the possession and use of weapons for self-defence. Then the next revolt, which is sure to come, will not be as bloody as the Maidan revolution; as the authorities will know that we will fight back.’

Roman too, cautions that the government should be careful. ‘The attitude of the volunteers and soldiers who later on are due back from the front, is very direct. They think in terms of right and wrong. There are too many politicians in Ukraine who couldn’t care less about our laws. They think they own the country. The government should finish the work of Maidan and change the corrupt system.’

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