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When junior sergeant Dmytro Bazhura, 22, saw a column of separatists driving from Sloviansk through his checkpoint early on July 5, he jumped into his infantry fighting vehicle, opened fire and stopped them.

After some 20 minutes of heavy fighting, three armored vehicles and one tank carrying separatists burned down, dozens of insurgents were killed and some of them, including three Russian female snipers, arrested. “I think they just underestimated us,” Bazhura says.

On the same day that Ukrainian troops entered Sloviansk, which for nearly three months had been the stronghold of Kremlin-backed separatists under the command of ex-Russian operative Igor Girkin (Strelkov).

The liberation of Sloviansk, which had 120,000 residents before the fighting, is the biggest victory of the Ukrainian army to date, and it raised the fighting spirit massively.

Ukrainian soldiers sit on top of the armed vehicle at the checkpoint near Slovyansk on July 10

The Kyiv Post first met Bazhura in late May at the same army checkpoint between Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. At the time, he endured heavy shelling by separatists every night along with other poorly equipped soldiers. The moods were dull, the soldiers were prepared to die at any moment and even their commanders were too afraid to visit them.

But less than two months later, Bazhura exudes confidence. For his bravery, he was awarded a watch from President Petro Poroshenko.

Months of warfare against the separatists in the Donbas has transformed not only the young sergeant, but the entire Ukrainian army, turning a crowd of badly trained geeks in shabby uniforms into battle-worthy servicemen with real-war experience.

“Ukraine has now gained probably the best army, capable to fight finely, capable to defend the civilians, capable to become real peacekeepers,” Poroshenko said, prior to awarding dozens of soldiers the anti-terrorist operation’s headquarters near Izium on July 8.

But Bazhura refused to fly a helicopter to get his award from the president’s hands. He had seen too many times how Ukrainian helicopters were shot down near Sloviansk. He doesn’t consider himself a hero and talks about the viciousness of the war. “It would be easier if it was a war between the two countries,” he said. “But here we have to fight against the civilians, the same Ukrainians as we are.”

Ukrainian soldiers stand at the checkpoint near Slovyansk

Despite serving for three years in the Dnipropetrovsk paratrooper brigade, Bazhura, like many of his comrades, never thought he would have to fight in a real war. He says that most of all he wants to see his home and family after months on the frontlines.

A native of Odessa Oblast, Bazhura said that local people were extremely helpful to soldiers at his checkpoint, risking their lives to bring them water and food. Defending those people of the Donbas is the main reason why he was ready to endure months of shelling. “Without these people we would die here,” he told the Kyiv Post in May.  

Later, when separatists cut off this checkpoint from external help, the soldiers had to rely only on the water and food supplies parachuted from helicopters, so sometimes servicemen had to survive the summer heat without a drop of water for long periods of time.

They still wear shabby uniforms, which they mostly bought out of their pockets in military shops and have to use Kalashnikovs and armored vehicles that should have been turned into scrap metal long ago. Even in war, their monthly pay is meager - some Hr 4,000 (about $340.)

“The fighting spirit of our army has obviously increased,” said senior lieutenant Dmytro Shymko, 23, Bazhura’s unit commander. “But we should not underestimate the importance of equipment.”

Shymko, also a professional contractor, said it was strange that military commanders were sending lots of new weapons to less experienced units formed from volunteers. “Why send them arms when they even don’t know how to use them?” he said.

At this checkpoint, this unit has lost two soldiers. There is a funeral wreath nailed to a nearby tree – a bitter reminder of the loss. One of those was killed and three others wounded on the night of July 5, during heavy fights for Sloviansk. The number of those wounded is impossible to count, Bazhura said.

 

Since the beginning of anti-terrorist operation against separatists, 223 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and 420 wounded.

Dozens of Ukrainian armored vehicles sped past the checkpoint recently, with the smiling soldiers atop waving to their comrades and journalists. They were moving from liberated Sloviansk to the provincial capital of Donetsk, where most fleeing separatists have dug in for a climactic battle.

At the checkpoint, soldiers were preparing for service rotations. They had no idea if they would be going home or deeper into the combat zone, and they had even less of an idea how long the fighting will continue. But they know how to speed it up.

“The sooner our leaders realize the importance of good equipment and proper selection of soldiers, the sooner we will defeat the separatists,” Shymko, the officer, said.

A damaged armed vehicle which belonged to pro-Russian insurgents stands near Slovyansk

An armed vehicle passes by the Ukrainian checkpoint near Slovyansk

The shells from a launcher lie down on the ground close to an armed vehicle

An armed vehicle passes by the Ukrainian checkpoint near Slovyansk

Ukrainian soldiers meet after a long time that they didn't see each other at the checkpoint near Slovyansk on July 10.

Ukrainian soldiers meet after a long time that they didn't see each other at the checkpoint near Slovyansk on July 10.

Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media.

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When junior sergeant Dmytro Bazhura, 22, saw a column of separatists driving from Sloviansk through his checkpoint early on July 5, he jumped into his infantry fighting vehicle, opened fire and stopped them.

After some 20 minutes of heavy fighting, three armored vehicles and one tank carrying separatists burned down, dozens of insurgents were killed and some of them, including three Russian female snipers, arrested. “I think they just underestimated us,” Bazhura says.

On the same day that Ukrainian troops entered Sloviansk, which for nearly three months had been the stronghold of Kremlin-backed separatists under the command of ex-Russian operative Igor Girkin (Strelkov).

The liberation of Sloviansk, which had 120,000 residents before the fighting, is the biggest victory of the Ukrainian army to date, and it raised the fighting spirit massively.

Ukrainian soldiers sit on top of the armed vehicle at the checkpoint near Slovyansk on July 10

The Kyiv Post first met Bazhura in late May at the same army checkpoint between Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. At the time, he endured heavy shelling by separatists every night along with other poorly equipped soldiers. The moods were dull, the soldiers were prepared to die at any moment and even their commanders were too afraid to visit them.

But less than two months later, Bazhura exudes confidence. For his bravery, he was awarded a watch from President Petro Poroshenko.

Months of warfare against the separatists in the Donbas has transformed not only the young sergeant, but the entire Ukrainian army, turning a crowd of badly trained geeks in shabby uniforms into battle-worthy servicemen with real-war experience.

“Ukraine has now gained probably the best army, capable to fight finely, capable to defend the civilians, capable to become real peacekeepers,” Poroshenko said, prior to awarding dozens of soldiers the anti-terrorist operation’s headquarters near Izium on July 8.

But Bazhura refused to fly a helicopter to get his award from the president’s hands. He had seen too many times how Ukrainian helicopters were shot down near Sloviansk. He doesn’t consider himself a hero and talks about the viciousness of the war. “It would be easier if it was a war between the two countries,” he said. “But here we have to fight against the civilians, the same Ukrainians as we are.”

Ukrainian soldiers stand at the checkpoint near Slovyansk

Despite serving for three years in the Dnipropetrovsk paratrooper brigade, Bazhura, like many of his comrades, never thought he would have to fight in a real war. He says that most of all he wants to see his home and family after months on the frontlines.

A native of Odessa Oblast, Bazhura said that local people were extremely helpful to soldiers at his checkpoint, risking their lives to bring them water and food. Defending those people of the Donbas is the main reason why he was ready to endure months of shelling. “Without these people we would die here,” he told the Kyiv Post in May.  

Later, when separatists cut off this checkpoint from external help, the soldiers had to rely only on the water and food supplies parachuted from helicopters, so sometimes servicemen had to survive the summer heat without a drop of water for long periods of time.

They still wear shabby uniforms, which they mostly bought out of their pockets in military shops and have to use Kalashnikovs and armored vehicles that should have been turned into scrap metal long ago. Even in war, their monthly pay is meager - some Hr 4,000 (about $340.)

“The fighting spirit of our army has obviously increased,” said senior lieutenant Dmytro Shymko, 23, Bazhura’s unit commander. “But we should not underestimate the importance of equipment.”

Shymko, also a professional contractor, said it was strange that military commanders were sending lots of new weapons to less experienced units formed from volunteers. “Why send them arms when they even don’t know how to use them?” he said.

At this checkpoint, this unit has lost two soldiers. There is a funeral wreath nailed to a nearby tree – a bitter reminder of the loss. One of those was killed and three others wounded on the night of July 5, during heavy fights for Sloviansk. The number of those wounded is impossible to count, Bazhura said.

 

Since the beginning of anti-terrorist operation against separatists, 223 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and 420 wounded.

Dozens of Ukrainian armored vehicles sped past the checkpoint recently, with the smiling soldiers atop waving to their comrades and journalists. They were moving from liberated Sloviansk to the provincial capital of Donetsk, where most fleeing separatists have dug in for a climactic battle.

At the checkpoint, soldiers were preparing for service rotations. They had no idea if they would be going home or deeper into the combat zone, and they had even less of an idea how long the fighting will continue. But they know how to speed it up.

“The sooner our leaders realize the importance of good equipment and proper selection of soldiers, the sooner we will defeat the separatists,” Shymko, the officer, said.

A damaged armed vehicle which belonged to pro-Russian insurgents stands near Slovyansk

An armed vehicle passes by the Ukrainian checkpoint near Slovyansk

The shells from a launcher lie down on the ground close to an armed vehicle

An armed vehicle passes by the Ukrainian checkpoint near Slovyansk

Ukrainian soldiers meet after a long time that they didn't see each other at the checkpoint near Slovyansk on July 10.

Ukrainian soldiers meet after a long time that they didn't see each other at the checkpoint near Slovyansk on July 10.

Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media.

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