The May 22 murders of 18 Ukrainian soldiers near Olhinka in Donetsk Oblast served as tragic reminders to the world that Ukraine is locked in a bloody war with Kremlin-backed separatists.
But Ukrainian army soldiers trying to stay alive at a checkpoint near the village of Semionovka between Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, two cities controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists, don't need any reminders.
They know the dangers all too well. And so do their bosses.
“Our commander, when checking the checkpoints, never comes here as it is too dangerous,” said army soldier Maxim with a bitter smile, not giving his name because of fears for his safety if identified publicly.
Maxim, a tank man, showed the Kyiv Post a big hole in the ground caused when a shell exploded only 50 meters from his tank. In yet more bitter irony, the gun that fired the shell was a Ukrainian one. It belonged to a group of soldiers from the Dnipropetrovsk airborne brigade, who defected from the Ukrainian army and are now fighting on the side of Sloviansk separatists against their former comrades.
Maxim said that the traitors initially called their former colleagues trying to entice them to defect with stories of getting good salaries for siding with the Kremlin-backed insurgents, officially considered to as terrorists by the Ukrainian government and many other Ukrainians.
Wearing shorts he made from military pants and a khaki bandana, sporting a tattoo in the shape of a paratrooper on his shoulder, Maxim said he is not sure why he stands there day and night, suffering from heat and dodging shells.
Andriy, a tall guy with a small pistol in his hand, stops and closely checks cars coming from Sloviansk. He said the defectors are getting some Hr 4,000 per day, while the Ukrainian soldiers were receiving less than this amount per month.
Still Andriy stays “for the sake of Ukraine,” emphatically making his patriotic point: “This is my country and I’m serving it."
Andriy is a former Berkut police officer part of a unit disbanded for brutality against protesters during the EuroMaidan Revolution that overthrew President Viktor Yanukovych on Feb. 22. Andriy speaks perfect Ukrainian as he comes from Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine. He said he wasn’t injured during the EuroMaidan Revolution, but he hated the National Guard unit that was partly formed from former Maidan protesters. “They were throwing Molotov cocktails at me,” he said.
Andriy believes he is serving his country here near Sloviansk just the way he did it in Kyiv several months ago. Every day he calls on a priest to get some advice about his life.
Dima, in the blue beret of a paratrooper, emerges with a wide smile from the forest where the soldiers have their little camp. “Do you know what’s going on in my Odesa now?” he asked. He is said it’s hard to get fresh news about his native city.
Dima said he was fighting not for Ukraine but rather for the local people who keep bringing water and food for the soldiers, opening themselves to to the risk of being persecuted by the separatists if caught. “Without these people we would die here,” he said.
There is a line of jars with homemade pickles along the road where the tanks are parked as well as the cheapest “kilka in tomato sauce,” or canned fish. The soldiers said they also received some NATO dry rations sent them by the army. “But the military outfit that our commanders also received from NATO was sold on the market in Dnipropetrovsk,” Dima said.
The conversation was stopped by an officer, who came and pointed out that it was getting darker and shootouts mostly start in the night.
“Ladies, you better go now,” he told the Kyiv Post, smiling.
“And you guys, get to your cars,” he yelled, addressing his soldiers.
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from www.mymedia.org.ua, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action, as well as Ukraine Media Project, managed by Internews and funded by the United States Agency for International Development. The content is independent of these organizations and is solely the responsibility of the Kyiv Post.