On any other day, this summer camp called “Friendship” might be a serene setting for school kids on vacation from drab classrooms and teachers’ instructions.
Signs adorned with colorful paintings of rainbows and flowers seemingly drawn by the untrained hands of children mark its entrance. Faded hopscotches decorate the pavement not far from a jungle gym inside the kaleidoscopic gates where they would laugh and play.
But today, it is home to dozens of fidgety middle-aged men in masks decked out in black combat gear and carrying assault rifles.
They are members of the Donbass Battalion, a volunteer militia group devoted to ensuring a united Ukraine, and they operate with the tacit support of the central government in Kyiv. Their task is fighting Russian-backed separatist rebels who, with Moscow's backing, have besieged the country’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and pushed the country to the brink of war.
Comprised of ex-military men with experience operating in hot spots around the world and civilian volunteers, the brigade operates covertly throughout the regions, destroying rebel roadblocks and freeing the buildings they occupy. On occasion, they capture and interrogate the rebels before turning them and their weapons over to authorities in Dnipropetrovsk, where the regional governor, an oligarch appointed by Kyiv named Igor Kolomoisky, has offered cash rewards for them.
The group was first seen in action on May 2, when a shaking video published to YouTube showed the black-clad battalion, wielding Kalashnikov rifles, destroying a separatist checkpoint near Krasnoarmiisk, 67 kilometers from the rebel stronghold Donetsk. During the raid, the patriotic militiamen captured 15 rebels and seized three automatic rifles.
The guns were later exchanged for cash, explains Sergey Yeriomen, the militia unit’s vice commander. A retired serviceman and Makiivka businessman before the crisis, he’s the only man here not masking his face and carrying a Kalashnikov at the camp. But he’s fiddling with a small pistol inside his jacket pocket as he explains how the battalion operates.
“We crowd-fund on the Internet, including publishing our bank details on Facebook, and we use our own money,” he says, adding that he cleaned out his savings account to help fund the unit. Many other men have done the same, he says.
Since the unit’s first call to arms about three weeks ago, more than 100 men have joined its ranks. Another 600 are on a waiting list, says Semyon Semenchenko, Donbass Battalion’s 38-year-old commander and a former army reserve captain.
Flanked by two armed men beneath the colorful gates and “welcome” sign of his unit’s basecamp, Semenchenko, in black combat gear and a balaclava, says that they recently captured three spies who attempted to infiltrate the group. They asked “too many questions” and “about mission logistics,” he said. “We spotted them immediately.” He did not say what became of the spies, other than they were “taken away.”
Semenchenko, a former small business owner who before that spent six years in the military, says that his unit is “fighting bandits and criminals and traitors to the country.”
Those in the separatist camp not fighting physically, Semenchenko adds, are equally guilty of treason. “They are spreading lies and propaganda. They are telling false information that gives a warped sense of the reality here,” he says.
A Donbass Battalion member stands guard at the units base camp.
He and his men – as well as several other militia groups that have popped up across eastern Ukraine in recent weeks – have taken up arms to fight separatism here, because “if we don’t, who will?”
The Ukrainian army, which in April launched a largely unsuccessful counter-terrorism operation against the heavily armed rebels here, leaving at least 25 killed and many more wounded, is “impotent,” Semenchenko says.
“Ukrainian forces sitting near Sloviansk are cowards,” says Yeriomen, referring to the flash point city of some 100,000 people where several gun battles between Ukrainian security forces and armed separatists have taken place in the past three weeks.
As for police forces here, many officers have defected to the side of the pro-Russian separatists, while others have fled the region or simply don’t show up for work. That has left a security vacuum filled with scores of empowered armed rebels who act with impunity.
So what does it take to become a member of this squad?
The criteria for joining the its ranks, Yeriomen says, is straightforward: men and women must be at least 18 years old, they must be healthy and harbor a great love for their Motherland. “Everything else can be learned here,” he adds, gesturing to the training grounds being erected over his shoulder and the men stacking sandbags around a lookout post.
This camp is new. The battalion’s last one, a field location near Krasnoarmiisk dotted with trees and defunct agricultural equipment, was discovered by the pro-Russian rebel forces. The battalion was forced to find a new location after that, hence the summer camp, which Yeriomen says was provided by Kolomoisky’s regional government.
“We communicate with someone close to Kolomoisky,” he explains. “They provide some support.”
Standing besides a handful of his militiamen dressed in what appear to be brand new black uniforms emblazoned with “Ukrainian Army” patches, Yeriomin says he can’t elaborate on the support provided by the regional government. The Kyiv Post’s requests for comments from Kolomoisky, members of his government and press team regarding their cooperation with the militia were not answered.
Despite the army patches, these fighters are not affiliated with the army, Yeriomen says. And despite comments from Dmitry Yarosh, leader of the nationalist militant organization Right Sector, they aren’t affiliated with any far-right groups, he explains.
They do, however, take some orders from “someone close to (Arsen) Avakova,” Yeriomen says, referring to the acting Interior Minister. Avakov could not be reached for comment to confirm this. Yeriomen insists, however, that most decisions are made between him and Semenchenko.
Asked how long the unit will fight, Yeriomen says, “as long as it takes.”
“But when this is over, I will go back to a peaceful life,” he says. “I have 40 years of military experience. It’s enough for me.”
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