The paratroopers of elite 95th Zhytomyr Airmobile Brigade have a reputation as Ukraine's toughest and best, always serving on the front lines since the beginning of the bloody conflict in eastern Ukraine. A furious bear is drawn on their flag.
But on July 13 they were friendly and smiling – and one of them was cuddling a puppy. “His name is Bronik (after bullet-proof vest),” said Sergiy, 25-year-old machine gunner.
Sergiy’s colleagues were welding the iron grates around an armored personnel carrier that should protect the vehicle from grenade launchers. They are also were fixing numerous holes in other armored personnel carriers, the remnants of last fight with Russian-backed insurgents that killed two of their team.
But most of the time Sergiy, as well as his comrades keep smiling and joking as a humor is a thing that helps them to survive amid the hell of war.
These paratroopers took the biggest hit by this war. They have the most awards, and the most killed of any unit. Some 80 percent of soldiers killed in this anti-terrorist operation are servicemen of this unit as well paratrooper’s brigade No 79.
They were fighting in Kramatorsk, Sloviansk, defending elections in Karlivka and most probably are heading to Luhansk soon. The place where they are staying is an extremely secret location nicknamed Sherwood Forest.
Sergiy remembers how on May 13 near Dobropillia, a driver of the armoured personnel carrier Solovey (nightingale), whose real name is Sergiy Solovyov, saved the lives of 11 people. Solovyov basically used his vehicle to push the burning armored personnel carrier out of the dangerous zone. Five people were killed in the two carriers that time, though.
On a short leave to heal their wounds, Sergiy and the other rescued soldiers visited Solovyov’s parents to thank them. “We brought a huge bunch of flowers but when the neighbor saw this, she stood still, pale, fearing we came with some bad news,” he remembers.
Solovyov, whom his comrades consider a hero, later received numerous shrapnel wounds to his face and hands, so he is now receiving treatment in Kyiv Military Hospital. There are many other guys from this brigade lying in hospital beds now, and many of them became disabled, Sergiy said.
The people they are fighting against are mostly from Russia, including Chechen guys, Sergiy said, and contemptuous of the Ukrainians. “They don’t respect the local guys from Donbas, they even don’t pick their corpses up when retreating,” he said. The insurgents also use the newest Russian weapons, including grenade machines, machine guns and even explosives, which the Ukrainian army doesn’t have.
But Sergiy said the Ukrainian troops have been visibly improved since the start of anti-terrorist operation in April. “Over the last month we’ve got a feeling that we are really worth something,” he said. “Before that I didn’t understand what we were doing in fact. We were mostly just dying in the very beginning.”
Sergiy was a professional serviceman before he left the army about two years ago and worked at a farming company in Zhytomyr Oblast. But just after the conflict started he was recruited as a reserve soldier in March.
His wife and two sons, ages 4 and 1, are now waiting for him in the suburbs of Zhytomyr. He said he is bitterly missing them. “My younger son has already started walking and I’m still here, not with him,” Sergiy said.
Since the soldiers are miles away from their homes they look like a family together, spending all the time in small cubicle full of ammunition, with seven men, including a commander, a driver, two machine gunners, one grenade launcher and two assistant shooters.
“This is my junior,” Sergiy pointed at his assistant. “And this Crocodile,” he said speaking about his commander. A Crocodile, whose real name is Viktor, 33, laughed sitting at the roof of armoured personnel carrier.
One more member of their little crew is a nice puppy Bronik (after bulletproof vest), which without complain travels in the armored personnel carrier along with soldiers. But when the guys stars smoking inside the poor dog puts his head out through the hatch to catch some fresh air.
Then a group of two well-dressed women and three men shows up, carrying Coca-Cola and sweets. These are the volunteers that regularly come to bring soldiers food and equipment. Sergiy also shows the new thermal scopes and first aid kits bought for soldiers by “some volunteers from Maidan.” “We had almost nothing in the very beginning,” Sergiy said. “And without this we are just blind in the night time,” added Viktor (Crocodile), pointing at thermal scope.
The two men had a bet, where Sergiy claimed the war would end by July 25, while Viktor didn’t believe so. “But now Crocodile said he is ready to lose in bet a bottle of the best cognac just for me to be right,” Sergiy said.
The paratroopers of elite 95th Zhytomyr Airmobile Brigade have a reputation as Ukraine's toughest and best, always serving on the front lines since the beginning of the bloody conflict in eastern Ukraine. They'ved had the most awards -- and the most deaths -- of any unit.
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.