June 10, 2016

The soft-spoken fight the war


When Mykhaylo, a cousin of my wife, told me a year ago that he was being dispatched to the Donbas front, I couldn’t believe it.

Rather, I couldn’t imagine it. He’s as skinny as a pencil, as fragile as glass and can barely raise his voice above street noise as he speaks. I’ve never seen anger or aggression from him and can’t imagine what that would look like. In short, this guy has no business being mixed up in a war.

I thought to myself, “How did they get him?” Heroic volunteers like Nadiya Savchenko are more often the exception, not the rule. The vast majority of Ukrainians want nothing to do with the war, even those who once cared, as confirmed by National Deputy Andriy Biletskiy, the commander of the Azov paramilitary regiment.

“It’s greatly unfortunate that the majority of people on whose backs Ukraine was rescued in 2014 won’t go again if the war is escalated,” he said in a late April interview with the gazeta.ua news site. “Many are offended and wonder to themselves, ‘What did we do this for?’”

The authorities got Mykhaylo Volodymyrovych by staking a bet on his impoverished finances and/or legal knowledge. Mykhas (or “Misha,” as my Russified central Ukrainian relatives call him) was on his way to work in the early morning at a home improvement supermarket, where he contentedly labored as delivery help.

A police officer approached him and asked to see his domestic passport, which is practically the national ID for Ukrainians. Mykhas complied, only to be instructed to sit in a nearby bus, where he was greeted by other startled faces.

Soon enough though, they all knew what was up without having to ask. Mind you, it’s illegal for a police officer to keep your documents. But the way the army recruiters handle this nuance is that, while maybe a third of the guys rounded up know their rights and will stand up for them, one way or another the other two-thirds will go along to get along.

And so, once enough bodies were herded over an hour, they headed to a local recruitment center. The guys from Donetsk and Luhansk were let off as refugees. After all, how can the government ask them to fight their own former neighbors?

And some of the well-off guys – the one-third, more or less – were met by lawyers to take them away.

But Mykhas wasn’t well off or aware of his rights, like most of those serving on the front. A village boy, he settled in Kyiv the most effective way, which is through marriage. He’s gone through the standard grinder for the arriving countryfolk, working a string of poor-paying jobs, often getting stiffed at that.

Indeed, just getting paid consistently by his store, regardless of how little it was ($240 a month), and working in delivery – instead of enduring frigid winds or punishing sun rays that come with construction – was enough to satisfy him.

At the recruitment center, the guys were told their passports would be held for three days until they brought their “viyskovi kvytky,” which are the military cards that detail their history. This illegal action is the government’s way of responding to the violations committed by those avoiding the draft.

You see, hundreds of thousands of young men are avoiding service by not registering in the district of their current residence. Instead, they keep their registration in their hometown, which is usually some rural destination.

The draft notices are sent to their hometowns, but the men can legally claim they never saw or received them, thereby avoiding responsibility for avoiding service. In Mykhaylo’s case, his mom simply used them to fire her stove.

In most cases, these men are living and working in Kyiv, which is virtually the only city in Ukraine that offers any half-decent jobs. By catching guys on their way to work in the early morning, the Kyiv recruiters are sure to snatch up some village boys presently living in their district but not registered there.

Mykhaylo’s mom brought his military card in order to enable him to register at his district recruitment center. Again, that’s what he was supposed to have done once he started living in Kyiv. Now that the recruiters had him registered on their territory, they could call him in for service.

Before his passport was returned, Mykhaylo was warned he’d face three to eight years’ imprisonment if he tried to avoid service. The recruiters weren’t much concerned about his low weight (154 pounds) or the pains in his abdomen that arise after two miles of walking.

And so, without knowing his rights and timely access to a lawyer, or the will to do something extreme (like act as if he was an alcoholic or worse), Mykhas was dispatched on July 10 last year. His unit was given a month and a half to train, and they were in the Volnovakha district of the Donetsk Oblast by September 4.

The year that he spent on the front was rough, to say the least. He didn’t much complain about the basic training or his work in a repair unit (at least the officers were sensible enough not to throw the lanky fellow into infantry).

The soldiers of his unit had to build their own kitchen, toilet, shower and bathtubs, even adding a sauna to boot! They cut their own wood for their wood-burning stoves and bought their own refrigerator and washing machine.

They ate well on the war front, but largely thanks to the monthly visits of volunteers. Most of the guys in his unit were from the rural regions of the Chernihiv Oblast, whose neighbors and relatives delivered them pickled vegetables, chicken thighs and pork chops – among other delicacies – from their own farms, at their own expense.

They had an exceptional cook who served up borshch and fried cutlets “as good as any Kyiv restaurant,” he said.

To the government’s credit, it did provide decent food on the front: buckwheat, desserts such as sweet condensed milk, and even cuts of beef and pork, almost daily, Mykhas said. But they wouldn’t have eaten meat nearly as often if not for the volunteers.

They were among the fortunate ones, he said. Other conscripts got stuck in units where the food was hoarded by their commanders, who forced them to sleep in tents in the field, and where they had no access to showers, let alone baths. One of his colleagues got his ribs broken for questioning the commanders for hogging the soldiers’ food.

However, things got worse when Mykhas reached the base in Honcharivske in April for his unit’s transition from the combat zone. The daily grub was pearl barley porridge, millet porridge and pea soup, three times a day, day after day.

“We couldn’t even look at it, let alone eat it,” he said. “Even rice and buckwheat were rare.”

Frozen pollock brought by a truck one afternoon was taken away by another truck within the hour, never to be seen again (the soldiers keep a close eye on such deliveries). “They were lining their pockets,” he said of the base’s commanders.

To get some meat, they snuck off the base twice a week and bought hamburgers and coffee at a local café. The officers gave them excess work and insulted the recruits, nothing like his unit commanders.

It was during this time that he called me in late April. “I don’t know how much more of this I can take,” he said in an exasperated voice, after having his long-awaited break postponed three times.

Although he heard bombs and shooting off in the distance at various times, Mykhas is fortunate enough to have avoided any direct combat. Even better, the government never missed his monthly payment of $285 for his service to his country.

It wasn’t until early May (10 months after being dispatched) that he got his first break, eight months after it was due, and 13 days instead of the 25 he was owed. In spite of the exasperated phone call, he looked to be in good shape and spirit when we met for “shashlyky” at a Kyiv lakefront.

His daughter is blossoming into a teen, yet has lacked her father’s daily guidance.

On the other hand, the war has bonded the members of his unit. He kept in touch with them during his break, checking up on their health and their families. If anything, this war has been a bonding experience for many, offering a new sense of identity and purpose that didn’t exist before, though not necessarily a vision.

Mykhas holds no illusions. “The sooner it ends, the better, because nobody needs it,” he said, before adding, “Except for Putin and Poroshenko maybe.” It’s a notion that the majority of Ukrainians hold.

Just what are the Ukrainians fighting for in the Donbas? There are many answers because there are many reasons, but the bigger question is whether the goal of the fight is achievable.

Unfortunately, only a few voices in the West, like Prof. Alexander Motyl, are trying to get Western leaders to understand that their current strategy will only lead to the defeat of Ukraine’s aspirations to integrate with what’s left of Western civilization.

Keeping the occupied Donbas neatly tucked within Ukraine’s borders will serve as an anchor of misery and warfare for years, if not decades. And, as Dr. Motyl pointed out, it’s costing a handful of Ukrainian lives every day.

These are the lives of those like Mykhaylo – too simple and soft-spoken for these times of widespread manipulation and deception. He doesn’t even know where he’ll be dispatched next (“Somewhere in Luhansk,” he said), let alone if his pension will be higher as a result of his service.

Currently awaiting his dispatch at the Honcharivske transition base, Mykhas hopes to be back in Kyiv by the end of July. But the president said he might extend the terms of those already serving rather than calling a new draft wave to replace them. Again, Mykhas doesn’t know whether that will affect him.

“No one is asking them to give more food than what’s proper. To not steal,” he said. “Then everything would be fine, and the soldiers would fulfill their service better. The soldiers are also psychologically downcast because they’re not allowed on break for half a year. Let alone serving 10 months without being with your family. You can lose your mind like that.”