Volodymyr Markevych was on the observation post in one of the positions of the front line not far from Novomykhailivka. He, a military doctor, had just turned 48 years old. There was one more anniversary to celebrate in a month: a year of his service in the 24th separate mechanical brigade named after King Danylo. But on that day, 23 March, there was a shelling of the position by a sniper of the enemy. The commander ordered to hide in a shelter. Volodymyr did not have time to do it as a 12,7mm bullet hit him. There is his mother left behind in his native Lviv region and also a 22- year-old son Kyrylo.
Only a few weeks have passed since that tragic day. But it is war, and Volodymyr’s brothers in arms continue performing their military duties in this position.
“Sabotage-reconnaissance groups of the enemy move through areas covered with trees at night”
A few hundred kilometers from the front line it may seem that it goes along the same positions. But to see how the Ukrainian Army has actually moved forward during five years of the war, one can check the distance between the old and the new positions.
We are going along very bad roads, along the fields of Donetsk oblast. Farmers have started to work in some fields, but some fields are neglected and covered with dry grass. It means they are still mined. Abandoned blindages and partly ruined trenches can also be seen.
We arrive to a position. Vika, a short girl, is accompanying us. She is 18 years old, she is a mechanic and has just joined the Army. She jokes that when men learn about her profession, they are always very surprised.
– Have your relatives supported your decision to join the Army?
– If you do not mind I will not repeat what they have said, – Vika laughs. – But they have got used to it by now.
We are approaching the position. Soldiers are always busy here: some are carrying out engineering works to improve security of the servicemen, some are chopping firewood, some are cooking, some are resting in the blindage before or after the watch. The cats are taking a nap in the first spring sun.
– So, you have elected… – a serviceman with a nickname “Uncle Koliya” says. (He means the recent president elections in the country – the Author).
He lights up a cigarette and reads news in the Facebook. Uncle Koliya is on the front since summer 2014. At first he served in “Aidar” battalion, now in the 24th brigade. His greatest happiness and motivation as he explains is to ensure sharing of his knowledge and saving of soldiers’ life.
– I hoped I would rest from these trash news at least here, on the front line, – I say.
– But we also follow the news, how can we not?
The servicemen are highly interested in news from the rear: they use a slow internet or watch TV. But in fact they do not have much time for it. After a short talk Uncle Koliya and Bohdan, a 23-year-old commander of the squadron will start inspecting the positions and will return only in the evening. And they go through this routine a few times a day.
The distance to the enemy is very short: it is only a few hundred meters from some positions. Snipers are very active here, and it happens that the militants try to approach the positions of the Ukrainian Army.
– In the majority of cases they approach through areas covered with trees at night. But now it is quiet, – Bohdan says. – Recently one person from my squadron has been killed in this position during a shelling with small arms. I commanded to hide into a shelter, but… Well, we revenged on them accordingly. We listen to talks of the enemy on the radio transmitter. Not a long time ago two militants have been killed by the battalion situated not far from here.
The Ukrainian servicemen know who is located opposite their positions. They are Russians, the 3rd territory battalion of the 100th brigade.
– Different people are there. There were special operations forces, and we always know, when the professionals work. There were Georgians and Chechens. Groups of snipers also come, – the officer says.
After these words I have got a nasty feeling that at this very moment I am being watched through a scope from behind trees or bushes.
Not far from the blindages which are in use there is a burned and partly ruined one. It is not clear when, why and during whose rotation it was burned. The soldiers have made an improvised sports ground on this place: a pull up bar made of thick branches and a barbell made of plastic bottles.
– You are lucky the mud has dried. A few weeks ago there was a real swamp here, – a serviceman says. He accompanies us, when we “examine” old observation posts of the position.
The young boy says that during his service he has got acquainted with a girl and is going to marry her soon. It seems that for the first time during our talk he starts smiling.
“Here they need me more”
We come to another position. A middle aged serviceman is chopping firewood. He is taking us “on an excursion” through trenches to the kitchen. It is very hot in a small room as the cook has just finished preparing dinner and is smoking outside. Coffee is the first thing which is offered to guests and brothers in arms on the front line. We are waiting for half an hour for an old kettle to boil on a wood-burning stove.
If you follow the trenches further, you can see more “rooms”. The young women are drinking tea in one of them. The room contains a metal stove for heating, a table and wooden benches.
Olena is a medic. She is from Luhansk region. In 2014 her town was occupied. Olena was a nurse at children’s hospital and was providing medical aid to servicemen of the 24th separate mechanical brigade in her free time. Finally, she decided to sign a contract with the brigade.
– Here they need me more. No matter that I worked at children’s hospital, servicemen are like small children. It was even easier with children, here I have to persuade them to be treated, – she laughs. – Luckily, I have not had severely wounded. We have had a person killed recently, you know it… But there was no chance of saving him…
Olena has a son and parents who are waiting for her at home. Her son is extremely proud of his mother, when she comes home wearing a military uniform.
Two more girls are listening to our talk very attentively. Vika, a mechanic and Zhanna, an assistant of grenade launcher operator. This rotation is the second one for Zhanna.
– Many of my friends have been killed in the war, so I decided to go, help the others and test myself. Nobody could stop me from doing it. I feel better here. We do not have a division of man-woman, we help each other in everything, – Zhanna says.
– You have been participating in the war for two years already. Were you very scared sometimes? – I ask.
Zhanna thinks for a while.
– It is scary when a mother is falling to the ground, when the children are crying, – the woman replies. – You do not think of anything during a combat. Maybe it is because of adrenalin. And you know, we can shoot out of any weaponry.
Bohdan and Uncle Koliya will return to trenches when the sun starts to set down. We will talk about the war and military operations, how it is to be a young commander of older servicemen and what to do with the fact that even 50 kilometers from the front line people think there is no war.
While drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes Bohdan will tell us till midnight funny stories from his life when he had studied at the military academy and had joined the Army. Then he would take us to his blindage and show wooden bunk beds and free sleeping bags. He will go to have a nap late at night, but before that he will listen to continuously working radio transmitter and reply to clinks of a military field telephone.
“Crocodile”, from which the militants shooted
The next morning we go to another position, where one more squadron of the brigade is located. Upon approaching it we see big slag heaps, which are typical for Donbas scenery. They have become dangerous long ago, because the militants open fire from there.
“This slag heap is called “Crocodile”, – Oleksandr, a press officer explains. – “The militants were constantly shooting at our servicemen from there with anti-tank missile complexes, machine guns, grenade launchers and mortars. Recently their positions have been destroyed by our soldiers.
The militants considered “Crocodile” “the defence base of Donetsk from the west” and boasted in their propaganda resources that from this slag heap “both the road of Krasnogorivka-Mariinka and the villages are being controlled”.
To get to the positions, where Oleksandr, the commander of the squadron is, it is necessary to move quickly along an open locality, a field. There are many deformed electric grid pillars, which have been damaged during combats.
Civil cars are going by the positions of the servicemen, because a Ukrainian checkpoint is situated not far from this place. There is a crowd waiting to enter from the occupied territory. Only two kilometers away from here people live according to regulations established by the militants. If a car stays too long near the positions, the servicemen urge it to leave, because through the car’s window the passengers can take pictures of our fortifications and pass them to the enemy.
– They do not shoot during the daytime, because we close the checkpoint immediately, and it a disadvantage for the enemy, – Oleksandr says. – But snipers can shoot during the daytime, that is why it is always necessary to move through the trenches. Previously the militants opened fire at night. Now our servicemen has blocked the sector, where they were shooting from.
The young officer is taking us through the trenches. He says it is very important to talk to the servicemen every day and remind them to try to preserve their lives.
-People get used to anything. When the enemy shoots, the servicemen are very well-organised, however, when it is quiet, they start to be relaxed and the enemy can benefit from it, – Oleksandr explains.
We come to a truck “Ural”, which will take us to the headquarters. In a week the officer will write: “We have wounded in our position”.