It has been a usual ritual for Andriy during the last two years to start an early morning with a cup of coffee, a cigarette, check if everything is in place and then go to the east.
We leave Kyiv when it is still dark.
– I would like to warn you that the next stop will be in Kharkiv, and after that in Bakhmut. We must reach our destination before it gets dark, – Andriy says. – And there are 700 kilometers to go.
At the same time one more car moves from the other part of Kyiv. Andriy Alisov, a volunteer, and Oleg Karpenko, Manager of Cooperation with Servicemen, a veteran of the war in Donbas, an officer in reserve, sit in it. The rotation of the servicemen is about to start in the east and the fund staff have a task to collect tens of night vision devices from a brigade, which is leaving the zone of the Joint Forces Operation, and pass them to the one, which will come to replace it. It is a thorough work, as none of the squadron can be left without “eyes” even for one day.
“My first commander was killed here”
“Skriabin” plays in the car for the second time already. Now and then we open the windows to let the cigarette smoke out.
– We got acquainted with Vitaliy Deynega (the founder of “Come Back Alive” Fund – Author) in Avdiivka. I was in reconnaissance, they brought devices and looked for somebody to be a contact person. Maybe, it was then that Vitaliy decided that I had to become a part of “Come Back Alive” Fund. When I was demobilized, they offered me to work with them. I am not a professional serviceman, but when the war started I went to the front, – Andriy says.
He patiently answers all my questions and tells stories about his service. The stories are funny and sad, some are confidential, so they cannot be shared for a long time.
Two other men call Andriy and say that the car they have been driving to pass to the servicemen broke on the road tens kilometers away from Poltava. We pick them up, go to a gas station, drink coffee and move further.
Kharkiv is ahead of us and then there is a road to Donetsk oblast. We cross the border between the two oblasts approximately at 3 p.m. We go through the renovated bridge, which was ruined in 2014 during combats between the Ukrainian Army and the militants. Halfly ruined houses standing by the road remind about those times.
– It is the bridge, which was ruined. When I served in the Army, I had almost fell down from it. It was just after I had been wounded, – Andriy says.
– My first commander was killed here, – Oleg adds.
We arrive to Bakhmut when it’s getting dark. In Donbas evenings start earlier than in Kyiv. We go to a service station, collect the car, which has been repaired, reload a part of night vision devices and go into different directions: Oleg and I will stay overnight in one of the brigades in Bakhmut and Andriy will go further, to Karlivka. He will arrive there approximately at 8 p.m.
“You’d better not walk alone in the streets”
A map lays open on the table in the room of the commander of a brigade. His telephone rings every three minutes and he listens to the reports about the situation in the positions.
– Excuse me, – he tells us, listens and gives commands.
We will spend this night in one of the battalions of the brigade. The servicemen take us to the canteen, where we eat dinner and talk with them during a long time about their service and plans for the future. It is getting quiet only after 10 p.m in the long corridors with the rooms of the servicemen on both sides.
It is the second day of the trip. We get up at 7 o’clock in the morning, have breakfast and go to Luhansk oblast. We go along a broken and empty road covered with ice. Our eyes are blinded with bright sun. We come to Popasna approximately in an hour, then go to command and observation post of one of the brigades. We come there when the servicemen are having a meeting. Oleg talks with the commanders of battalions and I sit into a car of the press officer with other colleagues to go and meet with the servicemen in the positions.
In Zolote, where one of the units of the brigades is, the majority of the buildings have been ruined due to shells, their walls are heavily marked with splinters. But life still goes on here.
– Shame on you! Shame on you for filming it! Which channel do you represent? Tell me, which channel?! – a woman in her 50s cries at me, when she sees that I am making pictures of the abandoned houses.
– Stop it, let’s go, – another woman tries to calm her down.
I move slowly along the street. Heavy weaponry is heard from far away. I return back to the servicemen.
– What weaponry is it? – I ask.
They listen carefully. They no longer pay attention to such sounds.
– They are mortars. It is like this almost all the time. Do you see this house without a roof? They say it was a maternity house.
When they learn that I am a journalist of “Come Back Alive” Fund they start expressing their gratitude for night vision devices and other aid.
– It is people who help you.
– But they do it via you.
We talk until it gets darker outside.
– You’d better not walk alone in the streets. Enter the building, we will give you some tea.
I go to the medical room. There are boxes with medicines near the beds of soldiers. A doctor gives us coffee and says that luckily they do not have seriously wounded now, but winter traditionally is a peak period of colds. We talk about life and Oleg comes to see the commander of the battalion. They look into big screens, study maps and negotiate about the devices the battalion needs. Finally, they shake hands. We go further – to spend overnight with scouts. They live in one of the houses, which has been used by servicemen for quite a long time.
Anton and Kat’ka, two dogs meet us. Nobody knows their real names as the dogs lived there already when this brigade came. We are given some food and coffee (coffee and biscuits are the first things, which servicemen offer to the guests) and are shown sleeping places: iron beds with sleeping bags. There is no hot water in this building and we are taken to a mine’s bathroom. Tins with meat and condensed milk make the woman, who works there much kinder, she calls us “the new ones” and shows shower rooms.
We return back to the scouts in 40 minutes. Some of them polish their shoes, some watch serial, some take a nap, some cook soup in the kitchen. Everybody has his own story. One of the servicemen was born in Donetsk region and went to the war to stop the occupants from entering his city. The other serviceman is an experienced law enforcement officer from Kharkiv who saw a failed “Russian spring” in his native city and decided to go to the war not to allow its spread in the whole country. The servicemen say that despite the so-called “ceasefire”, the militants continue firing using mortars. We fall asleep hearing the shells to get up at 6 o’clock the following morning and go further.
“The main thing is not to come across the militants”
It is the third day of the trip. We have 20 minutes in the morning to get ready and again, there are hours of going along bad roads of Luhansk region. It has been raining at night, and December snow is now covered with thin ice. We go to Popasna to meet one more commander of the battalion, but unfortunately, he does not have time, so we go to Donetsk region.
While leaving Popasna our car slips and gets into a ditch. We spend one hour there until “Ural” truck of the National Guard comes to rescue us.
– I would like you to appreciate the fact that while our car has been winding on the road and moving into the ditch, haven’t made any sound, – I tell Oleg.
– I would like you to appreciate the fact that I have not made any sound either, – he laughs back.
We arrive to Bakhmut to pass the night vision devices to a brigade. It is rather long and boring procedure, which Managers of Cooperation with Servicemen of the fund do each time. Though it is a strict system now, it was not always like that: the staff members of “Come Back Alive” Fund worked very hard to improve it. There are two copies of agreement for each given device. The document has a number of a night vision device and the name of a responsible person. It takes approximately one hour to fill in the papers.
As soon as they have been filled in and signed, we say goodbye and leave in the direction of Maiorsk. We will stay overnight there with our servicemen.
– The main thing now is not to come across the militants, – Oleg says.
– Very funny. We are in the car with black plates, you are wearing a uniform, and I have a journalist press-card in my pocket.
– Do not worry. At night it’s more likely that somebody from our side may open fire.
– I feel much better, – I smile.
We go to a gas station to drink coffee and eat a hotdog. Then we stop by the road to buy apples from an old woman sitting there and selling her stuff. It is already dark when we arrive to a place where we will spend this night. People there know and appreciate representatives of “Come Back Alive” Fund.
We speak till night in the kitchen until the moment the servicemen need to start a night watch. They schedule hours when they will watch the cameras and listen to the Ukrainian radio transmitters and radio transmitters of the enemy if there is a signal. In the morning we will go to the other brigade, along the road which the militants shoot, and then we will return back. During the whole evening of the fourth day of our trip a journalist from New Orlean has been talking with the servicemen, so we all go to bed later this time.
“I know every position on the front line”
It is the fifth day of our trip. We meet with Andriy at 7a.m. in Bakhmut. During an hour Managers of Cooperation with Servicemen deal with redistribution of night vision devices and discuss issues of device supply of the brigade.
– We will go now to our soldiers in Svitlodarsk salient, – Andriy says.
On our way there we are discussing yesterday’s shelling, as a result of which ten servicemen have been wounded.
– That is why I like going to Donbas, – Andriy says suddenly, watching trees covered with snow along the road, where other military cars go by. – Look, how beautiful it is around.
– Did you travel alone to the front line before that?
– I did.
– How did you manage to do everything by yourself?
– Well, when a brigade is going to leave a position, you come to the place and start collecting night vision devices. And you need to transfer them immediately to other servicemen. Besides, you need to check if all night vision devices work properly, maybe some of them need to be repaired. I stayed in Donbas for weeks. Or you come to the commanders of squadrons and start checking their platoon strongpoints and squadron strongpoints, then you consider how many night vision devices they need. There is no position on the front line which I do not know, because I have visited all of them.
We will travel along Svitlodarsk salient, will communicate with the servicemen, who know Andriy very well and meet him as if he is their best friend. Then we leave for Kostiantynivka. Oleg and I will get on a train to Kyiv and Andriy will stay in Donbas several more days to redistribute all devices.
– How many kilometers have you travelled during this trip? – I will ask him a few days later in the office.
– It was 1,5 thousand kilometers on the territory of the zone (zone of the Joint Forces Operation – Author), and approximately 3,5 thousand kilometers in total.
Andriy will go to Donbas again in two weeks.