Published in diena.lt
In Maidan square, performers dressed as cartoon characters mingle amongst veterans and volunteers collecting donations. “Come take a picture, man!” says the makeshift Mickey Mouse. “Daily excursions to Yanukovich [the deposed pro-Russian president] villa,” rings out an announcement; the soldiers stand silent in front of the transparent, quarter-full boxes.
Oleg, call-name ‘Desant’, joined Dnepr-1 battalion in the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk, where he lived through the emergence of separatism. “We got together with some guys to keep peace on the streets during pro-Russian demonstrations,” he says.
Now, the city is over 200 kilometres away from the frontlines, surrounded by commercial centres -the scars of Euromaidan and the subsequent pro-Russian emergence have long been patched up.
Oleg fought with the special diversionary unit ‘Tesla’ around Volnovakha; he left once he was disillusioned with the war, and the people in command.
“There was a vigil held to commemorate the one year anniversary of the Illovaisk tragedy on 2 August” – the largest loss of life in modern Ukrainian war history – “Few hundred people came. Later on the same night, there was a rock music concert in town, with people dancing and cheering – I could barely stay calm.”
Oleg spent the three months after leaving the military with his family and children, and head-deep into social activities in the city – organising street workout championships, and challenging local politicians.
Whether he felt in need of psychological support, Oleg is modest – “There were guys who went through Illovaisk tragedy, who had to scoop up the remains of their friends – I didn’t witness it.”
However, marks of active conflict remain embedded. “At first, I would duck down at sounds similar to shelling or gunfire, my 4-year-old son would look strangely at me,” he smiles.
“Of course it was hard – all these lights, shops, like there’s no war. But of course, people can’t stop with their lives only because there’s a conflict going on,”
After lighting a cigarette with trembling fingers, Andrei – one of the patients at a Ukrainian military hospital in Kyiv, speaks out to the psychologists sitting nearby: “The hardest thing in war isn’t what you said [about the initial fight or flight reactions] – it was sitting together with 20 people in one bunker during artillery shelling.”
He proceeds to tell a story – “There was this boxer from Dnipropetrovsk – well built, won some championships at some point. But when the first shells hit, he pissed himself; that’s the reality.”
In a military hospital in the outskirts of Kyiv, soldiers try to get away from the visual reminders of war. “During a football game we organised, an older soldier came up and started showing horrible war videos,” says Galina Koval, volunteer at the hospital – “The younger ones brushed him aside and told him to let them rest, they didn’t want to see it; he called them cowards.”
A group of volunteer psychologists and psychiatrists are based on the ground floor in Kyiv’s Military Hospital. “They all go for a smoke, and pop in ‘just for a quick question’,” says Vera Shevchenko, coordinator of the NGO ‘Psychology Service’.
“It’s a psychologically demanding work, we need to keep rotating people,” says Vera; currently, there are 3-4000 volunteers across Ukraine. “There there are two official psychiatrists in this hospital, paid by the military. They are supposed to serve 600 soldiers,” says Vera.
“It’s like a second frontline here,” adds Myroslava, a young volunteer who finished medical studies in Ukraine’s Military Academy together with Vladimir, a ‘Cyborg’ – “What you listen from these men, a lot of it stays with you.”
A year since the start of the War in Donbas, soldiers are faced with increased apathy back home, and isolation once in the front lines.
“Every night, I thought how it’s like back in the position,” says Vladislav, a soldier on the frontlines with the 54th Brigade – “I used to jump up after 10pm, because that’s when shooting usually started; I stopped sleeping together with my wife.”
Vova, an officer, says after listening to his unit talk about psychological issues: “These are just talks; Those who truly need it will stay quiet.”
‘NATO’, a nom de guarre, is a Lithuanian man from Vilnius who fought with Right Sector in Pisky, one of the most active flashpoints throughout the war.
He saw the height of fighting before and during Minsk 2 peace negotiations – “No one trusted me once I arrived. The commander gave me a Kalashnikov, and took me to the trenches. He said, ‘see this farmhouse? It’s the separatists’ position – shoot’. I emptied a few magazines into it, and so they saw I was here to fight for Ukraine.”
“Some night were so bad, I didn’t know if we would see the light of day,” remembers NATO, “I think I changed as a person. I have a family and two kids, the local soldiers convinced me to go home, and instead tell people what’s really happening there.”
Sitting in the post during the night, Sergei – a mechanic in a neighbouring tank battalion, stared into the darkness, prepping his gun at the slightest noise or sight in the distance; expensive night vision gear is not available.
During the night, a bottle drops inside the house where the tank crew sleeps. Dull impact sounds, mimicking explosions, catapults Sergei’s tank mechanic up in his bed. After controlling heavy breathing, he goes back to sleep.
Sergei was killed on September 21 during a firefight, one day before he was due to go home.
“People have different priorities, and don’t understand the current situation in Ukraine” – says Volodimir Nebir, Ukrainian ‘Cyborg’ who fought in Donetsk Airport – “Ukraine has one priority now – national war, need to finish it.”
Vladimir was in the military academy, when the war in Donbas began. He left the school and joined the Ukrainian army, where he saw active combat throughout the war – including the infamous battle for Donetsk airport, where separatists gave the now-legendary nickname to Ukrainian soldiers, who would keep fighting against all odds – ‘Cyborgs’.
“After coming home, I’ve spent a long time travelling in western Ukraine, meeting with school children,” says Vladimir, “I believe it was very important; I wasn’t much older than them, as opposed to if 40-50 year old soldiers were talking to them.”
As a way of rehabilitation, he lived with a foster Canadian family and their 4 and 7-year-old children – “I love them both. We spent a long time together, playing and talking,” smiles Vladimir – “I didn’t feel I needed psychological help. I had first experienced death during Maidan – I was a medic there.”
“I’m in the one percent of the happiest people right now; my priorities and view to life changed after looking back and realising what I’ve lived through,” says Vladimir.
Myroslava, the psychologist who has met Vladimir during her time in the military academy, says confidently: “All these men- they‘re heroes. But not a single one wants to admit it, and don‘t want any help.“
Psychologty Service NGO