They won’t even look us in the eye
We are sitting in a gazebo in the village of Novye Petrovtsy near Kiev. The Internal Forces soldiers are eyeing us tentatively from their post.
- Guys, come join us–we say invitingly. They approach warily. Embarrassed and surprised that we, “EuroMaidan volunteers”, are prepared to talk to them at all.
They are from the Odessa and Donetsk districts. Because of the war their service time has been extended. It has been 13 months since they last were home.
- We were in Maidan till December 9. But we just stood there. It was another division that carried out the pacification. Then we were sent to Mezhyhirya - they pointed out.
And what do they think of these guys that carried out the pacification?
- Those guys were unlucky to have been given that assignment. They are just guys, just like us. Normal boys.
I tell them about this Internal Forces soldier who cried as he resuscitated an injured man wrapped in a Self-defence banner in Mariinsky Park.
But I also saw soldiers that cracked down hard on the protesters.
Ivo lowers his gaze.
- All this is very difficult. I am a soldat, and when I leave the army I want to study to become an electrician. I know nothing about politics. Soldiers do what they are told. And those guys also did what they were told. Now they have a hard time finding work, some have changed their names… And in Berkut they have all kept their jobs. The very same ones that shot at people in Maidan. None of them have lost their jobs.
- ... we were not happy with the president or the government, but at the same time we could not understand the idea of attacking government buildings. Kiev used to be the cultural capital. We had this beautiful downtown area. Now it looks like there has been an uprising. They replaced one government with another. But life hasn’t become better for it.
- Now we are here with the National Guard. Everyone is fussing over them now, while we have been shoved aside. They get training, and we don’t. Meanwhile, we are to be dispatched to the East together. No one is bothered by how difficult it will be for us to go there, we are boys from Donetsk…
People of Donetsk don’t want Russia nor Ukraine. They want autonomy. But where is the money that might keep them? – no one knows. After Maidan there’s no work anyway.
- My brother has been going to Russia to work for years now. And I am supposed to fight for the Ukrainian Donbass. But I wonder, when I do win this fight, whether it will have the means to feed its children.
- They have no idea what to do with us. Sometimes I get this feeling that they would be happier if they could give us all new passports.
- The fallen from the Guard are revered–but have you ever heard a single story of an Internal Forces soldier killed in this war? The media are just not interested in that, while so many of our fellow soldiers have died. Some seem to think that death in the East is penance for our earlier service.
- There are guys in the Guard who won’t shake hands with us. Maidan men, with keen memories, who won’t forget. I have been getting hostile looks several times a day for three weeks.
- But there are also those who will just talk to us, lend their lighter, have a smoke with us…
- These National Guard boys are just kids anyway. They go to war thinking it is still Maidan out there. They are easily fooled, imagining that local civilians will help them, thank them for liberation; that people are on their side. But we know they are not.
In Maidan I hated it when people came up to us. “Cross to our side.”- they would say. - “Come on over, we will give you some tea.”- “Russian bitches with no honour”- they said.
We could not budge or respond. It was so cold that we couldn’t uncurl our fists after the watch.
The command is not concerned or bothered with problems of their privates. It is not they who have to look for new jobs or suffer nasty looks. We are escorted out from the training field by an Internal Forces major. We explain that we are guests of the Guard, that we have friends in the Self-defence Headquarters, we can call them…
- I am a major of the Internal Forces. Maidan Self-defence and the National Guard means nothing to me - he cuts us off. Some 300 metres away, the National Guard boys are getting ready to leave for the East.
Almost everything is lacking.
Ukraine’s National Guard looks swell in photos. But anyone with a keen eye will notice that some boys’uniforms are visibly too large for them. If you have an even more keen eye, you’ll see that some recruits are way into their forties. The Guard was recruiting men up to 55 years of age.
When the law concerning the National Guard was drafted, it was decided that it should have up to 60 000 soldiers. The pamphlets urged anyone with a sense of honour and the will to fight for their country to join. Now the National Guard of Ukraine comprises two battalions, about 300 soldiers each. They are recruiting for the third one as we speak.
From posters promoting this recruitment campaign a young soldier proudly peers into some distant land. The New Ukraine.
But the New Ukraine can’t provide its defenders with bulletproof vests.
- Boys, you are our pride! –Ukrainian Facebook users say in their comments.
Dramatic appeals for help are pouring in from the East. Soldiers write home saying that their squads don’t even have first aid kits.
There is no doubt that the Guard is made up from the very best of the country’s people. People who are too active to bear the inactivity of the government. Too patriotic to watch Russians move national borders. They joined the Guard straight from Maidan. Ukraine’s best people. Twenty years old - just like the equipment they are handed when they are sent to war.
To understand just how lamentable the state of the Guard’s gear is, one doesn’t need to go to the East. It is enough to visit their training grounds near Kiev. We met with some friends who joined the army straight from Maidan.
The Second Battalion is stationed in the same place as the Internal Forces. The boys are complaining, saying that the “internal”guys get better food and live in better conditions; that their commanders are the very same people who supervised the pacification of Maidan; that they have to look at these people every single day.
- They are avoiding us. They won’t even look us in the eye.
The National Guard is sustained and supplied by private donors. Taking a closer look, their gear doesn’t seem so nice. Their uniforms are made up from different bits and pieces, each has a different helmet, different vest.
They are bitter when they show us their helmets–This is kevlar, everyone dreams of kevlar. Our sponsor sent us 20 of these.
It turns out that there are no rounds in the training field. The recruits tote unloaded weapons. I ask them whether they can tell how many times they have actually practiced shooting.
I get sad smiles.
- You don’t wanna know.
I guess I don’t. “Take these poor boys out of here, this is no army! They can’t handle guns, they shoot up the asphalt!” say the Easterners in their comments on social networks.
The Guard’s official website talks of 5000 hryvnia per month for all heroes ready to fight for their country. In Maidan this amount is like the Ukrainian equivalent of 30 pieces of silver.
–Judases, they have it so good. They abandoned their friends from the tents, - some say.
The boys shake their heads.
- What 5000 hryvnia? Some days of the week we get our “per diem”. Usually it is 50, sometimes a 100.
Taras graduated from the law faculty this year. He signed a 3-year contract with the army. He knows he could have found a job easily, supported his family. He saw no point in standing at Maidan any longer. He wanted to fight for his country. Does he regret that now, when he has seen that this country cannot even give him a decent bulletproof vest?
- If I had any other alternative, I could regret having made a bad decision. But this is war, there’s no discussion. We need to defend ourselves.
When asked about supplies, he is bitter and unambiguous–In this helmet; I die if someone shoots at me.
- Maybe we can help, send you something… just tell us what you need?
- This is the Ukrainian army. We need everything.