Translated by Maria Razdiak / Edited by @GBabeuf
Photo credits: Aleksandr Kots & Dmitriy Steshin
Special correspondents Alexander Kots and Dmitry Steshin drove through the villages and the territories liberated from the National Guard and the Ukrainian Army, alongside the “Trophy Group”, observing how the Militia obtains their weapons.
Grown-up “toys” for children
“Oi, brats, over here! Turn out the backpacks,” the soldier from the Oplot Battalion calls to a group of teenagers, with a commanding voice. The grimy boys stop digging around the ex-field camp of the Ukrainian Army, near the village of Kuteynikovo, and shuffle over.
Only three days ago, it was impossible to get here. The whole territory was controlled by Kiev forces, who were locked into the Ilovaisk cauldron. They were seriously entrenched—the Urals buried almost fully, the KamAZs filled with ammunition, hidden in the groves, trenches, dugouts… Currently, the whole camp-site is littered with stages from Grad rockets, shells, mines and ammunition of every imaginable calibre. The Militia’s artillery had blanketed the whole area with a thick volley; it appears not a single war machine is capable of function. The wind is playing with the once secret papers, abandoned by the commanding officers.
The teenagers, grunting, empty their rucksacks.
“Come on!” the soldier rushes them. “Let’s see, let’s see, let’s see, what are our boys made of?”
A charred Makarov hits the ground, followed by a few scorched bayonet-knives, large-calibre machine-gun bullets, VOGs (launching grenades), smoke bombs, a gas mask and a grenade… Signs of the times. A farmer, from Novgorod region, once told us that, after the 2nd Shock Army had been ground up in a cauldron in the Great Patriotic War, that, up until the 1960s, the local boys’ favourite “toys” were military rifles which they would fish out from the local swamps. The parents could barely keep up with having to confiscate the bullets and the grenades. The future “toys” of the Donbass boys can already be observed. It is unclear who will clean up this deadly mess, or when . So, as soon as the strict “uncles” with the assault rifles pass, the boys will return to foraging at the abandoned Army camp-site, in search of a grown-up find. The “uncles”, on the other hand, are already busy elsewhere, reviewing a nearby IFV [Infantry Fighting Vehicle -ed.], which appears to be in working condition. Next to them—more locals, only these slightly older. Armed with canisters.
“We noticed this IFV during the morning round, and decided to return with a mechanic,” the soldier explains. “And those,” he nods at the locals, “are already draining the diesel. Where are the batteries?”
The young men were most efficient, pocketing the useful parts. They make excuses. They are taken home, to their fathers. There, everything makes sense: their fathers are agricultural workers, and a “tank” battery—it is a thing of legend: expensive and very reliable. The scene that follows is not pleasant. One of the Militiamen quotes a decree of the DPR Ministry of Defence, occasionally slapping the head of the nearest of the young looters. It turns out that in the DPR, as in Russia, all trophy materiel is the property of the Armed Forces of the Republic. Except that, while Russia has enough tanks, armour is, for the Militia, a key to survival. The eldest of the “Trophy Group”, Militiaman Roman, presses the moustachioed labourer:
“Do you know what happens to looters? I don’t understand, does your whole family want to go and dig trenches, or clear mine-fields? We shed our blood for this equipment, and you’re scavenging it, you kulaks!”
The farmers’ faces ease, clear up, and then everybody “suddenly” remembers who took the batteries. It turns out they were just charging them! Roman is pleased. One of the mechanics explains:
“Here, all the batteries are drained—they’re constantly hooking lamps up, charging phones and laptops—damned comfort seekers…”
The “Trophy Group” moves on, leaving a mechanic in the village. A surprise awaits them behind one of the homes in Osikovo village: an intact Msta self-propelled 152mm gun.
“It used to stand on that hill, then something must have broken, and they moved it here,” explains a local old man, introduced as Ivan. “The crew ran off with the column, but the guards stayed another day. I walked pass with a horse, and they shouted at me: “No! Uncle, not here!” And the rifle…”
“Did they behave themselves here; did they hurt anyone?”
“No, they used to pay in the shop. But once, the boys ran in: “Give us vodka! Write it off to the war!” But that was only once. In the third house from the corner everything was turned upside-down, they were searching for someone. Why they were looking there—I don’t know.”
The “general specialists” [i.e. mechanics -ed.] are already digging inside the Msta howitzer. A soldier they call “Cossack” was also a “generalist” in civilian life. His profession: dangerous.
“The Stuntmen Association of Russia,” he introduces, with military precision.
“You were in the movies?”
“Yes, over a hundred films. The latest—’Metro-2033′. Also, all the TV serials filmed by ‘Dixie’—’Glukhar’, ‘Karpov’ and so on. I’m from the Dima Tarasenko group. Before that, I used to work with Zhenya Batov.”
“What is your specialisation?”
“I work on ‘general’: high falls, burning, getting hit by cars. Before, in the Soviet cinema, one could jump, another could fall… Now, there are more producers than directors, there is a demand for smaller troupes. The more a stuntman can do, the more he’s in demand. It’s easier to hire one to do ten tricks, than a troop of ten.”
“When did you decide to come here?”
“After the Odessa events. That was the final straw.”
“What is your motivation?”
“Motivation?! And fascism—is that not enough? What other motivation can there be?! Is that not enough to make you take up arms?! Last time I fought was in 2000, in Chechnya. I thought that never in life would I fight again, take a gun in my hands again. But after this, after what was going on here…”
“We noticed you are limping.”
“I was shot in the leg. I went for a “two hundred” [Russian military jargon for “killed in action” -ed.]. A boy was killed—handsome, tall, talented, used to win Olympiads. He was the smartest kid. He went first into battle, he was the first to die. I went for him with his father into enemy territory. On the way back, I caught a bullet. Now I’m here, escaped from the hospital—I can’t sit on my backside in the ward.”
The missing, between life and death
We move on, through the Ilovaisk cauldron. Almost all the roads are lined with the charred skeletons of fighting vehicles. Here, a column was covered; there, a reinforced APC checkpoint was smashed. On one of the APCs with a ruined engine, one of her former crew had written in a chemical marker on the side the familiar Maidan slogan: “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes! Glory to the nation, death to enemies!” Inexplicable items lie all around—new children’s jeans with price tags still attached, pink t-shirts with price tags… Maybe the motorized infantry used them as rags? But why are they fresh, as if from a shop?
“Ah, they broke into some shop, and picked up some trophies,” our companion suggests, and, imitating the Ukrainian dialect, says: “Na-ah, that’s not for me! I’m taking it home!”.
On the way to Pokrovsky village, we encounter a complex of 122mm Gvozdika SPGs, unscathed by artillery fire. On the tower, someone had lovingly painted a Cossack profile, complete with a forelock and a cross-shaped earring.
“It’s from the Krivoy Rog brigade,” an on-duty Militiaman—call-sign “Camel”—informs us. “They were pushing us from all sides here. Now the attacks have weakened, we’ll chase them out, soon.”
“When were the attacks heaviest?”
“When they start with air power. Then artillery, then tanks and infantry. That’s their standard procedure. Well, we defend ourselves, we have stuff; we’re not afraid, they don’t scare us. They hit us with Grad and they hit us with road mines. We’re still standing.”
“How do you rate your opponents?”
“I don’t understand: why are they fighting? I think they’re just guys who don’t understand why they’re here. But I know what I’m fighting for—for my family, for Donbass, for my land.”
“Who are you in peacetime? What is your profession?”
“A regular painter-plasterer.”
We take a taxi to the outskirts, near the green. Here, once, stood batteries of multiple launch rocket systems, which would strike Militia positions in Ilovaisk. The security forces had hastily abandoned them, leaving behind mountains of boxes next to the missiles scattered on the ground, and a fallen comrade—his head smashed to a pulp—directly by the roadside. Judging from the state of the body, three days old. He will be listed as missing.
How many have died in the cauldrons is unknown to either the Militia or to Ukrainian headquarters. We film all the abandoned equipment along with the name tags. Gas-mask, “Vorobchuk, O. M.”; “Face towel for Veremchuk, V. V.”; one more gas-mask, “Khlevnyuk, E. V.” The war will end some day, the relatives will at least have some connection to a locality to chase up when they start looking for their missing ones.
“Pity for those, and for these”
A steppe village by Novokaterinovsk endured three hours of war. And now, no matter where you look, war stares back at you. The bridge is jammed with the wreckage of rusty armour. The roadside fence is adorned with red tourniquets: someone had been trying to staunch the bleeding. A bright blue ZiL truck lies upended: someone had fled in a panic, without even having thrown the sacks of cow-feed from the truck.
The ZiL was thrown from the road by the shock-wave from a projectile of some monstrous calibre. The funnel is filled with bloodstained bulletproof vests, sleeping bags, dry food and ammunition. It seems that the locals gathered to bury all this and to forget what had happened, as if it were a terrible dream.
We slow down near a vigorous looking IFV [Infantry Fighting Vehicle -ed.]. A set of caterpillar tracks snake among the burnt grass. It appears the vehicle was getting “reshod” in the shade of the trees. The crew has remained here, lying beneath the curves of a cross. The spokes are tied together by a blue strip, from the familiar “yellow-blue” pennant [the Ukrainian flag -ed.]. On the grave is a painfully familiar Soviet helmet, pierced by a bullet. The helmet is plastered with hundreds of flies, they dive through the bullet hole into the searing darkness and crawl around. One heaves from the stench. This is not a grave, but just some barely covered bodies.
The IFV was fired on by an RPG, one unexploded shell lies by the open hatch. The machine is some kind of new modification, clean, fresh, if you ignore the blood spattered around the crew compartment. The turret was reinforced with Kevlar plates, but the cumulative blast pierced right through them, just above the seam.
The “Trophy Group” is crawling all over the IFV, they find engine damage and reject the machine. It is not fit for resuscitation, for now. An old lady approaches us through the gardens of a nearby house. She lives alone, her children and grandchildren long ago left the village for the city. Nina Vladetskaya just needs to talk. She will tell everything and immediately she will feel better. We understand and we listen:
“Three hours there was fighting. My entire cottage is peppered with bullet holes. By the tank,” she points at the cross, “six or seven were killed. Over there—I don’t know how many were killed, and over there, by the bridge. Not buried, just covered! Who they were, I don’t know. The prisoners buried them. Here we have been rich in prisoners. But I pity them all! Pity for those, and pity for these! For whom are they like this? When foreigners come, I understand, fight! But we’re brothers, we’re sisters! Let there be peace, for the children, and the grandchildren, and great-grandchildren!”
But peace is not yet planned for these blessed grounds. One of the mechanics approaches us:
“This isn’t an IFV, it’s a coffin; the oven [the engine -auth.] is smashed, the piston’s sticking out. Drive on.”
Behind the next hill, we are in for a surprise—two tanks, stood neatly by the roadside. Opposite, an MTS [Machine-tractor station -ed.] hangar occupied by a DPR unit. They do not need the tanks.
The mechanics start running around the machines, opening hatches and diving into mysterious openings… The results are disappointing—the wiring is not just damaged, but cut into pieces. The Militia takes counsel, wondering from which tanks known to them the missing spare parts can be removed. From the burnt hill, where there had been a Ukrainian position blanketed by volleys of Grad, a camouflaged man slowly descends. One can see how difficult it is for him, his hands filled with something. The nearest mechanic un-shoulders an assault rifle:
“The Devil knows who goes there…”
But it is one of their own. On his sleeve, a St. George ribbon, and in his hands, two arsenals of bullets and five machine-gun magazines. The Militiaman cradles them, clutching a grey beard as well, so as not to spill anything. Sideways, he glances over at us. Someone asks:
“Grandad, where are the goods from?”
“All from the Voentorg, my sons, from the Voentorg…”
Two deafening booms sound from above, followed by some automatic gunfire. Somebody at the checkpoint had thought there was an enemy group by the distant slagheaps, and had opened precautionary fire. When the “Voentorg” is nearby, there is no need to save ammunition.