When I was 17, I fretted about life, not death. There seemed an endless amount of it in front of me and I didn’t know what to do with it all. As a narcissistic 17-year-old, I didn’t stop to consider that others might not be so lucky.
This post contains what we believe to be an authentic, firsthand account of the war in Ukraine’s east. The gentleman we spoke to for this blog wishes to remain anonymous. As a result, identifying details have been altered to preserve his identity. While we cannot verify the validity of his story, we believe it to be true based on his detailed, consistent recollection of events along with the sincerity with which he spoke. Compounding this, there seems no personal gain or ulterior motive he would have to fabricate what follows. This post contains graphic descriptions of violence and war crimes. If this is not something you’re comfortable reading, we recommend skipping this post.
This blog is the seventh of a series tracing our journey over land and sea to Australia, starting in Ukraine. During this journey, we hope to make the foreign familiar by showcasing the unique and universal details of the places we go and the people we meet. To ensure you get every post plus exclusive content, subscribe to our weekly newsletter here. For a more visual journey, my wife Beth vlogs our travels on YouTube. You can also get short, absorbing snippets of our adventure by following us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
While unversed in the art of giving someone a pseudonym, I decided to ask Beth to pick a number between one and twenty then google the most common Ukrainian names and pick the corresponding name to Beth’s number.
“Eighteen.” Beth replied, surprisingly confident.
“Taras?” I read, unsure.
“No, that doesn’t read easily, how about five?”
“Max. We’ve already met a Max, and he’s in the blog so people might think it’s him.”
“Eight is Igor. Remember Igor and his dog Butch from Yaremche?”
We met Sasha outside Odessa’s train station and walked briefly around the city before retiring to eat at a restaurant.
It seemed Sasha first wanted to get comfortable with us and see we could be trusted confidants for his story. We spoke about superficial things initially. Beth being Canadian, Sasha Ukrainian, and myself Australian meant we had enough substance to make casual conversation. Superfluous chit-chat about shared interests in football and how cold Ukraine gets compared to Canada built some rapport.
Curiously, Sasha’s biggest concern regarding the disclosure of his identity was not reprisals from the Russian army or reprimands from Ukrainian authorities. It was the wrath of his mother that got Sasha’s eyes wide with concern.
“The Russian army is nothing compared to my mother,” Sasha stated with complete sincerity.
Apparently a middle-aged Ukrainian mom armed with matriarchal authority is far more intimidating than bombs and tanks.
Sasha had a personal reason to feel the overwhelming desire to join the fight against Russian-backed rebels in the east of Ukraine. His friend died in street protests that turned violent when police and snipers opened fire on demonstrators during the 2014 revolution in Kyiv. It resulted in the ousting of the largely corrupt, Russian-supported government of the then president Viktor Yanukovych.
It would seem the Kremlin saw this revolution as an opportunity to invade and annex Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. On top of this illegal annexation Russia decided to spark anti-Ukrainian fervor among radical, pro-Russian separatists in the east of Ukraine which led to the current conflict. These actions indicate Moscow is willing to resort to military action to try to retain its influence in Ukraine if the elected government in Kyiv isn’t willing to dance on strings.
In 2015, 17-year-old Sasha was studying at university in Odessa. At this point in the conflict, Russia had annexed Crimea and the war in the east of Ukraine raged on.
Sitting safely in a lecture hall was not Sasha’s idea of preserving the legacy of the revolution, now under direct military threat from Russia, or honoring the memory of his friend. Too young to join the military, he’d heard he could join a militia fighting the rebels if he went to the front.
Militias (In Ukraine, this amounted to a group of volunteer soldiers not eligible to enter the state army) were common in eastern Ukraine during the first few years of the war. Officially, they were branded illegal by the Ukrainian government. The reality on the ground, according to Sasha, was different. Sasha and his fellow volunteer soldiers often received food, water, and other supplies from friendly Ukrainian soldiers who appreciated the patriotic sense of duty militia members demonstrated. Sasha also felt that the volunteers fought with more passion than military conscripts.
With his friend’s murder at the hands of a corrupt state fresh in his mind and patriotic fire burning inside him, Sasha boarded a train eastbound. It was the start of the 2015 summer. He casually told his parents he’d be spending his holidays working on his tan while employed at a kids camp for the warmer months. Surely the biggest whopper told to parents ever. I, on the other hand, was racked with guilt when I was 17 and told my parents I was going to the cinema when I secretly drove 5-hours round-trip to a burger eating contest.
On the job training.
As a young boy Sasha had occasionally fired pistols with his dad for recreation but never anything as powerful as an assault rifle. Upon arrival, there was no time for training. Sasha was given his own antiquated AK-47 (named for the year it was first manufactured – 1947) which he was responsible for at all times.
The first nerve-racking round he fired from his new companion was enemy bound. Adrenalin pumping, lying in a shallow trench, Sasha must have been completely oblivious to the searing pain in his shoulder from the recoil, causing subsequent bruising. I also wondered how Sasha felt while shooting at people, surrounded by strangers in a foreign part of the country. It was a far cry from shooting cans with dad at home.
I have some idea of how powerful an AK-47 is (having fired one in Las Vegas, as an adult, during a previous life). I tried to picture myself as a 17-year-old holding one. I questioned my ability to pull the trigger with a human in the cross-hairs rather than a paper silhouette. Possibly unwilling to kill people, I couldn’t imagine being anything other than a liability in a war zone.
Having spent my teen years playing sport, going to school, and washing dishes in restaurants on the weekends, I guess I don’t really know how I would’ve reacted had someone thrust a rifle in my hands and thrown me into the heat of battle.
Meet the gang.
I assume Sasha was somewhat capable though, as he wasn’t sent home upon arrival. He was incorporated into a company consisting of 100 militia who were not fit for traditional military service due to a variety of reasons. Some too old (In the Ukrainian army the maximum age is 60), many, like Sasha, too young (the minimum age is 18). Some had physical limitations that disqualified them. Things like flat feet, bad teeth, and even bad acne can disqualify candidates (solving any conscription problems I would’ve had as an 18-year-old. Apparently bad acne can inhibit the proper use of a gas mask).
Sasha also mentioned he had a female sniper join his company because the Ukrainian army doesn’t allow women snipers. I couldn’t find anything online that states female snipers are not allowed in the Ukrainian military. I feel the need to note her now as she will become chillingly significant shortly.
With an exasperated laugh, Sasha recalled a particularly inept militia member. Despite repeated reminders to the group that they were each personally responsible for their own weapon, this calamitous member misplaced his AK-47 and, despite his best efforts scouring the camp, couldn’t find it. Upon their captain hearing of this absurdly dangerous act (not only to himself but his fellow militia) he was promptly sent home. I can only imagine that this might shed some light on the Ukrainian military’s decision to exclude him from their ranks also.
The captain of this company of 100 misfits was an exceptionally qualified man. He was in his sixties, with seemingly more military experience than the other 100 combined. When war broke out in 2014, his son was drafted into the army. He went to join the military but was laughed at, told he was an old man, and needed to go home.
“He said, ‘how can I sit at home when here is my son fighting’,” Sasha recalled his leaders desperate response to the military’s rebuff.
An anguished father, with years of formal military experience, was forced to enter a grey area to feel he was fulfilling his paternal instincts.
Sasha repeatedly emphasized the respect and admiration he had for his captain’s leadership. He felt he was in better hands under his skillful guidance than those in the regular army. Although many died, Sasha felt it would have been more without the experience and tactical prowess of this fatherly figure.
Despite being thrown into the chaos of war, Sasha’s days had some semblance of routine. Tasks, some benign and some potentially deadly, were compartmentalised into three shifts. Four hours lying in a shallow trench, facing death while exchanging fire with the enemy, or anxiously waiting for the signal to do so. Four hours ‘relaxing’ on standby away from the front. And finally four hours attempting to sleep in a shallow dirt trench (tents or anything else would’ve been much too easy a target and provide no protection from bullets and shrapnel from large artillery).
While grappling with this disturbingly new environment that was now Sasha’s day to day existence, he had to continue the farcical lie that he was spending his summer in the peaceful Ukrainian wildness as a camp instructor. In what must have been surreal moments, Sasha crawled under a pile of blankets (to try to conceal the sounds of war that rung out around him) and called his parents.
To preserve his tall tale, before each call, he’d think about what his imaginary summer-camp day entailed. Maybe a dip in the lake, the catching of a particularly large pike with some of his favorite campers, or comforting homesick kids. These fibs were aided by his actual experience working in a kids camp the previous summer. Sasha was able to conduct what he felt were normal conversations with his parents and respond confidently to questions. Unsurprisingly he eventually felt his dad was becoming a little suspicious.
“He ask about what you doing today? What you doing yesterday? Things he not normally ask,” Sasha added, skeptically.
It seems Sasha’s dad was more curious about summer camp this year than last. Either Sasha was getting paranoid or his parents were cottoning on to the fact it didn’t exactly sound like kids gleefully giggling by a pool in the background.
No one in Sasha’s militia wanted their true identity revealed to each other, the media, or the Ukrainian military, due to the illegality of their presence on the front. Thus, balaclavas were worn and nicknames given. Sasha told us with pride that he’d earned the nickname Serious due to his jovial nature and good humour. I was perplexed at how anyone maintains a sense of humour during war, let alone an innocent 17-year-old. Perhaps if one does not laugh, one will cry.
Others developed more sinister reputations.
“We called him Crazy,” Sasha informed us of one member’s nickname, with a hint of spine-tingling details to come.
One chilling night, Crazy, who had notched up years of military service with the Ukrainian army in Afghanistan, sneaked into an enemy bunker. Armed with a knife, he slit the throats of five sleeping enemy soldiers.
Upon returning, he told Sasha the trick to not rousing any of the sleeping soldiers he had not yet killed while he committed his murderous act on his current victim was to wake each of his casualties just before delivering the lethal slash. According to Crazy, people make a loud gasping noise if you kill them while they are still sleeping.
I wanted to ask how Sasha’s next 4-hour sleep shift went after this gruesome life lesson. However, my mind was reeling trying to interpret the impact this experience would be having on 17-year-old Sasha.
By this point of the conversation, Beth and I felt a mixture of shock and morbid curiosity. I wanted to ask more questions but feared overstepping boundaries, possibly bringing up traumatizing experiences.
Sasha, however, was answering our questions and telling stories with the same tone one would describe a much less life-threatening summer job teaching kids to swim. The occasional joke or witty observation thrown in to reinforce his nickname. We constantly asked if he was comfortable continuing the conversation. He insisted, genuinely affable.
Despite this, I still wasn’t feeling overly comfortable asking a former teen member of an illegal militia about his time in the trenches. I asked, with much trepidation, what his scariest moment on the front was. He reminisced on Russian tanks.
Russia continually insists it’s not playing an active role in the war in the east of Ukraine. Sasha was brutally exposed, however, to the two-faced attitude Russia takes to Ukraine. There must be no greater or menacing unveiling of the true nature of Russia’s actions than the day young Sasha, lying in a shallow trench armed with a pea-shooter by comparison, witnessed Russian tanks barreling towards him. The sight must have been truly apocalyptic. He must have felt assured his time had come.
The unofficial relationship between the Ukrainian military and Sasha’s militia group saved his life. Sasha’s militia called the nearby Ukrainian military with their location coordinates and the Ukrainian military fired artillery, driving the tanks away.
I was curious as to how the military personnel would explain to their superiors how they knew where the tanks were if they didn’t have a relationship with the militia. Sasha said they recorded the incoming calls as originating from civilians. I pictured the babushkas we’d been buying groceries from in the street pulling out a cellphone and quoting their coordinates to the military. It was an unlikely alibi.
If we weren’t overwhelmed by now, Sasha was about to chronicle a final, heinous episode I’ll never forget. At the time, Beth and I were still processing this astonishing conversation and perhaps didn’t gauge the severity of it. With hindsight, I still don’t think I’ve quite absorbed its implications.
Sasha’s company began to notice children running around their trenches, seemingly noting their position, and running back to enemy territory. Being children, I’m sure they weren’t terribly subtle and looked quite mischievous. The opposition’s artillery became suspiciously more accurate after the children had returned from their visit. Sasha’s company promptly concluded these children were being used as location informants.
On the children’s subsequent visit, Sasha and his company tried to scurry out of their bunkers and grab the kids without being exposed to enemy fire but it proved too dangerous and they were largely unsuccessful. Heated debate must’ve ensued. How to stop the children informing the rebels of their position without harming themselves or the kids?
To watch your enemy stoop to putting children in the firing line must have been exasperating and shocking. Whether the children were forced into the activity or willingly participated is impossible to know. Regardless, it was callous beyond belief to use children to scout your enemies’ location, gambling that they would remain unharmed. Horrifically, they were wrong.
The aforementioned sniper in their company took matters into her own hands and concluded, appallingly, that the children were fair targets.
Sasha witnessed her take aim through her scope at the next child who came running towards their trenches. She fired, killing the child instantly.
I couldn’t bring myself to inquire how often this happened, or ask anything else about this event. This seemed the grossest violation one could commit in war. If true, and I believe Sasha, this event implicates both sides in War crimes under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
Understandably, all these incredibly traumatic experiences took their toll on Sasha. After two months on the front, and with school starting soon, he told his company he’d had enough. Sasha said he felt no judgement or pressure to stay. His captain acknowledged that he was a volunteer, permitted to leave any time. Sasha reflected on the physical toll the time fighting took as well, even though he was in good shape from playing football and field hockey. He was drained in every sense.
Fortunately for Sasha, the only scars he may bare are mental. Sasha wasn’t 100% sure on the number killed in his company due to losing communication with those taken to hospital. He estimated 10-13 of the 100 in his company were killed in the two months he was on the front.
I’m naturally drawn to statistics and reflected on the 10-13% chance Sasha had of dying. I wondered if he would’ve gone knowing those numbers. Now that he is of age, Sasha said he’d join the Ukrainian military if the fighting flared up again. He’s clearly still committed to the cause despite his dramatic introduction to war.
We wanted to know more about Sasha’s reflections, but it was late. Sasha had studies to do. We paid our bill, bid a concerned farewell to Sasha, and rode the metro in astonished silence back to our Airbnb.
I lay in bed, unblinking. My mind racing to compute the nauseating conversation. As it sank in, I realized Sasha shouldn’t be talking to me, an amateur blogger, about this. He should be in a witness stand giving testimony about the War crimes he’d witnessed. He should be receiving extensive mental health care to help him process events no 17-year-old should need to.
I felt guilty that throughout the whole conversation I was restraining myself from asking the burning question: Did you kill anybody? Should I’ve asked no questions? Should I’ve asked all the questions? I still don’t know what the right thing to do was. I don’t know what the right thing to do now is.
While Sasha seemed like he had reintegrated back into his Odessa life, I can’t help but be concerned for him. Is there something buried deep within him that will manifest itself later in life? Is he experiencing PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)? Maybe he’s already received therapy? I have no idea. I have no personal experience, training, expertise, or context to really know how impacted by these events Sasha is. It’s hard, though, to imagine he is unaffected now and will remain that way throughout his life.
Another dreadful thought circled in my head: how am I going to do this story justice? Do I now have a responsibility to do something courageous as a result of hearing this story? If so, what? Is writing this blog post an appropriate response?
Writing this blog, I’ve questioned whether I have the authority to publish it. It seems like I should be submitting it to an institution or some higher power that could hold perpetrators accountable. But thinking rationally, who’s going to go and arrest these individuals? The international community has shown very little interest in a problem that’s obviously being deemed an exclusively Ukrainian one.
Clearly, I’ve decided to go ahead and share it here. I have a distant hope that somebody with some authority will read this. Or perhaps someone who could offer Sasha services, if he needs them. If nothing else, I feel it’s important that Sasha’s story lives somewhere. Perhaps it’s another example of how preposterous the idea is that we think we can make laws around war and expect people to follow them in life-or-death situations.
I can’t sincerely ask you to share this post for our benefit. I do think, however, that Sasha told us this story in order to be heard. If you think it’s the right thing to do then please feel free to share this blog post.
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