АвторAuthor: Lidia Bilyk | Translation:
1 May 2022
“While Rubizhne was under fire, I realized what freedom is and that it’s truly worth fighting for.” This is the story of Vyacheslav from the city of Rubizhne in the Luhansk region. In 2014, he was a student. When the fighting started, he had to leave the University of Luhansk and evacuate to his hometown, Rubizhne. In 2022, with the start of the full-scale war, he left for Cherkasy. Some of his family are still in the temporarily occupied territories, and some friends were captured and made to fight against Ukraine in the army of the LPR [Editor’s note: the unrecognized and illegitimate Luhansk People’s Republic].
*Please mind that we try to preserve the idiosyncrasies of the protagonist’s speech. We would like to point out that some readers may find certain phrasing in this story unacceptable. The name of the protagonist has been changed for safety reasons. The speaker asked that we call him Slava Ukrainenko so that his name resembles the motto “Slava Ukraini!”, “Glory to Ukraine!” Here and elsewhere, we’ll be referring to him as Vyacheslav
It’s 2014, the Maidan Revolution is in full swing, and Luhansk locals are being “worked with” to persuade them that the Banderites are coming to slash everyone for speaking Russian. I saw right away we were being brainwashed. Until 2014, the Banderites weren’t mentioned at all. Unless I was so young I never noticed.
After some time, the pro-Russian forces captured the Luhansk office of the Security Service of Ukraine. The building faced a park, which was turned into an information platform for those from “the other faction.” One evening, we decided to go there and see what was happening. I was amazed by what I saw. I realized it was complete and total phooey and they were going to play us like a damn fiddle.
Anyway, we come into this station — it even has its own checkpoint for searching pockets and all — and see stalls, like at a market, with flat-screen TVs inside.
“They didn’t have any protests or anything, just people sitting inside and watching the Russia 1 channel. I remember it vividly because there was a geezer gobbling up porridge from an aluminum bowl while watching this news show. He was stuffing his face with so much of that porridge that it was falling out, and he kept his eyes fixed on the screen as if he believed every word of it, every comma and every period”.
People were brainwashed with dreams of the Russian world. The situation in Rubizhne dismayed me because I was always for Ukraine. I studied in a Ukrainian-language class, and in Rubizhne, there are scarcely any Ukrainian speakers. Out of four groups in our year, only one had an in-depth study of Ukrainian. All other classes were in Russian, but in our group, they tried to teach them in Ukrainian too.
Because of the 2014 events, I had to quickly leave Luhansk for Rubizhne. Back then, almost nothing happened there, except for a battle at the train station near the river Siverskyi Donets. From what I understand, the Ukrainian army lost that one, and the city was captured. As far as I know, one person died in Rubizhne then. There was no material damage at all. A van would drive through the streets hauling a cart with a mortar on it, which the LPR militants used to fire on the Ukrainian units stationed in the village of Varvarivka.
A nightmare it was not. I wouldn’t say so. Just some odd people walking around, is all. There was this one time when my friend and I were sitting in a bar, on a patio, and suddenly, a cop car rolled up and let out a small Armenian, a huge red-bearded Dagestatnian or maybe a Chechen, and a man that first looked like a Ukrainian, but as soon as he started speaking, we heard a thick Samara accent. They were looking for the bar owner, who was not in Luhansk at that time. They told the employees that from then on, they had to pay all taxes at such-and-such an address in the nearby city. So basically, it was the beginning of a sort of disorder and racketeering. Rubizhne was de-occupied as quickly as it was occupied. You went to sleep in the LPR and woke up in Ukraine.
I followed the news about the possible war very closely. I knew something would actually happen when I saw some pro-Russian official address Putin, saying something like, “please save Ukraine” or something. I was living alone and thought I should call mom, but it was late, and I was sure she was sleeping already. The following morning, I woke up to the sounds of explosions.
Active combat started in Rubizhne on March 8-9. The electricity supply then was completely cut off because they hit a power station. The damage was rather serious, so I don’t know how they’re going to repair it. Since then, people in Rubizhne have lived in the blackout. On March 25, I left the city. Here’s the thing: while in 2014, they tried to get into Rubizhne from the South, now they’re flocking to it from the North. And the Northern part of the city is where I live. It was heavily shelled. My house is at such a spot that all the projectiles flew over it. And I live on the last floor at that.
There should have been air raid signals that would let us know we should proceed to shelters, but there weren’t any. In the first days of the war, the siren was on only once. So it was like, you’re sitting in silence, and then boom! — your house is hit — once, twice, three times. And you pack your things, go down to the basement, wait for an hour and then another, and nothing happens. You’re freezing there (you know, it was still cold then) and end up going back to your apartment again.
“So it’s literally a lottery of hit or no hit. That’s why during our last days there, we didn’t go down and just followed the rule of two walls, sitting this mess out in the corridor and then going about our business”.
One day, the blast was so loud I thought it hit our apartment. I went up, looked out of the window—and saw two bodies in our yard. One man had his legs torn off. The other, the one that was killed, was my neighbor. He had been looking forward to the coming of the Russian world since 2014.
At the beginning of the war, my father and his family were lucky to leave and reach Cherkasy. Back then, we still had a signal in Rubizhne, so he called us and told us to not be afraid and leave. So after some time, my sister left for the occupied territory, where our distant family lives. I joined her later. For the first three days, I couldn’t sleep at all. I was shaking all over.
The day before I left Rubizhne, I kept thinking, to leave or not to leave. A Shakespearean question, all right. So I’m standing in my kitchen having a smoke, and out of the blue, right in front of our entrance, falls a piece of a mortar shell, smashing out my windows. When I was picking up the shards, I found a shell piece half the size of a finger. I was very lucky because it didn’t hit me even though I was standing close to the window.
And then I knew for sure I had to leave. In the morning, I packed and went to a school from which the LPR and Kadyrov’s people evacuated locals. The city was split between them and the Ukrainian forces. If you live in the North, you only have one way out, which is to the LPR. If you live in the South, you have a chance to flee to Ukraine, towards Dnipro. Although the city is not big, it happens to be split so. As far as I know, there are two split cities in the Luhansk region: Rubizhne and Popasna.
There were only assembly points for evacuation. One was near the school, and the other, near a daycare. I had some trouble with my things because for the previous three days, I was living in another apartment since it was too dangerous to stay home. The LPR took up a station in the apartment block right next to mine, and my district became a popular target. So we left to live with my stepfather. I took very few things because I didn’t think of leaving Rubizhne then. But when I made up my mind to leave and went back to my place for some things, I wasn’t let in because my section of the apartment block was crowded with the noble looters from the LPR.
In peacetime, I wouldn’t have paid any attention to such characters, but they had weapons, were drunk, and looked crazy. I had to go to my godmother, who has two sons almost my age. I took their clothes: underwear, socks, t-shirts, and a couple of sweaters. When I evacuated, I had almost no clothes on that were actually mine.
There were loads of Kadyrov’s men in Rubizhne. Those people are looters. They empty houses. My stepfather stayed in Rubizhne. He went to my apartment and told me that almost everything was still there, but apparently, they were very interested in my DVD player—it looks like a laptop and is like a hundred years old. Maybe they thought it was a control station for Bayraktar, I don’t know.
If you meet a person in Rubizhne with a red band, it means they’re from either the LPR or the DPR. If the band’s white, they’re from the regular Russian army. At least they look like actual servicepeople: you can tell them apart not only by their bands but by their decent gear. Because the LPR soldiers look like bums. I even talked to some. They would come to me in the evenings when I still lived in my apartment, asking for cigarettes or something like that. I decided I should chat with them.
“I asked, “Where are you guys from?” One says, “I’m from Luhansk.” “And I’m from Yuvileine,” says the other. “I was coming home from work—from the night shift—and these people just came to me, gripped me, and said, if you don’t come to the recruiting station with us, you’re done for”.
I asked how old he was. He said eighteen. Just think: when it all started [Ed.: the occupation of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions by Russia-backed militants in 2014], he was only ten years old. He was a kid. And now they have turned him into cannon fodder. That’s how it is—those from the LPR are sent to the front, then comes the regular Russian army, and then, the “TikTok army of Russia”—that is, Kadyrov’s men.
Anyway, back to my evacuation. When I reached the school, I asked one of the LPR soldiers where the assembly point was. I was alone. I’m 28, so I worried they wouldn’t let me go. I really didn’t want that. It so happened that they didn’t recruit any locals. I understand why: if you force a person into the army and give them a gun, they can stand up against you. Because while a lot of people were happy to be the citizens of the LPR in 2014, the situation has changed drastically now”.
The city’s in chaos. In our yard, there are eight graves in the playground. No one takes the bodies away. Nothing happens. There’s no police in the city, no fire brigades.
People were evacuated in two Ural trucks [Ed.: Ural-6370 is a family of 6×6 heavy-duty trucks manufactured by the Ural automotive plant), and an old car for carrying scrap metal. I squeezed myself into it, and we departed.
It was cold. Zero degrees Celsius. It was like traveling in a pig transporter. We were taken to the village of Nova Astrakhan. There you were to decide where you wanted to go on your own. I went to my sister, to the occupied territory. The prices were stunning. Locals charged 150 dollars for a 40-kilometer ride. I stayed there a few days, and then—by some miracle—my sister, my other relatives, and I managed to buy bus tickets to Dnipro. Tickets are really hard to come by: if you can get them after three days of trying, you’re lucky. That’s how long the lines are.
One day, I got a call from my stepfather, who stayed in Rubizhne. He told me that the other day, the shell hit a curb near the entrance right when a neighbor was coming out. The shell hit him. It was an awful sight. His body was almost torn in half. His insides flew up as high as the second floor.
Some say that the Ukrainian forces shoot too. I mean, of course, they do. It’s war. I understand why they urge locals to evacuate. In order for the military to have more freedom in their actions, they need to have as few civilians in the city as possible. That some civilians died from Ukrainians’ shells as well may be true. We’re not in a movie. But I know for sure that the Ukrainian military are normal people. A friend of mine lives in a nine-story apartment block. There was a time when our guys decided to station there, so he lived with them. He told me they were reasonable and normal. They didn’t even drink. For me, it’s an important marker. Because I know they are under a lot of stress. Then the LPR people took over. They were hungry, shabby, without cigarettes, and looking for booze.
It’s mostly Kadyrov’s men that search for the Ukrainian military. They go door to door and check IDs. And since the locals are, well, peculiar—if they know that their neighbor has a contract with the Armed Forces of Ukraine, they just give them away. No one hesitates. I can’t talk about it at length, but it’s just hard to wrap your mind around it. I mean, they are basically family, and they give away their kin who are fighting for Ukraine.
They all watch Russian TV. Say, some time ago we had a satellite dish boom in Rubizhne. After the 2014 events, all Russian channels were banned, and everyone rushed to get a dish for themselves. And it’s not Discovery and some education channels that they have been paying rather hefty sums for. They want to watch Russian TV. They enjoy it, they trust it.
And if the talking head in their TV box says that the Banderites are eating babies, then that’s the truth. In Luhansk, it so happens that while the locals seem to be pro-Russian, they still don’t refuse Ukrainian pensions. They get pensions both from the LPR and from Ukraine. If I’m not mistaken, Ukraine pays better. Some people profit off transferring people from Luhansk to Ukrainian territories so that they can withdraw the money from ATMs and update their papers. If Ukraine’s army liberates Donbas, I think people will just accept it. Because all in all, they don’t really care. They can sit at their kitchen tables talking about whatever they want, they can call for Nigerian forces to come and free them, but no matter who comes, no matter who governs them, they won’t protest because they are a very passive audience.
As for my friend, the one that was forced to go fight in the LPR army, he had lived in Luhansk all these years and worked at the railway procurement department. Two weeks before the full-scale war, he called me and said, “It started. I’m toast.” [Ed.: Vyacheslav is referring to mobilization in the territories of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions occupied by Russia].
I started scolding him: “I told you, didn’t I? I told you to quickly pack and leave.” He’s not the separatist that one may expect him to be. He’s a normal guy. If he weren’t, I wouldn’t hang out with him. We avoided politics in our conversations because I know where he lives and what they say there. One is still influenced by their environment, no matter what. When the war started, he was shocked. He didn’t believe it was possible. On March 8, he messaged me saying he received the draft card ordering him to come to the recruiting station. Since he’s got issues with his back, he thought he would be found unfit for duty. I told him not to go, but he said, “Nah, If I don’t come, our KGB [Translator’s note: Committee for State Security] will harass me or put me in jail.” Then I told him that it was better to sit in jail than become a soil fertilizer.
I worry about him a lot. I have been searching for him, but so far, all my attempts have been vain. There are two cell carriers in Luhansk: Vodafone and Lugacom [Ed.: Vodafone is a Ukrainian carrier, andLugakom is the carrier of the fake Luhansk People’s Republic]. Maybe he still has his Lugacom SIM card, and the one by Vodafone was taken away. But I don’t know that number. I don’t know if he’s alive. I know for sure that people like him are not trained properly. They are just given automatic rifles and sent to combat. They are nothing more than cannon fodder. So it’s devastating to think that a good person may just perish like that.
“I hope they liberate Donbas because if it’s not Ukraine, I’m not coming back”.
I know what’s happening in the LPR, and I don’t like it. In the days that I was in Rubizhne while it was under fire, I realized what freedom is and that it’s truly worth fighting for. I realized that it’s something that has value. It’s not just words.
Чому важливо поширити цю історію?
Якщо українці не розповідатимуть свій погляд на війну в Україні, світ поступово забуватиме про нас. Натомість цим обов’язково скористаються росіяни. Тому не даймо їм жодного шансу.
Why is it important to share this story?
If Ukrainians do not share their views on the war in Ukraine, the world will gradually forget about us. Instead, the Russians will definitely take advantage of this. So let's not give them a chance.
АвторAuthor: Lidia Bilyk | Translation: