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  • Українці розповідають про пережите під час війни з росією

    Ukrainians talk about their experiences during the war with russia

    Military artist Oleksandr

    Oleksandr Khudozhnyk: “War teaches you to adapt to any conditions, to make a shelter from a couple of boards, a box and a rusty nail”


    АвторAuthor: Yulia Zarudnitska | Translation: Kateryna Doroshenko

    23 July 2022

    Alexander the Artist is a person who condemns inaction. He says that the most terrible thing for a military man is exactly this. He shares the realities of the war and his thoughts about the “brotherly” people, talks about friendship at the front and the Kherson “breakthrough”, especially for “Monologues of the War”.

    I come from a small mining town in the Luhansk region. I lived in those regions all my conscious life, including 2014. Childhood and teenage years passed like most children had – I didn’t like school, but I loved climbing around garages and messing around. A typical child of a typical decaying town. The men in the family were mostly miners and builders. My mother’s family is from Luhansk Region, my father’s side is from Vinnytsia Region, but my grandmother was assigned to a local school. She is a teacher of Ukrainian language and literature, and to a certain extent, this is a detail that laid the base to my current view of the world.

    I have heard the Ukrainian language since childhood… No, not like that – we all heard the Ukrainian language since childhood, although not all of us used it for communication. After all, we watched movies on television with Ukrainian dubbing and cartoons every day at 7 in the morning, where they said “Hey, dude! How are you?”.

    But I heard the real, living Ukrainian language every time I came to my grandparents’ house to eat homemade pie from a bucket, which was covered with an embroidered towel.

    I am sincerely grateful to my mother, who not only raised me to be a thinking and adequate person, but also deliberately sent me to a school with the Ukrainian language. To the only Ukrainian-speaking school for dozens of kilometers around!

    As I said, my town was small and in catastrophic decline. Of the typical entertainment for teenagers, alcoholism and creativity remained, but I chose the latter. I have always liked creativity in all its forms. I drew, collected model trains, and tried to saw something from wood. But I still liked drawing the most, and I drew everything that could be drawn: school wall newspapers, teddy bears in classmates’ notebooks, graffiti on the walls of the same garages. I was particularly fond of the latter, and I also liked russian rap music. I sincerely believed that we are ‘one nation, brother Slavs’.

    Serhiy Zhadan in Luhansk

    November 2012. Meeting with the Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan in Luhansk

    I have two years of art education in a fine arts studio (approximately in the second and third grades). I remembered how we, together with the teacher, went to art practice in the village of Krymske, where we lived in the buildings of the old pioneer camp “Orlyonok”, without electricity, swam in the Donets river and made food on the fire. A real adventure in the style of “The Last Hero” TV-show!

    And I remember the ruins that remained from the once most powerful mine in the town, destroyed and looted by the local “authority”. And while passing by those ruins, the mother used to say: “What a horror! It’s as if war films were shot here!”

    After school, I got a place at Luhansk National University (LNU) named after Taras Shevchenko, at the Faculty of Ukrainian Philology and Public Relations.

    Charity campaign “Heart to Heart”

    April 2014. “I paint with aerosol paints at the charity event “Heart to Heart’, in the yard of LNU named after T. Shevchenko in Luhansk”

    Luhansk is a gray industrial city with suitable residents, but the university gathered what seemed to be the most wonderful people from the entire region. I was lucky to live in a dormitory with guys who had common sense and adequate life values. It was thanks to my friends that I became more kind and open, and I also became seriously interested in sports and a healthy lifestyle. It was at the university that my gentle Ukrainization took a new turn – we analyzed Ukrainian books, gave reports about Ukrainian authors, and made pro-Ukrainian social projects, when it was not yet mainstream. Here I continued drawing – earned my first money by drawing portraits, and later began to master graphic programmes on a PC.

    So, being a student left heart warming memories, and I am very sorry that out of five years I managed to study normally only three.

    I don’t like and don’t want to say “the war has started” in relation to the events of February 24. The war started in 2014, just as my third year of study was coming to an end. The building of the Luhansk SBU (Security Service of Ukraine) was located some 500 meters from my dormitory, and I was able to observe the protests from the very beginning just from the window. I don’t remember what date it was, but on the weekend I was calmly walking around those places, but on Monday, unknown people appeared, set up tents, barricades and shouted their slogans.

    Pro-Ukrainian action during the separatist rally

    The action “Heart to Heart” is held under Ukrainian flags, while a separatist rally is taking place on a nearby street

    In an instant, society split into two fronts. Yes, there were those who supported separatism, frankly believing that “Donbas feeds the whole of Ukraine, and they have nothing in their Carpathians.” But these were, as a rule, frankly marginal personalities, all kinds of guys, fascinated by the image of the “invincible russian army” and elderly people who during their lives traveled to Moscow to earn money, and now missed their youth and sausage, which cost 2.20. But there were many, many people who wanted the victory of Ukraine. A large number of my acquaintances, who at that time were mostly educated people – students and university teachers, did not accept pro-russian ideas from the first days, resisted it every way, and later left for the free territory of Ukraine, where they live and help to this day.

    And despite everything, I did not believe that there would be a war until the end. Because war is something from the movies, where our good guys win over our bad guys. At that time, I saw a military man in person only once, when I brought a bundle of paper envelopes to the military office as a bribe.

    We had the fastest exams that year. One day in April, almost all of my credits were closed and I was sent on an early vacation. After that, I only returned to the dormitory once, to pick up some things. At that time, some armed people without any signs of intelligence were already based in the building, and broke out into some rooms.

    A separatist rally near the Luhansk SBU (Security Service of Ukraine)

    A separatist rally near the Luhansk SBU (Security Service of Ukraine), photo from a dormitory window

    So, until August, I was with my family in my hometown. Should we say that it was under occupation from the first day and remains under it to this day? Water gradually disappeared from the tap, yellow and blue flags disappeared from state institutions, and common sense from the heads of the townspeople. They talked about the mythical people of Bandera, who seemed to be coming to us straight from the Maidan to kill all russian speakers. Or about Ukrainian tanks, which seemed to be rolling around the neighborhood and were about to stop by and shoot at our houses. But so far we had only seen local fringes who, wearing a uniform with a patch of a non-existent country, played with guns in stores, demanding to give them goods for free “for the needs of the republic”.

    Although the town did not suffer from shelling, life became more and more difficult. The shelves of grocery stores have been emptied, the water, which in the best times came every hour, has now disappeared altogether. We stood in line for many hours at the spring to pick up a few bottles.

    And everything around was shooting and exploding. And at some point, having once again taken the water under fire from the guns of the separatists, we decided that we should try to leave.

    And we left. First, we went to Kyiv, to our relatives, and towards the end of the summer, when the situation became somewhat more stable, we returned to our relatives in Lysychansk, which had already been liberated by that time. Here we could find housing and some kind of work. There was no question of returning back and being under occupation.

    Read also: Liudmyla Tomko about life in the occupation: “We understood that this moment could be the last”

    All the time, since 2014, I have been worried about the fact that everyone is fighting, but I am not. But I found some excuses for it, and tried not to think about it. I graduated from university, and the question arose, what to do next. Then there was my first attempt to join the army – I came to the military commissariat and started collecting documents. But it so happened that instead of the army, I went to Vinnytsia, where for the next few years I worked as a designer-illustrator for a large, serious company. I had a great job, a spacious bright office, a free gym, and housing within a few minutes’ walk. But later I got bored – there was not enough “action” and adventure.

    The feeling of guilt for my inaction did not go away. Adding fuel to the fire was the reaction of some people to talk of war. So, once a colleague raised her eyebrows in surprise and asked: “What, is something still happening in that Donbas?” And this is not the only case, despite the constant movements of the military, and regular news about the wounded and dead from the East. Fortunately or unfortunately, at that time, the vast majority of Ukrainians felt the war only in the form of an increase in the dollar rate, and still did not understand why the russian army was hostile, and traveling to Moscow was so-called a great sin.

    “It was not an overnight decision, but it was made. I collected the necessary documents for the second time and arrived at the unit”.

    From the military training at that time, I had two completed parts of the game “Medal for Courage” and PTY (pre-conscription training of youths) lessons once a week in the 11th grade, where we mostly took pictures with models of Soviet machine guns. Knowing about this, some of my acquaintances accepted my decision with skepticism, with questions like “Is it ours? Are you a soldier?” There were those who tried to talk me out of this: “Why do you have to go there? If you want to help, you better do something here to make it better in this place!” But when there is such an attitude, then who should fight for Ukraine? After all, someone has to do this work. But some of the military acquaintances said: “If you have decided, go ahead, and don’t worry, you will be taught everything there”.

    I thought that first of all I would be sent to “training”, but I got into an infantry company right away. At that time, the unit was in the regiment’s permanent location, so I was able to join the army without combat operations yet.

    Perhaps it is not surprising that when I found myself among the military, I realized how different from my ideas about this army and this war the reality was. And, unfortunately, not always for the better. But in the army, as anywhere else in life, the main thing is to remain a sane, adequate person. And later, the same adequate people will reach out to you, explain, show and tell you everything. Soon I had good mentors from among my peers.

    A military dream has come true

    The boy’s dream of a big cannon finally came true!

    Then there was the training ground, where we practiced the movement “on foot like a machine” technique for two months, and finally the rotation to the combat zone. It so happened that on the very first rotation, I almost went home. That is, in fact, I was in a position 15 kilometers from my home in the Luhansk region, every day I had the opportunity to see the Tericons, which I had seen from the other side for half my life. An extremely strange feeling.

    Since that moment, I have not taken off the uniform of the Armed Forces of Ukraine for the fourth year. And yes, I haven’t felt any guilt since then.

    We hoped it would never happen. That we will never hear that command-announcement of the start of a full-scale war.

    Our unit was located in the Kherson region. Expecting that anything could happen every day, we were ready and yet it happened unexpectedly. At about 5 in the morning I woke up to the explosions, and immediately the same command sounded on the walkie-talkie. There is no point in retelling all the shenanigans that took place in the morning. We drove, then took a position in the middle of the forest, then drove again. Where should we drive, for what? No one really understood what was happening, everyone just followed orders. At approximately 11 o’clock, we received an order to move to the Antonivsky Bridge (a 5-kilometer bridge at the entrance to Kherson) and take up defenses there. A rather long column gathered, mostly of our trucks with people and ammunition. On the approach to Kherson outside the city, black smoke was visible – I never found out what was burning there, but it seems that the cause was an airstrike.

    On the front line with his companions

    With companions on the front line, near the battle flag. From here to my house – 15 kilometers of occupation

    And so, when the convoy was already leaving for the bridge, something happened that I still find difficult to believe. The car that was moving first was hit by a projectile from a grenade launcher. It flew from Kherson. That is, the enemy was breaking through to us from behind (from the Crimea). But there was also an enemy ahead, and now he was not letting us pass into the city. The column stopped, people ran out of the cars. A shooting battle ensued, we were not allowed on the bridge. If possible, the cars drove back – away from the affected area. Our unit received an order to knock out the enemy and occupy the bridge. We ran around for a good few hours, trying to take more advantageous positions, but a handful of people with machine guns could not affect the overwhelmingly outnumbered, well-armed enemy, who was also covered by the reinforced concrete body of the bridge.

    At some point, tanks came to help us. Continuously firing shots, they quite confidently passed the visible part of the bridge and disappeared from sight. It seemed that the battle would end there, and we would simply move through the defeated enemy. But in a few minutes they continued to pour lead on us from the side of the bridge. As they said later, in the middle of the bridge, our tanks were attacked by russian aviation, and as a result, almost all the vehicles were destroyed.

    Two things surprised me in those events. The first is the behavior of the locals, who calmly went out into the yard to “watch the war.” And the second is how shamelessly the russians hit civilian cars with grenade launchers. Before my eyes, several cars trying to cross the bridge were blown to pieces. You can probably understand those civilians – they have never seen such a thing before, and until now they thought that bullets only fly in the military.

    We retreated back to the main column. The command decided what to do next. Behind, from where we came, the sounds of battle could be heard – there was a russian invasion from the Crimea, so every minute was precious for us.

    They started talking about a breakthrough. The battle on the bridge continued. It was not clear who was shooting at whom, everything was flying from everywhere. The intensity of the fire was such that it was clear that if we tried to pass, we would all stay there.

    “Then I felt it for the first time – not fear, but simply the realization of the irreversibility of events. We’ll either stay here too long, and russian tanks will come up from behind, or we will get into the cars and drive across the bridge, where we will be met closely by their machine guns”.

    I saw that many of the boys called their relatives – some openly said goodbye, others simply said that everything was fine. I also called home, and assured that everything was fine with me and of course I was safe.

    My friend and I were tasked with leaving the main group and finding a certain person. When we had already moved a considerable distance, the phone rang. My brother’s voice from the receiver shouted something about a breakthrough and that we urgently needed to catch the car. Not much was clear, so we returned to the place where we left our unit… but there was no one there. I called the commander, but through the terrible connection I only heard that we should use all our forces to break through to Kherson.

    A new column was forming near us to break through. The guys gathered in a hurry, throwing everything that was left on the side of the road. We asked for the two of us to be taken and were pointed to a tented truck bed. The car started moving, packed with people like a tub of herring. That nasty feeling came back again.

    We stopped before reaching the bridge 200 meters away. At the command, the “air” jumped out and ran away from the cars. Planes flew across the sky, so low that the pilot’s head could be seen. Whose planes they were – no one knew for sure, but after some time explosions were heard somewhere behind. We decided that the planes were ours after all, because they were probably attacking the russians who were coming from Crimea.

    Then we stood in place for a long time, sometimes getting into cars, then again running away to shouts of “air!” No one fired at the convoy, but a fierce battle continued on the bridge. Behind, too, the sounds of battle could be heard, getting closer and closer. A wounded person was loaded into our body – the boy’s leg was cut by fragments, but a tourniquet was already applied there.

    “It was getting dark. No one reported anything specific, no one knew how long to stand and what to do. The sounds of battle from all sides now died down, then gained strength. We talked about life, interrupting the tension with dirty jokes”.

    A mortar was set up a few meters from us just on the road, from which it opened fire in the direction of the bridge. Several times our tanks drove past us – they tried again and again to break through, but the result remained unknown. Our mortar continued to fire, sending a total of 50 explosive “greetings” to the occupiers during the evening.

    At one point we heard the increasing rumble of heavy equipment from behind. Everyone understood – the russians came! Weapons were prepared, who had what: assault rifles, grenades, someone loaded a handheld grenade launcher. We saw how several BMPs (infantry combat vehicles, — ed.) drove past our column at the intersection and went to the side. A white stripe was visible across the entire side of the cars. At that time, no one knew that this was the marking of the russians. Why didn’t they shoot? Why didn’t we shoot? I still can’t say that.

    One way or another, but in a few minutes everything calmed down. And in another half hour, the command “to the cars” sounded, and the long column finally moved. My friend and I sat on the edge of the body, tense and preparing to shoot. We drove for a long time, and through the darkness we could see burning cars, wreckage of smashed armored vehicles and motionless bodies around. The smell of the night river air mingled with the stench of burning grease. No one was shooting anymore, the bridge was under the control of Ukrainian forces.

    After reaching our unit within a day, we found out that our cars with equipment, weapons and personal belongings were left somewhere on the bridge – the russians shot them at close range. From military property, I have armor, a helmet, and a machine gun with two magazines. And four close friends from that day remained only in our memories.

    Dogs on the front lines

    Quadrupeds are always waiting at the positions together with the fighters. All of them are a full-fledged part of the fighting society

    There are many “dark spots” in the war. That is, you do not always understand why this or that action took place, why such an order was given and why you are doing this. I do not undertake to express my point of view regarding certain decisions of the command, because I still do not have enough information. But sometimes the arrogance of commanders, their desire to be useful or the demonstration of their own “coolness” leads to misunderstandings and tragic consequences among subordinates.

    About civilians. Undoubtedly, a large number of people are currently sincerely ready to help us, to do something for the victory of Ukraine. Understand me correctly, we do not always have normal conditions for existence in a war zone. That’s why we really appreciate help even with such simple things as washing clothes or preparing food. But of course, there are those who treat our actions neutrally at best, or on the opposite: openly try to do mischief, to prevent us from doing our work. This was especially noticeable in the war zone, where certain people were waiting for the “russian liberators”. Fortunately, these people have become much less common across the country, or they simply do not reveal themselves.

    Currently, the country is experiencing an extraordinary national upheaval, and as a result, every stupid word addressed to Ukraine and its defenders can have consequences for a person (as an example, dozens of non-bloggers who defiantly spoke on the air about their contempt for Ukraine, and the next day already posted videos with apologies).

    “And I was also extremely surprised that with the beginning of the full-scale invasion of russia, we had such a large number of patriotic citizens, even in the eastern regions”.

    Probably, when russian shells fall on the head, the “brotherly people” do not seem so brotherly anymore.

    Our big advantage over russia is that we actually learned to fight for 8 years. Not everyone and not always sat helplessly at “zero”, but we learned to shoot and get used to explosions, while the russian army painted the grass and swept the parade ground with a crowbar.

    In addition, during the years of the positional war, we learned to create human conditions where, it would seem, they cannot exist in principle. War teaches you to adapt to any conditions, to make a shelter out of a couple of boards, a box and a rusty nail. Or to sleep on the ground with a brick under your head. This, of course, I exaggerate, although in some places more or less that is how it is.

    About friendship at the frontline

    Of course, there are different people in the army – both good and not so good. But as I already said, the main thing is to be an adequate person, and then many people will be ready to support you, to go out of their way to meet you. In the armed forces, I met a lot of cool people that, having met them in civilian life, we probably wouldn’t be interested in each other.

    In the unit, a lot depends on the commander: in terms of living conditions, relationships in the team, and of course — provision and combat training. How interested is he in the combat capability of the unit, does he know how to properly motivate? Is he part of the team, or is this just another step on his way to the general’s shoulder?

    The war brings together different people: one is a smart builder, the other is a good IT specialist and knows how to reinstall Windows, and he’s just a sensible dude and is interesting to talk with. Interaction allows to create as much comfort and coordinated work as possible in the unit. Between normal siblings there is always a moment of mutual help. This applies to absolutely all possible situations, and works both ways – today you helped someone, tomorrow they will help you.

    Physical activity of soldiers in war

    You can find an opportunity to be in shape even in war conditions. Fortunately, there are enough heavy objects among the military property

    Thanks to my friends in the army, my drawing reached a new level. That is, after entering the service, I thought that I would not draw at all. But somehow I got bored, so I downloaded an application on my phone where you can draw just with your finger. And my peers, seeing that I was drawing, began to “draw” me new subjects. At a certain moment, I realized that “without drawing at all” I was already posting two dozen drawings to the network, and the quality of my illustrations became a level higher than the one that was even at work in the office. All my years of service, I continue to draw, and thanks to my friends, I always have new ideas.

    The worst thing for a military man is inaction. Sometimes you have to do something seemingly insignificant for a long time, and it seems that everyone around is involved, and everyone is doing something to win, except you.

    Recently, we were looking for a certain product on the Internet, and now it seems to be on the same site. They called, and the man picked up the phone. He says hello, some words about this and that, the goods cannot be sent, because everything is stuck in Kherson. And then he probably broke down – he began to beg us to return sooner, told us about the horrors of the occupation, about isolation, how girls disappear in the city, and men are taken “to the basement.” What should he have said? That we are trying our best – because it is the truth. But…

    Graphic images of the military

    Thanks to technology, I can create digital images anywhere, even in a barracks or a dugout

    When you see something bad happening and you can’t do anything about it, it’s terrible. Our job is to protect Ukraine and Ukrainians. But now you see how the dead are taken out from under the rubble, and you understand that you could not protect them. You see the largest plane in the world burned by Asian savages – and you couldn’t protect this masterpiece either. And Kherson, which is suffering from russian terror, you cannot just go and liberate it now.

    It’s a shame that people still can’t abstract from russian culture. They can’t stop loving Yesenin, listening to Morgenstern and watching the “Brother-2” film. They do not understand why it is necessary to remove the remnants of communism, which are sticking out from us everywhere. These are all stars, Lenin streets and monuments to the heroes of the “great victory”. Without realizing the hostility of these little things and changes inside the country, they will always, always come here, hiding behind “common culture, fraternal people” and God knows what other nonsense, generated by the sick fantasy of another pocket dictator.

    We need to stop thinking that we are fighting an army. We deal with bandits, looters, robbers and rapists. Admiring bandits, dreaming of being a bandit — this has always been and is a leading feature of the russian worldview. And here, at last, their worthless country has legalized this right for them — to be what they always dreamed of becoming. And with each of their crimes, I hear, “Oh my god, I can’t believe this, how is this even possible?’. This is said by people who hid their heads in the sand for 8 years, preferring not to notice the events in Donbas, did business with russia and went there to hang out, opposed the destruction of monuments to the Soviet occupation, and called the defenders of Ukraine scumbags and contusions. It’s a shame that we saw the same thing 8 years ago, but no one cared. ‘After all, I was born in russia, and I have relatives there, so why should I not listen to Basta?’ – that’s all.

    Now we all bear collective responsibility for our inaction and our task is to drive the russians out of their way, surround the border with a three-meter fence and forget about such a word as russia for a hundred years.

    And then, living out his old age in poverty, one of the russians will look at his prostheses and think: what was it for? And maybe he will change his mind, maybe not – it’s not so important. The main thing is to explain to your child that they are definitely not welcome in Ukraine.

    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: Yulia Zarudnitska | Translation: Kateryna Doroshenko


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