Moments away from the front line
Water splashes as men covered in soap suds jump in the lake, disturbing its evening calmness. The air is still hot after a sultry day. Few dozen meters away, men are playing volleyball in the last rays of the sun. Everything gives the impression of people enjoying the last hours of a week-end pick-nick. Everything but the military uniforms some left behind before diving in the water.
The Ukrainian soldiers of the 25th airborne brigade have some time off the first line of the war. They are now stationed in an old recreation centre in Dymytrov, Donetsk Oblast. The main building is where officers sleep in cream-coloured with orange flowers wallpapered rooms. The courtyard is studded with large tents sheltering soldiers’ bunks. And a statue of Lenin guards them all. “Some of the soldiers wanted to take it down”, the commander Andrey says. “But I told them that this is the right of the people, not the army.” The colonel is very proud of his men. They have fought in the toughest of battles, in Debaltseve, Shakhtarsk, Slavyansk, Donetsk airport, Lugansk airport. And when the “Polny Pizdets” – heavy shit – comes, they are the ones to call upon.
Rotislav, the 24 year-old commander of the anti-aircraft artillery unit, remembers the battle of Debaltseve. Last year today he was there. He says it was their most difficult fight. But what Rotislav found even more difficult was answering relatives’ calls. Parents and wives started calling him after they saw on TV what has happening. They wanted to know if their loved ones are still alive. “I did not know what to answer, I did not want to have to answer their questions anymore”, Rotislav confesses.
Off the front line, the 25th now trains and prepares to hold the separatist attack in the contingency of the first line’s fall to the enemy. They oversee the terrain, establish and reinforce positions, exercise the tactical advance. This happens somewhere eight kilometres away from Horlivka, a town under pro-Russian forces control since April 2014, the same time the 25th brigade was established. Hiding in the bushes or only taking shelter from the scorching sun, soldiers seem a bit bored. This is nothing compared to Avdiivka, one of the hottest points on the front line since the Minsk II ceasefire agreement. They were in positions there up to one month ago. Soldiers recall getting around 120 artillery rounds and mortars fired at them on a daily basis. Now they get to play pool, volleyball, play songs from ATO (the Ukrainian government military operation to counter separatist forces in the Donbass is called the “Anti-Terrorist Operation”) on the guitar and watch the evening news on big TV screen mounted on the back of a military truck.
Things are a bit more ordained on the second line. Soldiers wake up at 6:30 to the national anthem, immediately followed by the paratroopers’ one. “Parachuti, parachuti” resounds from the megaphone in the courtyard, breaking the morning silence. At 7:45 they all have to gather for the morning line-up, as they do at 20:45 in the evening. It’s like watching boys in the schoolyard, whispering in groups, giggling, laughing in low voices. At 22:30 lights go out on the same two hymns.
Crickets and artillery rounds. This is the good night soundtrack Ukrainian soldiers in the 25th airborne brigade go to sleep on every night. But the sound of blasts is muffled now, not deafening as it was for months on the first line of the war.