A Tale of Three Soldiers from Kyiv to Zaporizhia

Rosemary Jenkinson

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I’m waiting on a balmy autumn afternoon in Lublin to travel to Kyiv. The green FlixBus is just arriving when I overhear a Birmingham accent. The man is athletic, early thirties, his teeth excessively white against his tan and he’s dressed in designer sports gear. His name’s Mason (changed at his request), his Mum was born in Belfast and he’s a corporal in the French Foreign Legion, about to go AWOL. In four days’ time, he’s taking the physical to join a special forces unit of the Azov Battalion, now renamed the 3rd Assault Brigade.

     Mason excitedly shows me the Azov Telegram group and points out the British and Irish guys he’s been in contact with, only for them to drop out at the last minute with various ailments.

     ‘A likely story,’ he scoffs. ‘They all chickened out when they realised what war means.’

     The 3rd Assault Brigade is recruiting experienced foreigners as it’s quicker than training Ukrainians. Mason was in the marines for eight years, fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. He confesses to having had a moment of doubt on his journey from France, but overall he’s committed. His grandmother is dying of cancer in Birmingham and he’s already joked with her about joining her if he’s killed on the front line.

     ‘I’m dying to get stuck in,’ he says. ‘I’m trained to fight. I don’t want to do no more exercises with the Legion. It’s like being a baker or a hairdresser and not getting to do it. It’s like you being a writer and not being allowed to write.’

     He’s clear-sighted in his plans. Ukraine is a staging-post for his future and it’s no fly-by-night decision.

     ‘Azov is great on my CV. I’ll stay in Ukraine one year or two, then train in Poland to be a bodyguard. All I have to do is stay alive.’

     He’s unabashed about joining for the five thousand pounds a month wage packet. It’s clear that while the UK and USA don’t supply troops directly, they are furnishing Ukraine with the cash to hire these soldiers themselves. If Mason dies, four hundred thousand pounds will be paid to his family. Another incentive is gaining Ukrainian residency after a year and he’s convinced that Ukraine will be the new Belgium for war tourism. Bakhmut is the new Flanders Fields.

     In his interview, the Azov commander asked if he was willing to give his life for Ukraine.

     ‘Course I said yes, and I gave him all this stuff about the Russians invading the rest of Europe if we don’t stop them, just so I sounded good, but me? I’m here for the money, me. You can buy an apartment in Kyiv for about thirty grand, so I hope to get one after about a year, set me up good for the future. I’ve two kids to think of.’

     At the border, everyone disembarks. Mason goes for a fag before getting his passport stamped. When I come back to the bus, he’s having an altercation with the bus driver.

     ‘Stop yelling at me in Ukrainian! I don’t understand. I speak English.’

     ‘English, English,’ derides the bus driver angrily. ‘This is Ukraine.’

     ‘I’m coming to fight for your country,’ Mason retorts, ‘And you treat me like this?’

     The incident calms down when the bus driver realises that a border guard gave Mason permission to smoke. ‘Sorry,’ he says, smiling, but it takes Mason a while to calm down.

     ‘Any army in the world would bite my arm off to get me. What does he think I’m fucking here for? Have I just come to take nice photos of Kyiv city centre?’

     He keeps chatting, living off nervous energy through the evening. Outside, the countryside is flatlining with low black forests under a monochrome grey sky. He enthusiastically points out the Bedford vehicles we pass. He knows three words in Ukrainian so far – ‘bitch’ and ‘come on’ and wants to learn it fluently. ‘I’m here to make connections.’ His ambition is contagious.

     His phone’s ringing but he decides not to answer as it’s either his girlfriend pleading with him not to go or his French Foreign Legion mates begging him to come back while it’s still possible. If he returns after Sunday, he’ll face military prison.

     He's a sniper and says he can keep his head down when there’s shooting but can do nothing against grenades. ‘The way I look at it, anyone can die at any time, in a swimming pool, crossing a road. If your number’s up, your number’s up,’ he rationalises. In spite of portraying himself as a soldier of fortune, he does have deep empathy for Ukraine. He says that the invasion of Ukraine by Russia reminds him of being bullied at school.

     We meet up again the next afternoon in Kyiv and get a taxi to a military shop together. He’s heartened by the sight of Ukrainian flags in the streets.

     ‘The only patriotism in England,’ he claims, ‘is how many kings or queens you have in your pocket. Way I see it, the world is about numbers. How much does an employer get away with paying you per hour? How much do you pay for your coffin?’

     I tell him that for me as a writer, the world is about words.

     The military shop is busy, the changing rooms filled with men and women. Mason left all his kit except for his ballistic shades back in France as it’s cheap to get kitted out in Ukraine. He buys boots, underwear, fatigues, a sleeping bag and a knife for the two weeks’ training with Azov once he passes his physical.

     Back in Kyiv centre, the city appears to be thriving with its workers sitting in open-air cafés. At St Sophia’s Square, however, there is a huge memorial to the Azov dead. The soldiers’ faces are displayed on boards. Ears of wheat and wilting posies of wild flowers are tied to them, their petals husked by the sun. In St Michael’s Square, the statue of Princess Olga which had been hidden under sandbags since the start of the war is looking resplendent, but in an amusing nod to the ongoing struggle she’s wearing a flak jacket. Near Independence Square there are more commemorations of Azov with shot-up cars, their windscreens like smashed ice. Bouquets have been left on the car seats.

     I meet up with my friend Natalya, an accountant. She’s still optimistic about the war but is prepared for Russian attacks on infrastructure, investing in an electric heater that stores power for blackouts. In the afternoon sun, her worries about the impending winter seem a lifetime away, but it reminds me of Terence MacSwiney’s quote:

     ‘It is not those who can inflict the most but those who can endure the most who will conquer.’

     In the evening, Mason and I go to an Azov exhibition in Kyiv History Museum. Outside, I recognise Illia Berezenko from his extravagant golden-brown moustache. It’s a long story but a friend of a friend, Bogdan Galovsky, has set up the meeting with Illia, a well-known journalist turned soldier. The exhibition is packed with soldiers and press, but Illia explains, sweeping his hand over his head, that due to concussion, clamorous crowds are too confusing for him. We leave for a quiet restaurant.

     Illia is currently being trained to join a Quick Reaction Force and, while he can ‘confirm or deny nothing’ about its plans, he’s analysing data on spreadsheets.

     ‘Finally, my battalion uses me for my brains,’ he says happily, hoisting his rucksack down from his broad shoulders.

     Illia portrays the peril of the battle of Bakhmut. He had to dig himself out of his trench six times after mud thrown up by artillery almost buried him alive. He witnessed many more Russians die than Ukrainians.

     ‘I never even liked Bakhmut as a city,’ he grins, marvelling at the blood expended on it. ‘We once exchanged a trench eight times. To lose so many people to win one trench – for what?’

     After being injured in Bakhmut, he went back to the front line to evacuate bodies. The faces of dead comrades were covered by hoods but he was able to recognise his friend from his plate carrier. Shockingly, no one thought to tell him his friend had died, though he puts it down to the high turnover in his unit. Now when he thinks of his friend, all he can see is his dead face. However, he says that watching unprotected civilians die is much worse than losing colleagues.

      Whilst he has no huge sentiment for Bakhmut, he motivated himself to defend it by imagining his own streets in Kyiv. He covered the war in the Donbas as a journalist from 2014-15, but it hadn’t remotely prepared him for fighting. ‘What can you do with a microphone?’ he asks. ‘Bop Russians on the head with it?’ He feels safer now with a gun instead of a mike.

     One fact that interests him is that more journalists have joined up than men who train in his gym. He hasn’t written yet about the war, but what he reads in newspapers disappoints him. He believes the best war journalism should ‘tell people what happens rather than tell people how to feel about what happens.’ ‘Think, not feel,’ is his motto. And yet, almost contradictorily, he loves the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson where the writer is eyewitness. I point out he’s like Ernest Hemingway in that he’s a journalist who fights.

     ‘I have to survive the war first,’ he says awkwardly, without looking into my eyes.

     He mocks the media hype that claims, ‘Three days and we will take Crimea!’ ‘War is not about winning,’ he states confidently. ‘It’s about adapting and learning. It’s a game of chess.’ For Illia, it’s innovation that destroys the enemy and he cites how quad bikes with tankbusters have had great success. ‘I feel like I’ve one foot in World War I and the other in World War III with a drone telling me through my walkie talkie to throw a grenade.’

     We laugh about how his moustache is worthy of a World War I general. The soldiers he commands call him ‘grandad’ but he’s only twenty-eight. Joking helps him survive. He says wryly that Russians leave their wounded but make sure they take washing machines. He pokes fun at himself cuddling some random flea-bitten dog on the front line to keep warm when initially he was disgusted at even sharing a plate with another soldier.

     One day, when bombs were raining down on his trench, he was laughing to himself while listening to Dave Chappelle through his headphones, and his men thought he’d gone insane. A few of his soldiers have had violent mental breakdowns. It happens, according to Illia, during times of silence when soldiers have time to think about what they’ve witnessed.

   Just before the war, Russian media companies tried to recruit him and other journalists for big money, but he refused to be politically bought. He tells me there are Ukrainian politicians he disagrees with, including Zelensky, but that it’s important for now to have unity. He believes, for instance, that arguments over Russian statues and culture in Ukraine should be left until after the war. While he admires Ukraine’s creativity, he thinks money is being wasted on the development of too many types of missiles.

     He shows me the shrapnel injury on his forearm that severed a nerve, meaning he can’t feel all of his fingers. His lungs are also damaged from a gas attack. Concussion gave him chronic singultus and stuttering which have improved with medication.

     He’s won medals for bravery, but is concerned that they’ve been devalued. The Golden Cross is handed out to what he calls ‘War Jackets who have done nothing more than work on an Excel sheet. If that’s all you need do, I might as well pierce my nipples and hang my medals on them.’

     Illia’s friend Kateryna Suprun of the media outlet, Militarnyi, joins us and reminds him with a chuckle of the time a black and white photo of him was published online. She and all his relatives nearly had a heart attack. The publication of a black and white photo in Ukraine means that you’re dead.

     Death is in the air as Illia talks. He had a girlfriend at the beginning of the war who has since moved to Germany. He told her not to wait for him. He thanks God they didn’t have children together.

     ‘I have enough trouble with my mother and sister worrying about me,’ he says.

     As we part, he tells me passionately, ‘I don’t care about me – you can make me look bad, write whatever you want about me, but please don’t make my country look bad.’

     The following night I take the train to Zaporizhia, a city 50 kms from the frontline. I want to witness life there for myself. To my mind, a writer is a soldier in the war of information.

     The train is packed. The teenager in the bunk above me is Vanya, a softly spoken Zaporizhian who studies IT in Kyiv. He is tall, his slender frame as yet unfilled, and the war rests heavy on his mind.

     ‘I even start crying if I see a documentary on World War II,’ he admits.

     His skin is delicately pale and there is the faintest stubble above his upper lip. He explains that men don’t have to fight in Ukraine until they are twenty-five, but the fear is already instilled in him.

     ‘The compulsory call-up is wrong,’ he insists. ‘I will never be able to go.’

     By the morning, we shuttle into the outskirts of Zaporizhia. The sunflower fields are full of drooping black heads, the yellow petal coronas withered away. Gardens with bright yellow squashes graduate into inner-city apartment blocks.

     Oleksiy Stoyanovsky, my translator, is waiting for me at the station. He takes me in his car along the main Sobornyi Avenue. Buildings here have elaborate facades in the Stalin Empire style. Some windows in my hotel are boarded from an attack on the government offices. From my eight-floor window, you can see plumes of smoke from the vast steelworks. At certain times, you can smell the chemicals. A room with a peugh.

     My unusually noisy kettle means I miss the sound of two explosions outside. ‘Didn’t you hear them?’ asks Oleksiy. Mason calls and informs me excitedly that a Russian drone was just shot down over Zaporizhia by a Storm Shadow missile.

     In the afternoon I meet Alex Matiash, an infantry commander of 130 men, at a café called Enjoy. Alex, shaven-headed and physically imposing, is as renowned for being a businessman as a soldier. He first noticed a problem with soldiers’ underwear when he was fighting in the Donbas in 2015, so he quit the army and set up a business making trunks. The idea was not primarily to profit but to prove that Ukraine could produce quality products. His trunks have a year warranty although ‘you won’t get your money back if I’m killed,’ he adds darkly.

      He tells me how he fought for sixty-four days in Klishchiivka with twenty-one men against six hundred Russians. He explains that you can be the best soldier in the world, but it’s nothing without a good commander and good luck.

     ‘I’m a lucky guy,’ he shrugs. ‘God loves me.’

     He’s lost many friends in the war. After twenty, he stopped counting. Sometimes he goes to the cemetery to speak with them. As he tells me this, the willow leaves fall around us. He confesses that he can only feel betrayal at his former friends who escaped the country to avoid fighting. ‘What about honour?’ he asks. The soldiers in his squad are his family now as they’ve saved each other’s lives. ‘They don’t trade me,’ he says. War and love are like business in his opinion – ‘You give everything, you get everything in return.’ He meant to buy a flat in Kyiv last year, but instead has put the profits from his business into financing his unit.

     He was born in Ukraine of Russian citizenship and his grandfather fought in the Soviet Army against the Wehrmacht. As a child, he watched the Soviet-Afghan war, fully expecting a future where he’d go to war himself. For him, the war is not with Russia but with the people who kill his friends, steal from the occupied territories and want to kill his kids. ‘It’s not country to country,’ he clarifies. ‘There are many cultures and nationalities in Russia. The war is against imperialism. If it wasn’t Putin, it would be some other leader. I’m fighting for Europe.’

     He’s not willing to negotiate with Russia as they’ve been an aggressive neighbour for three hundred years. He admits that he wants revenge on Russia, but is prepared to let it go at a later date.

     ‘I want to live, visit other countries, but for now it is a street fight with fists. If someone takes out a knife, then I take out my gun. Russia is a mouse that’s been caught. They can’t go back. The Russian leaders can’t say, “Sorry. We lost.” There will be revolution on the streets.’

     His vision for the future is for a more evolved human society with synergy in culture, industry and nationality. The last thing he wants is for his kids to be soldiers.

     As I leave him, he says, ‘It’s been fairly quiet these days in Zaporizhia, but I don’t like it. When it’s quiet, something is going to happen.’

     Oleksiy drives me past the eerily empty dockland to Khortytsia Island, a nature reserve looking out onto the vast hydroelectric dam. The Dnieper below us is shallow and full of rocky sleech and sandbanks. It’s a direct result of Russians destroying the Kahkovka dam in June. The whole region is suffering badly from drought.

     That night, I wake up with a start to the sound of five explosions, each one closer than the last. It takes hours before I fall back to sleep.

     The next morning, it’s Defenders Day and at nine am I hear the national anthem played outside. From the eighth floor I watch people on the street stop in mid-motion to observe a minute of silence.

     Later, I go to the Reikartz Hotel. A scrawny skeleton remains where the signage used to be; it’s like ghost writing. Back in August, the Reikartz was bombed by Russia with one dead and sixteen injured. The front wall has collapsed, leaving rooms open as in a doll’s house. In the sun, the white chairs perched on the edge could almost belong to a balcony in a holiday resort.

     When I arrive back at the train station, the air raid warnings are sounding and soldiers usher us into the underground passages. Oleksiy jokes that instead of a band playing for my departure, it’s a siren. I only just make the train in time. As it pulls out, Illia’s words about how war journalism should make you think more than feel come back into my mind, but I believe you must feel this conflict to understand it.

     The countryside of the Zaporizhia region looks pale, sucked dry by the war. As the train gathers speed, a stray hopeful sunflower at the edge of the fields flutters in the breeze like a child’s windmill.

Rosemary Jenkinson’s short story collection, Love in the Time of Chaos, is published by Arlen House and is shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize.