Ukraine: All quiet on the eastern front

Government soldiers on the front lines speak to Al Jazeera about war, peace and the precarious ceasefire.

The last checkpoint before entering Luhansk People's Republic-controlled territory [Louis Dowse/Al Jazeera]

Schastiye, Ukraine – In eastern Ukraine, the latest in a series of fragile ceasefires between government troops and separatist pro-Russian rebels has finally brought quiet to this stretch of the front.

Since the ceasefire came into effect on December 9, the ground no longer trembles for the first time in months. Only the occasional crack of sniper fire pierces a silence that has descended on the front line, roughly 16 kilometres from the city of Luhansk.

This is the second attempt in recent weeks to bring an end to the brutal – and often indiscriminate – artillery barrages that rocked positions in Ukraine since the September ceasefire accord unravelled.

The weeks leading up to the current ceasefire saw violence escalate between Ukrainian government forces and separatist rebels, who have been fighting since March after Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine, following the popular overthrow of Moscow-backed president Victor Yanukovich.

The United Nations estimates that 4,700 people have died in fighting – a death toll that may be much highter.

Pencil, an officer in the Aidar Battalion, says he does not believe a lasting ceasefire is possible [Louis Dowse/Al Jazeera]

“Do not be fooled by this ceasefire,” advised “Pencil”, an officer from the Ukrainian army’s Aidar battalion.

“We have had over six ceasefires since September. We [the Ukrainian forces] are the only ones to follow them, the only ones to agree to them. How can we trust this one? How can we trust people making these decisions?”

In a sign of good faith, the two sides launched a prisoner swap on Friday, with 146 Ukrainian troops released for 222 pro-Russia rebels following peace talks.

Ukrainian soldiers near the eastern city of Trohizbinka use a portrait of Lenin for target practice [Louis Dowse/Al Jazeera]

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced a Day of Silence on December 9  when the ceasefire began.

But underneath the prevailing silence lies a bitterness and anger as deeply entrenched as the soldiers themselves.

The anger is directed not only at their foes, camped out in positions fewer than 800 metres away, but also increasingly against the government in Kiev, which some soldiers say is not doing enough to win the war.

Yegor [centre] is the commander of a small commando unit operating between Schastiye and Trohizbinka [Louis Dowse/Al Jazeera]

“This war is being prolonged for financial gain. There is a small minority who do not want this war to end. If it stops, they will stop making money. We do not need these people,” said Yegor, who leads a Ukrainian army commando unit near the village of Trohizbinka.

His view is shared by many others who said that ultimately, only another revolution will be able to root out corruption in the Ukraine government and the hardship it causes.

“It is necessary to change the current system and remove the sickness in the heart of our homeland,” Yegor said.

Bodies of two soldiers killed following a grad missile attack are loaded for transport after a brief memorial [Louis Dowse] 

Constantine, a tank specialist in the Ukrainian army’s 28th Territorial Battalion, said the solution is a re-organisation of the country’s armed forces.

“We suffer from a Soviet mentality – that is, to favour numbers over quality. Here, numbers mean nothing – logistics do … If we maintain our current tactics, the war will never end.”

But most of the men serving on the front line are not thinking of more than the immediate future. Recent memories of intense fighting and comrades’ deaths can make it too bitter to consider much else.

Andrii was captured last August after his column was ambushed, but was later released [Louis Dowse/Al Jazeera]

“How can I talk about peace when there are traitors to kill?” asked Andrii, a former member of the volunteer pro-government Dnipro Battalion, which suffered heavy casualties from separatist forces in the Battle of Iloviask in August.

“I was captured when our column was ambushed as it retreated from fighting with LNR [Luhansk People’s Republic] separatists in August.

Many of my friends were killed. I was lucky. After some months they [LNR] released me and now I am here to keep fighting.”
The city of Schastiye (Happiness) came under heavy artillery fire in the build-up to the latest ceasefire [Louis Dowse/Al Jazeera]

Reports have alleged abuse against captives on both sides of the conflict. Rumours circulate about a soldier recently captured by LNR forces, who released him only after they had castrated him.

Although the story has not been independently verified, it is in line with other atrocities that have been reported in the Luhansk region, such as the mutilation of captured and killed Ukrainian government soldiers who served under Yegor at Trohizbinka.

During these quieter moments, soldiers spend their spare time watching films, training, practising close-quarters combat and learning self-defence from Soviet-era martial art videos.

‘Sensai’, 59, is one of the older members of the commando unit and a veteran of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan [Louis Dowse]

“Anything that keeps their minds focused and occupied,” explained Sensai, a veteran of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. “Otherwise they, we – all of us – would succumb to this war. We would lose our minds to the brutality and the bombing.”

In the barracks, one man stands out: Nicknamed Chornee or “Black”, this 20-year-old just stares when asked for his thoughts on the ceasefire and the potential for peace, his eyes betraying pain and suffering.

His home is Luhansk, a city to which he cannot return in the foreseeable future. Martial arts videos provide his greatest escape.

‘Chornee’ (Black) is from Luhansk, a city now occupied by separatists [Louis Dowse/Al Jazeera]

But although the war has destroyed much and created inseparable divides, it has also given many of the fighters a chance to re-invent themselves, imparting a sense of direction and duty.

A soldier named “Bachar” – or “young man” in the Pashtun language, a moniker he acquired while fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s – carries a grenade with him at all times.

A career soldier, Bachar says he is fighting for Ukraine, and to defend his comrades in the platoon. Like many other soldiers on the front line, he shouts in his best English – “Victory or death!”
The war in Ukraine has attracted a large number of former veterans from the Soviet Army such as ‘Bachar’ [Louis Dowse]

Source: Al Jazeera