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Grief, anger and pride: how war upended the lives of Ukraine’s citizen soldiers
From our special correspondent in Kharkiv – Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has triggered seismic changes in the lives of most Ukrainians. Days before Moscow launched its attack, FRANCE 24’s Mehdi Chebil visited a training centre in Kharkiv where civilian reservists prepared for a war many still hoped to avoid. Twelve months later, he returned to the war-torn city to hear the stories of ordinary Ukrainians whose lives have been upended by Europe’s biggest armed conflict since World War II.
Pacing through the bombed-out ruins of his former training centre, Master Sergeant Mikhail Sokolov paused a moment to remember his fallen comrades.
“A lot of the people you met here last year, they’re no longer with us,” said the burly officer in camouflage gear, his M4 carbine rifle dangling from his shoulder.
“This place makes me feel sad and mournful,” he added, gesturing towards piles of rubble scattered across the floor. “All we have now is this emptiness, but we have to keep going.”
It was Sokolov who suggested going back to the training centre in the northeastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv where we first met last year for a report on Ukraine’s Territorial Defence Forces (TDF), a civilian reserve force designed to bolster the country’s defences.
Back then, the building, a former school, was bustling with officers and new recruits learning how to handle assault rifles and receiving basic training in explosives or first aid.
The cover picture of France 24’s report on a training session for Kharkiv’s Territorial Defence Forces held three weeks before the full-scale invasion. © Mehdi Chebil / France 24
The training centre was destroyed in a massive Russian strike on the evening of March 2, just over a week into the invasion. Some 40 people were killed and scores more were seriously injured. Sokolov was not present when the strike occurred. He was already fighting Russian forces in the northern outskirts of Kharkiv.
The place is now eerily quiet. When the wail of an air raid siren punctures the silence, the master sergeant doesn’t even blink.
A year ago, Sokolov was overseeing the training of reservists, most of whom had little or no military expertise. He now fights side-by-side with them, including in Bakhmut, the martyred frontline city now at the heart of one of the bloodiest battles of the war.
“Fifty of my men have already been awarded the Order of Bohdan Khmelnytskyi, a military decoration recognising exceptional bravery,” said the sergeant major from the TDF’s 113th brigade.
The decorations underscore the transformation undergone by Ukraine’s Territorial Defence Forces, a unit whose original task was – as Sokolov put it last year – “first and foremost to protect infrastructure and communication routes”.
Scholars have long noted that wars tend to “accelerate” history, precipitating developments in technology or medical research – some for the better, like the discovery of penicillin, others deeply ambivalent, like nuclear power.
On an individual level, war can turn civilian reservists into veteran fighters in the shortest time.
That is precisely what happened to Alexei Sus, an electrical engineer we encountered during a training session last year. The 36-year-old had just spent the equivalent of hundreds of euros of his own money to buy his military kit and “be ready for any eventuality”.
Fate came knocking on his door on February 24, 2022, the day multiple columns of Russian forces invaded Ukraine from north, east and south.
“On that day, I took my personal vest, helmet, Geiger counter…and went to meet the ‘visitors’ from Belgorod [a Russian city north of Kharkiv],” Sus recalled in a series of text messages sent from the front line. The TDF were “such a mess” at the start of the invasion that he enlisted with a National Guard unit instead, he said.
From the battlefield near Kreminna, 50 kilometres north of Bakhmut, Sus sent us pictures and video footage depicting the trail of devastation left by his unit over a year of fighting. The graphic images featured burnt-out armoured vehicles bearing the letter “Z” and the twisted bodies of slain Russian soldiers.
The addition of a smiley-face emoji to conceal his face [Sus had already declined to be photographed last year] added a surreal touch to the grisly scenes of war.
The Ukrainian soldier said his part in the ongoing battles against Russian forces in the eastern Donbas region ranked among the most gruelling stages of the war.
“Wagner mercenaries are pushing hard, they have modern equipment and they don’t have to save their shells and ammunition,” he wrote, referring to the Russian paramilitary group that has played a prominent part in the fighting.
‘I’ve become a real Ukrainian’
For Alisa Bolotskaya, the war’s “Ground Zero” turned out to be the TDF training centre in Kharkiv.
Twelve months ago, the nurse said she hoped her first-aid training course on treating war wounds would “never be put into practice”. Instead, she was tested barely a week after the invasion began.
Bolotskaya was among the first responders on the night when the former school was hit by a Russian strike. She received the first casualties at a nearby field hospital and had to make split-second decisions about which patients had the best chance of surviving.
“It was the first time I saw war zone victims,” she recalled, speaking from a safe house in the Kharkiv area. “I immediately switched into autopilot. I put tourniquets, dispatched victims, injected pain killers. There was no hesitation, I was in the right place and my medical skills were necessary.”
The trial by fire “ended up cementing my resolve,” she added
Bolotskaya is now a full-time military medic with a company of about 60 fighters in the 113th brigade of the TDF. She says the war has made her less sensitive to the small inconveniences of life but also more demanding of her government.
“I feel I’ve become a real Ukrainian, I’m proud to take part in this war,” she said. “One year ago, most foreigners could not put Ukraine on a map. Now that has changed.”
The conflict has also strengthened her relationship with Sergei, her partner for the past four years. Sergei, who also serves with the 113th brigade, was away on a mission when we interviewed Bolotskaya. Like many couples, they were separated by the war for several months.
“I know several cases where soldiers split up because of the war. But in our case, it actually made our love more intense. I came to realise he’s the closest person in my life,” she said.
Countless books have been written on the subject of love in times of war. But for Bolotskaya, a single character meant more than a million words.
“The most important things were not the phone calls, but the single emoji that he sent me when he was isolated without good network connection,” she explained. “It was just a smiley, but it meant the most precious thing to me: Sergei was alive.”
Their first reunion since the start of Russia’s invasion took place on July 14, almost five months into the war. Bolotskaya described it as the happiest moment of her life in wartime.
There will be no such joyful reunions for those whose loved ones died defending Ukrainian soil. While casualty estimates vary widely, government sources in Kyiv said in early December that as many as 13,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed since the start of the invasion.
Among them was Oleg Stepanov, one of the instructors we met at the training school in Kharkiv a year ago. He was killed by enemy fire near the city of Barvinkove, south of Kharkiv, during the summer.
His death caused “irreparable grief for everyone, because Ukraine has lost another talented, loyal and courageous son”, reads an obituary in English posted by Karazin Kharkiv National University, where Stepanov worked as a geologist.
An obituary for Oleg Stepanov on his university website. The “news” section of the university website features dozens of tributes to teachers, graduates, and university staff killed since February 24, 2022. © Mehdi Chebil / France 24
An experienced and soft-spoken teacher, Stepanov commanded the respect and attention of recruits at the training centre in Kharkiv.
“He had his helmet and bulletproof vest but the shrapnel hit him in the face and he was killed instantly,” his widow Alyona Stepanova told us from the French city of Aix-en-Provence, where she now lives. “I want him to be remembered as a patriot, as a man who had been fighting for the independence of Ukraine since Euromaidan,” she added, referring to the popular protest movement that brought down Ukraine’s pro-Russian government in early 2014.
A geologist by training, Stepanov was among the first Ukrainian soldiers to confront Russian regular forces backing pro-Moscow separatists during the Battle of Ilovaisk, east of Donetsk, in the summer of 2014.
Like Sergeant Master Sokolov, he would certainly have found it absurd to hear Western reporters talk about the “first anniversary of the war”. For many Ukrainian soldiers, the full-scale invasion that began on February 24 merely signaled another phase in a war that has dragged on for almost a decade.
Before returning to the bloodbath of Bakhmut, Sokolov had a last word for us.
“There is something much worse than sitting in a trench. The most terrible thing for me is the moment you announce the death of a soldier to his family,” he said. “The bereaved never speak it out but you can always read the same question in their eyes:
“Why did he have to die? … And how come you are still alive?”
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