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Pain, anger and pride: in Ukraine, the life turned upside down for army reservists

A few days before the Russian offensive of February 24, 2022, our journalist Mehdi Chebil had visited a training center for Ukrainian army reservists in Kharkiv. A year later, he returned to this war-ravaged city in northeastern Ukraine to meet those citizens who had taken up arms.

Dressed in camouflage, an assault rifle slung over his shoulder, Sergeant Major Mikhail Sokolov walks through the ruins of his former training center. He pauses to remember his fallen comrades.

“Many of those you met last year are no longer with us,” says the burly officer.

“This place makes me sad and melancholy,” he adds, pointing to the piles of rubble on the ground. “All we have now is this void. But we have to keep moving forward.”

Yet it was Mikhail Sokolov who offered to return to this training center in Kharkiv, a city in northeastern Ukraine. We first met there last year to report on the Territorial Defense Forces, a volunteer reserve intended to support the regular army in the event of a Russian invasion.

At that time, the building, a former school, was teeming with officers and new recruits learning to handle assault rifles, explosive devices or first aid training. Until the evening of March 2, a little over a week after the start of the invasion, when the training center was destroyed by a Russian strike. Forty people were killed and dozens more seriously injured.

Mikhail Sokolov was not present at the time of the strike. He was already fighting Russian forces in the northern suburbs of Kharkiv. The place is now eerily quiet. When the howl of an air raid siren breaks the silence, the sergeant major doesn’t even blink.

A year ago, Mikhail Sokolov supervised the training of reservists. Most had little or no military experience. Today, he is fighting alongside them, including in Bakhmout, a martyred city located near the front line, at the heart of one of the bloodiest battles of the conflict.

New recruits of the Territorial Defense Forces learning to use Kalashnikov assault rifles, January 29, 2022. The training center was completely destroyed on March 2 by a Russian strike.

“Fifty of my men have already received the Order of Bogdan Khmelnitsky, a military decoration recognizing exceptional bravery,” says the Sergeant Major of the 113e Territorial Defense Forces brigade.

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This military distinction also underlines the transformation undergone by the Territorial Defense Forces whose initial role was – as Mikhail Sokolov explained last year – “above all to protect infrastructures and lines of communication”.

In no time, the war transformed reservists into seasoned fighters. Among them, Alexeï Sus, an electrical engineer whom we had met during a training session last year. At 36, he had just spent the equivalent of several hundred euros to buy his own military equipment and “be ready for any eventuality”.

Alexeï Sus poses with his Ruger precision rifle of caliber 308 win, a weapon capable of hitting targets several hundred meters away.  Photo courtesy of Alexei Sus.

On February 24, 2022, “I took my bulletproof vest, my helmet, my Geiger counter… and went to meet the ‘visitors’ of Belgorod [principale ville russe de l’autre côté de la frontière]”, he recalled, in a series of text messages sent from the front line, explaining that the Territorial Defense Forces were “in such a mess” that he preferred to enlist in a unit of the National Guard.

According to him, participating in the ongoing battles against Russian forces in the Donbass represents one of the most trying moments of the war.

Alexei Sus poses in front of a Russian armored vehicle.  His unit took part in the lightning counter-offensive east of Kharkiv in September 2022. Photo courtesy of Alexei Sus.

“Wagner’s mercenaries work hard, they have modern equipment and do not need to save shells and ammunition,” he wrote, referring to the Russian paramilitary group that played a leading role. plane in the fights.

“I became a real Ukrainian”

For Alisa Bolotskaya, the “Ground Zero” of the war is the very place where we first met: the training center in Kharkiv.

A year ago, this nurse hoped that her first aid training on caring for war wounds would “never be put into practice”. Finally, she must have applied it barely a week after the start of the invasion.

Alisa Bolotskaya holding her military helmet, February 5, 2023.

The night the training center was hit by a Russian strike, Alisa Bolotskaya was among the first medics to treat the victims at a nearby field hospital. In a split second, she had to make decisions about which patients had the best chance of surviving.

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“It was the first time I saw casualties in a war zone,” she recalled, speaking from a safe house in the Kharkiv region. “I immediately went on autopilot. I tourniqueted, distributed victims, injected painkillers. There was no hesitation, I was in the right place and my medical skills were needed.”

This baptism of fire “ended up consolidating my determination”, she adds.

Today, Alisa Bolotskaya is a full-time medical officer and takes care of a company of about 60 fighters from the 113e Territorial Defense Force brigade.

Alisa Bolotskaya examines her medical kit.

“I feel like I’ve become a real Ukrainian, I’m proud to be part of this war,” she says. “A year ago most people couldn’t locate Ukraine on a map. Today that has changed.”

The conflict has also strengthened his relationship with Sergei, his partner for four years, also a member of the 113e brigade. Like many couples, however, they were separated by war for several months. “I know several situations where soldiers separated because of the war. But in our case, it made our love more intense. I realized that he was the dearest person to me.”

Alisa Bolotskaya takes part in an exercise during her training session at the Territorial Defense Forces base in Kharkiv on January 29, 2022.

Countless books have been written on the subject of love in times of war. But for Alisa Bolotskaya, a single individual counts more than a million words.

“The most important things weren’t our phone calls, but the only emoji he sent me when he was isolated without a good network connection,” she explains. “It was just a smiley, but it meant the most important thing to me: Sergei was alive.” The couple reunited on July 14, nearly five months after the war began. For Alisa Bolotskaya, this is the happiest moment of her wartime life.

Sergei makes his marriage proposal to Alisa on July 14, 2022. Many Ukrainian couples have taken advantage of a reunion to formalize their union, as evidenced by similar photos posted on social networks.

An irreversible grief

There will be no such joyful reunion for those whose loved ones died defending Ukrainian soil. Loss estimates vary widely; in early December, government sources in kyiv said that at least 13,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed since the start of the war.

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Among them was Oleg Stepanov, also met a year ago, killed during the summer by enemy fire near the town of Barvinkove, south of Kharkiv. His death caused “irreversible grief for everyone, because Ukraine has lost another talented, loyal and courageous son”, reads an obituary in English published by Karazin National University, Kharkiv. where Oleg Stepanov worked as a geologist.

The tribute to Oleg Stepanov published by his university, among dozens of obituaries of professors, graduates and employees distributed in the section "news" from the site of the establishment.

“He had his helmet and bulletproof vest on, but the shrapnel hit him in the face and he was killed instantly,” his widow Alyona Stepanova says from Aix-en-Provence, France, where she now lives.

“I want to be remembered as a patriot, as a man who fought for Ukrainian independence from Euromaidan,” she adds, referring to the popular protest movement who brought down the pro-Russian Ukrainian government in early 2014.

Oleg Stepanov pictured during Territorial Defense Forces training in Kharkiv. "Training other people meant a lot to him"comments his widow.

A trained geologist, Oleg Stepanov was among the first Ukrainian soldiers to confront Russian regular forces supporting pro-Moscow separatists during the siege of Ilovaisk, east of Donetsk, in the summer of 2014. Like Mikhail Sokolov, he would certainly have found it absurd to hear Western journalists speak of the “first anniversary of the war”.

Oleg Stepanov and his wife Alyona.  They have three children.  The two youngest are with their mother in Aix-en Provence, France.  The eldest is fighting in the Ukrainian army.  Photo provided by Alyona Stepanova.

For many Ukrainian soldiers, the full-scale invasion that began on February 24 was just the sign of a new phase in a war that has dragged on for nearly a decade.

“There is something much worse than sitting in a trench. The most terrible, for me, is the moment when the death of a soldier is announced to his family”, reacts Mikhail Sokolov. “Bereaved people never say it, but you can always read the same question in their eyes: Why did he have to die? And how come you are still alive?”

A text adapted from the original in English by Barbara Gabel.

Source: France 24



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