Written by Ryan Miller, 05 OCT 2019
Picture this: just outside of whatever town you live in, trenches litter the countryside and divide what used to be a unified nation, your nation. Somewhere down the line, the divisions that existed in peoples’ minds materialized in the form of armies, both sides made up of fellow countrymen, opposing each other. The trenches are the open wounds of the war, and they’re still bleeding. For five years, these trenches have been bleeding the blood of your friends, family, and citizens of your nation.
In Eastern Ukraine, this is the reality. Trenches of opposing militaries are separated by about 600 meters. Former neighbors and friends often find themselves looking across this no man’s land at each other through scopes on sniper rifles and binoculars. They live side by side in an incomprehensible reality for anyone who didn’t live through World War 1.
I was embedded for a second time with the Ukrainian Army’s Donbas Battalion somewhere in the Luhansk Region of eastern Ukraine. Upon arrival, the soldiers talked about how the previous night some separatist soldiers had tried to cross the buffer zone, or no man’s land. They were reportedly blown up by landmines; official body count was unknown at that time.
In the daylight, everything was relatively quiet. That’s to be expected, most of the fighting here happens at night. ‘The neighbors’ is what the soldiers call the allied units in the next trenches over. As evening approached and the sun hung low, the neighbors got busy shooting; we didn’t know at what, but they didn’t let up. In the distance you could hear the light thumps of AK-47s exchanging fire, interrupted by the heavier sounding heavy machine guns. Their combat lasted well into the night and stopped around 3 am. It’s not unusual, but given the circumstances of the night before some were understandably a little bit on-edge.
In our trench, myself and the soldiers are having good conversation over coffee and smokes. Around 8 pm it’s time for us to move into position. A soldier sets up his AGS-30, sort of a machine gun that shoots grenades. He pauses, shoots off a few of the blue-tipped explosive rounds rounds at the separatist positions, and pauses again. In a position next to us another soldier fires rounds from a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, or RPG. After what seemed like a lifetime we hear the distant sounds of 7.62 rounds being fired in our direction across the no man’s land; we’re under fire now. His partner runs up to assist, they grab the weapon, lower it back down into the machine gun nest and we take off for a different part of our network of trenches. Then, there’s nothing.
We’re back in the same spot we’d been hanging out in for hours before and are right back to conversation, coffee, and smokes. The spotter who is posted in a tree comes over a staticky radio: “5 guys dead.” This soldier had killed 5 men in a strike planned by the Ukrainians that lasted less than a minute. I asked him what he felt when he did that. He said “I feel nothing about it.”
This is a pretty average event in Ukraine’s war with itself and their aggressive Russian neighbor. Sometimes the separatists get one over on the Ukrainians, sometimes vice-versa.
5 men died that day in an average event. But before passing judgement, imagine this one last thing: you’ve had to fight for your idea of what your country should be for the past 5 years. You might be a unionist, or you might be a separatist, but either way it’s what you believe in and it’s what you’re willing to kill or be killed for. Given those circumstances, ask yourself how you might feel about an average event like this one.