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      When War Becomes Routine: A Week with Ukraine’s Weary-Eyed Soldiers

      When War Becomes Routine: A Week with Ukraine’s Weary-Eyed Soldiers When War Becomes Routine: A Week with Ukraine’s Weary-Eyed Soldiers When War Becomes Routine: A Week with Ukraine’s Weary-Eyed Soldiers
      Photo by Pete Kiehart

      War & Conflict

      When War Becomes Routine: A Week with Ukraine’s Weary-Eyed Soldiers

      By Jack Losh

      The mercenary thought that he had left the battlefield for good before war slunk back into his life, unwelcome and unforeseen.

      Retirement had suited Makar. This soldier-of-fortune turned to civilian life following two decades in various martial tribes. Several years in the Soviet Army; a stint in an elite, Ukrainian police unit following the collapse of Communism; four wars around the world working as a hired gun. By 2007, he was ready to hand in his assault rifle for good.

      He headed up-country and opened a beauty salon in Sumy, less than 30 miles from the Russian border. Weighing in at 260lbs and standing more than 6'4'' tall, this bearded hulk was not an obvious candidate to become a beautician. But Makar enjoyed the work, specializing in tattooing fake eyebrows onto female clients.

      Seven years passed. He married a third time, fathered a son and a daughter. Life in the provinces was proving pleasant enough. But war was not yet finished with him.

      That winter, in late 2013, the street protests began. Revolution ousted Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine's kleptocrat president, but plunged the country into political crisis. Russia seized on the turmoil, annexing Crimea, stoking separatist rebellion and launching a clandestine invasion. Despite the anti-aircraft systems, armored vehicles and artillery units rolling over Ukraine's eastern border, the Kremlin continued to deny any involvement.

      Makar enrolled immediately. "There weren't enough professionals," he said. "The Army needed all the help it could get."

      Makar, 46, a staff sergeant involved in training the men of Ukraine's 58th Brigade, poses for a portrait in Avdiivka, Ukraine. Photo by Pete Kiehart

      Two years on, he remains in the war zone, based in the government-held town of Avdiivka — the conflict's latest flashpoint. The shaky ceasefire has fallen apart at this strategically-important crossroad as battles rage daily around an industrial district known as the "Prom Zone" on the town's southern flanks. The most intense fighting since last August is now unfolding here on European soil — the latest upsurge in the country's depressing and sustained cycle of violence that sees truce shift to renewed warfare along the eastern front.

      Some regard the spike as yet another sporadic outbreak of hostilities. Others see the Kremlin's hand in the chaos — a constant, choreographed campaign to destabilize its smaller neighbor.

      For seven days, VICE News was embedded in Avdiivka with the Ukraine Army's 58th Mechanized Brigade to get the view on the ground as the war enters its third year. This month marks exactly two years since conflict first erupted and began exacting its profound toll: more than 9,000 dead, 21,000 injured, and two million displaced, with relations between Russia and the West plunged to an icy low.

      The war has become routine and takes many forms. It is huddled in concrete bunkers, stands smoking in a 280-mile scar of trenches, and prowls through abandoned, frontline villages after dark. Daily, it stands in line for handouts. Daily, it gathers in black at funerals.

      A Ukrainian soldier looks through a window as a gunfight breaks out near a frontline position known as "King's Hunt" on the outskirts of Avdiivka. Photo by Pete Kiehart

      I first met Makar, now in his late 40s, in an abandoned wing of Avdiivka's sprawling, coke-manufacturing complex, which the 58th Brigade had commandeered as a forward-operating base — our home for the next week. It lay around 15 minutes' drive from the Prom Zone, the besieged epicenter of the current escalation.

      The Ukrainian military had imposed a lockdown on that area, preventing access to all civilians or journalists — only soldiers were permitted enter. The reason was not entirely clear. Certainly that stretch of the front was dangerous and top brass could do without a dead reporter on their hands. They could also do without a living reporter witnessing the army's explosive counterstrikes against separatist attacks, even as it claimed to comply fully with the ceasefire.

      'At the beginning of it all, I didn't expect this war to be so bad... But, soon enough, I realized this would be a very long war.'

      In spite of this, thanks to a twist of fortune and a few useful contacts, we had secured a way in. Makar offered to drive us down.

      "At the beginning of it all, I didn't expect this war to be so bad," he said. "I didn't expect it to be so drawn-out. But, soon enough, I realized this would be a very long war." His high-grade equipment marked him apart from the other men of Ukraine's ramshackle army — the spoils of a former, more fruitful military life. I pushed him for more details on his life as a mercenary — the exploits and encounters, the riches and regrets. But he kept silent. This chapter was, somewhat revealingly, out of bounds.

      We got into his 4x4, crammed among a confusion of ammunition clips, assault rifles, radio equipment, and other military paraphernalia, before the vehicle barrelled southwards, past the final military checkpoint and into the eye of the storm.

      * * *

      The windscreen is smeared with grime. It's hard to see exactly what we're heading into. Every building around us is damaged, split or ruined. The tarmacked road turns into a muddy track. I push the barrel of Makar's loaded assault rifle away but every bump knocks it back in my direction. The explosions are getting louder. My flak jacket is too tight, almost suffocating. Makar seems keen to get us in, then make his hasty exit.

      We arrive in the Prom Zone and pull into the first compound — a concrete, derelict industrial unit. It's a mess. Rubbish everywhere, fresh scars of battle, rubble piled around mortars, and a machine-gun nest. We grab our bags, small-arms fire popping nearby, and make it to a handful of soldiers smoking in the fading light. It is close to sunset though the world just appears greyer. Explosions from incoming artillery near this beleaguered position send us into the basement.

      The platoon has spent too long on this precipice. Some of the men are wired. Others are exhausted, flaked-out, and fully-clothed. But most are welcoming; they pull up chairs and offer mugs of sugary, black tea. The warm, rectangular basement is crammed with camp-beds and cots fashioned out of road signs.

      Ukrainian soldiers smoke cigarettes and try to repair a cassette tape in their sleeping quarters in the trenches at a frontline position. Photo by Pete Kiehart

      The table is set with an impressive array of dishes: bread and pasta; salads and soup; cheese, ham, and sausage. "Food always improves the closer you get to the front," says our liaison officer, Lieut. Denis Naumov. "This is the unwritten rule of war."

      Their seniors, however, are less pleased with their unexpected guests. They sit hunched next door in an underground, frontline nerve center. Oleksandr, the platoon commander, stares at his laptop as it streams live footage of the fighting aboveground from a camera mounted atop the position. The connection is slow but the firepower of the Russian-backed separatists is clear.

      "I don't like journalists," says Oleksandr, staring at me with hostile disinterest. "I just don't like you lot, generally. We didn't fucking ask for you to be here. I don't know who the fuck let you in."

      Related: Inside Rebel-Held Ukraine's Palaces of Propaganda

      A lone fighter is visible on-screen before a volley of mortar rounds illuminates the monitor in a juddering, slow-motion flash. Once the fire and smoke subsides, the man — Ukrainian or separatist, it's hard to tell — has vanished. Another life snuffed out.

      All around lies a chaotic collection of equipment: ammo clips, body armor and camo webbing; plastic cups of cold tea and half-empty packets of seeds; analogue radios, laptops, and maps — the eyes and ears for life underground. The men cheer every time an explosion fills the screen as if completing another level on a computer game. But the hours drag on and the flashes elicit fewer cheers. The men's faces become grey with fatigue, like miners too long at the coalface.

      A medic massages a soldier suffering from back pain in a bunker inside the so-called "Prom Zone" while other soldiers converse on beds fashioned from road signs. Photo by Pete Kiehart

      These weapons are not permitted by the ceasefire but any pact has lost its relevance here. Following a mortar strike, a concrete panel in the floor above us has ominously dropped a couple of inches.

      "Now we're moving towards 'Minsk Three,'" grimaces Oleksandr, as the explosions continue outside. "The first two ceasefires didn't work out too well."

      The night wears on. Outside, the melée of artillery and gunfire persists. It seems less about strategy, more the chance to use up stockpiles that have gathered too much dust. Radios buzz with frenzied exchanges as soldiers disappear into the night to join the fray. They return several hours later. Beneath a naked lightbulb, their faces appear drawn, their eyes hollow.

      By dawn, the fighting is over, at least for a few hours. Makar unexpectedly appears and gestures to the door. "It's time to leave."

      A soldier uses his cellphone as night falls at a frontline position. Photo by Pete Kiehart

      * * *

      What has sparked this new wave of fighting, two years after war first erupted and more than a year after the signing of a second, and now discredited, ceasefire? Commanders and commentators alike have compared the escalation here to the desperate struggle for Donetsk Airport, which began soon after the first, failed Minsk ceasefire was signed in September 2014. The airport was the focal point of the first ceasefire collapse, the city of Debaltseve the second, and some fear Avdiivka is now a possible third.

      "This is becoming, as our fighters say, the second Airport," said Alexander Khodakovsky, commander of the separatist Vostok battalion, writing in a recent blog post — a rare insight into the often-closed ranks of separatist forces. "I do not have the information about the losses in the other units, but I can guess that they are considerable too. [...] We are carrying the heaviest burden."

      Related: How Ukraine's War Became Big Business For the Underworld

      Comparisons with the airport may seem tenuous as the intensity of violence there was in a different league. The threat of a mass offensive is remote now and the political climate has since changed; the West needs Russia to break the impasse in Syria. Nonetheless, Avdiivka is decisively in the crosshairs, causing further violence to spill along the contact line, even in areas where fighting had eased off in recent months.

      Last week, the Ukrainian military reported more than 100 attacks from separatist positions along the eastern front — the heaviest fighting in this eastern Donbas region since August 2015. The bulk of all recorded ceasefire violations center on the war-torn wasteland of Avdiivka's Prom Zone.

      Such daily, bureaucratic tallies may help signal peaks and troughs amid a confused cycle of violence, but do little to end or even illustrate the dire conditions of the frontline and the perpetual waste of human life.

      Ukrainian Army Press Officer Denis Naumov catches a quick nap in his room at a makeshift barracks. Photo by Pete Kiehart

      NATO's chief, General Jens Stoltenberg, this week described the recent upsurge as "deeply disturbing," while the European Union said that violence had hit an "unprecedented level" since the warring parties agreed a fresh truce eight months ago. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) expressed similar dismay after ceasefire violations topped a staggering 4,000 in one day alone earlier this month. "We have been registering with great concern the deterioration," said Ertugrul Apakan, the Chief Monitor of the OSCE. "The fighting needs to stop now."

      There is little cause for optimism. Civilians harbor a strong desire for peace yet diplomats make minimal progress in the corridors of power further west where the noise of shelling cannot be heard. At stake is the future not only of Ukraine, but of Europe, and the grievances at the core of this new fault line stretch back centuries. But the war makes few headlines now.

      Some suggest that the separatists want to capture Avdiivka's vast coke plant — a lucrative asset, which supplies the steel mills of Ukraine's richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov. In fact, something else seems to be driving the escalation here.

      Related: Paranoia and Purges: The Dark and Dirty Battle for Power in Rebel-Held Ukraine

      Officers told VICE News that, from the new year, the Ukrainian Army began covertly boosting troop numbers and bolstering defenses in the Prom Zone. This area had formerly been treated as a no-man's land but now offered government forces advantageous views over a strategic highway connecting the rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Gorlivka. Lieut. Naumov, the liaison officer, said that the separatists were unaware of this troop surge until a local journalist revealed it on a TV station owned by Ukraine's President, Petro Poroshenko. "After that, the separatists presumed we were preparing to launch an offensive and started attacking us," Naumov added.

      His claims went some way in explaining the anti-journalist sentiment of Oleksandr, the hostile platoon commander whom I had met earlier in the Prom Zone.

      A soldier inspects a rocket embedded in a highway near Avdiivka on March 31. Photo by Pete Kiehart

      Two years on, is it now time for Ukraine to surrender the occupied Donbas and move on? After all, the rebel-held region's industrial economy is ruined and holds a population who, by and large, virulently oppose Kiev. For years, anyway, the government seemed happy to shun the Russian-speaking east. I put this to Viktor Muzhenko, Ukraine's Chief of the General Staff, during an interview at the Defense Ministry in Kiev. His answer was a resolute "no."

      "As far as I'm aware, there are still international norms that do not allow one country take another's territory by force," he replied. But the general acknowledged the serious challenge of holding the line in what increasingly resembles a frozen conflict — one that locks Ukraine into a dangerous illusion that spending and acquiring more will give it the edge over a hybrid enemy.

      "Yes, the number of dead and wounded is growing," Muzhenko continued. "And Russia uses the occupied parts of Donbas to put pressure not only on Ukraine, but also the international community as a whole."

      'You can never properly relax. I've been at home and still felt I'm at war'

      For him, the war's second anniversary brings its own hopes and concerns. "We are directing all of our efforts into creating combat-capable armed forces and an efficient command-control structure. We are ready to repel any provocations if they continue. But we fear that this conflict can, again, burn into an active phase. The number of casualties can increase and the economy and infrastructure be destroyed." Turning to Avdiivka, he added, somewhat ominously: "The intensification of hostilities there can trigger more activity in the wider area."

      All of this comes against the backdrop of persistent brinkmanship between Russia and the West. Last month, in a move not seen since the Cold War, the US announced plans to station thousands of troops, along with hundreds of armored tanks and artillery units, along NATO's eastern border.

      The dramatic step may reassure Baltic allies but incensed Moscow, which branded the rotations an "unjustified increased military presence." Solving the conundrum of Syria has demanded a more practical, less frosty dialogue between East and West. But the second anniversary of the war in eastern Ukraine, and the frictions in the wider region, signal almost no thaw.

      * * *

      Back in the conflict zone, far from such geopolitical wrangling, the daily grind continues. More than most soldiers, "Blizzard," one of the deputy commanders of Ukraine's 58th Brigade, embodies the strain of this interminable conflict. He is sullen, yet not hostile, his eyes haloed with dark rings and sunken with fatigue. This soldier — real name Alexander Zhuk, 33 — oversees the men's welfare but, upon meeting this deputy commander, one is left wondering who is there to look after him.

      "There aren't enough professional officers in the Army — this places a huge burden on ones like me," he told me one morning at the forward-operating base in Avdiivka. "I haven't properly been home for two years. You always need a few weeks to adapt from the war — until then, you can never properly relax. I've been at home and still felt I'm at war. You enter from one world to another."

      'Psychologist is a dirty word here. People are afraid of dealing with their own problems'

      One experience highlights the pressure he faces. "I'd returned home on leave. I washed my military uniform then hung it out to dry. I then got a call from the Army telling me to return to the front straight away. I had to return in my wet clothes. There was no time."

      Zhuk had been among the first soldiers to be called upon when Russian soldiers — the "little green men" without insignia — fanned across Crimea in early 2014. "I was dispatched to the border around Chongar but we were ordered not to go any further," he sighed. "It was wrong, it was frustrating."

      Alexander Zhuk, 33, aka "Blizzard," the deputy commander of Ukraine's 58th Brigade. Photo by Pete Kiehart

      When war broke out in Donbas, he was sent to the frontline in Luhansk region, on the far eastern fringes of the country, serving as a deputy artillery commander in some of the worst hotspots. "Initially, we felt stronger than the separatists. It was like fighting bandits. But then the Russians moved in. They had missile systems and unlimited amounts of ammunition. I was left thinking, 'Where the fuck did they get this all from?' They were unstoppable."

      Haunted by the bloodshed of those destructive clashes, Zhuk is now tasked with counselling his men, whose monotonous routines are disrupted by sporadic, traumatic bouts of fear, killing, and loss. But coaxing them into discussing their problems is a struggle.

      Related: Ukraine's Mystery Battle: Hunting for Truths Across an Elastic Border

      "Psychologist is a dirty word here," he said. "People are afraid of dealing with their own problems, scared of being called crazy. As a country we refuse to admit that we need help. We don't want to go to the doctor's — we just turn to the bottle. It's not even something you can solve with money — you can build the centers but people won't go. We need to change people's mindsets."

      Upstairs, in this abandoned factory, around 100 soldiers had gathered in a half-empty auditorium to watch a civilian rock band play a set of soft rock and power ballads. A huge, Soviet-era banner adorned the rear of the stage — a sun shone over a bustling industrial zone, a red hammer and sickle at its center. It was a bitter reminder of the common past that these Ukrainians share with their neighbor, now their enemy.

      Ukrainian soldiers watch a concert put on by volunteers in an auditorium at their makeshift barracks on March 27 in Avdiivka. The auditorium still bears Soviet-era symbols, including a large hammer and sickle that's partially obscured behind the stage. Photo by Pete Kiehart

      The applause after each song was short but heartfelt; the music sounded professional, yet also contrived. Its function was clear: to distract from a crushing stalemate and to engineer a breath of fresh air amid the stifling violence, just down the road. The commanders could almost be heard whispering in between each chorus: "How can we maintain the fighting spirit of our conscripts? When will they realise this war cannot be ended with military might alone?"

      Back in his office, Zhuk turned to the current wave of fighting. "Right now we're just playing ping-pong with guns. The Prom Zone is the new frontline. In recent weeks, the Russians and separatists have sent waves of soldiers at us, and attacked with tanks and heavy-caliber artillery.

      "We don't believe that this is about the separatists wanting to take Avdiivka. They just want Ukrainian forces out of the Prom Zone. As long as we remain there, the separatists won't stop their assault."

      The following day, a clash a few miles outside the Prom Zone underscored just how precarious the frontline had become.

      * * *

      The sun is at its zenith, the nocturnal refrain of fighting should be hours away, but suddenly bullets start ripping through the trees. The familiar crackle of an AK47. The heavy hammering of a DShK .50-caliber. A chain of explosions. The disconcerting whine of steel zipping too close.

      We're in a muddy trench that stretches deep into the woods. Around us stand a few soldiers and local TV journalists, one of whom has decided to play war and dress up in camouflage gear. This unexpected skirmish surprises everyone. Fighting is usually reserved for later — the OSCE ceasefire monitors usually clock off by five or six. But the divide between day and night, between calm and killing, is thinner now. And more fragile by far.

      The blasts get closer and we move into a concrete pillbox. One soldier, his face scarred by acne, draws on his cigarette and stares outside, vacant, bored even.

      Platoon commander Vlad Yushkevich gestures while setting up a gun emplacement at a frontline position. Photo by Pete Kiehart

      This wood, on Avdiivka's outskirts, was a popular hunting spot before the war. The nearby lodge was purportedly once owned by Yanukovich. There is a swimming pool, long-drained and full of rubbish. The trees around us form a desolate, land-mined grey zone.

      An older man emerges from the lodge. Taras Lypka, 51, is better known as "Philips," a nickname from his days as a salesman for the eponymous electrical company. His face, weathered by months of war, is intelligent and offers a generous smile. He was conscripted last year to fight in the east, forcing him to leave behind a wife and two children in the beautiful, baroque city of Lviv, far away in western Ukraine. He speaks impeccable English.

      "This second anniversary means nothing to me. The war will stay the same. But time benefits us, not Russia. We have become stronger, they have become weaker. Soon the population there will be looking at their empty fridges and not only the propaganda on their television sets."

      We walk down a track, stopping at three bollards linked by a trail of broken glass, a sad line that marks the beginning of no-man's land — the frontier between Ukraine and rebel-held territory. The early spring sun is warm, the constant wind that blows across this steppe has ebbed. The shots have paused. The woods feel deceptively peaceful.

      "This is not a fighting war. This is a waiting war. Give it a few years, mindsets will change, people will change," says Philips. "No one can win this with a military. Better just to hold the line and wait."

      * * *

      There was an enormous, three-dimensional map of Avdiivka in the entrance hall to the base and during moments of insomnia, I would leave the sleeping quarters in the middle of the night and stand over it, trying to relate this military chart's neat, ordered version of war to the chaotic reality on the ground. A passing soldier could have destroyed a separatist position with a single sweep of his hand. Yet outside, an entire army lay permanently powerless to change its fortunes on the battlefield. It was caught between the neutering impact of a ceasefire deal and the risk of provoking an intensified response from the Russian military.

      Irregular, creeping shifts in the frontline still occasionally gnaw into Ukraine's territory, absorbing half-abandoned villages into the limbo of the "grey zone." But this is predominantly a static conflict in which neither party is prepared to push forward.

      And yet it remains a stalemate which continues to claim lives. In Avdiivka alone, the Ukrainian Army says it lost seven soldiers last month, with more than 40 wounded. The medics are not out of a job yet.

      Ukrainian soldiers play soccer as sounds of explosions can be heard in the distance at a frontline position. Photo by Pete Kiehart

      One frontline clinic in Avdiivka occupied the dusty ground-floor of a derelict, nine-storey apartment block. The forlorn building stood as empty as a ghost ship, every room now uninhabited. Its outside wall was pockmarked by heavy gunfire, the windows shattered, the abandoned apartments now just sad, rubble-strewn shells. In the clinic below, a bulb dangled from exposed wiring above a single stretcher. It was basic in the extreme, although the crates filled with pill packets and vials of medicine suggested that drug shortages were not a problem.

      Yuriy Filyushkin had left his general practice in a provincial, western town to become one of the chief medics here, supervising around half-a-dozen volunteers. A doctor of six years, the likeable and relaxed 27-year-old looked weary but shrugged off any question of hardship with a casual stoicism. Nevertheless, the job is exhausting. "Work and sleep, work and sleep, work and sleep. That's the routine," said Yuriy in his native Ukrainian tongue. "The Army has no weekends so the only respite comes when there are no casualties."

      The previous night, the medics had not slept as they waited for the wounded to arrive. "One man was injured by shrapnel, another died on the frontline — the separatists pinned his unit down with gunfire so they couldn't get to him in time. We've had dozens of injured men here in the last month. I've lost count."

      'I don't think I'll ever come back to war. War is bullshit'

      Although stationed away from the worst of the fighting, these medics face real danger. "Two nights ago, I was driving to the frontline with a colleague, who worked as the chief doctor in Dnipropetrovsk," Yuriy recounted. "We were speeding to pick up the wounded and our van was hit by shrapnel. I was alright but it smashed through the rear window and gave him concussion. We don't have enough vehicles but we're ready to return." This shortage was clear. Parked outside, a mud-caked, converted van was one of the only ambulances serving this violent stretch of the front.

      Sixteen months since Yuriy enrolled, the war's second anniversary marks the end of the line. In a few weeks, he returns west for good. "Once every few months, I get to go home for a few days but it's hard to leave. I now need to be with my wife and my baby son. I don't think I'll ever come back to war." Breaking from Ukrainian into English, he added: "War is bullshit."

      * * *

      It is night and we are crouching on the roof of the apartment block. Yuriy's clinic lies below where he waits, yet again, for the wounded to arrive. The vista is extraordinary and intensely depressing.

      Rebel-held territory stretches southwards before us, sovereign Ukraine back to the north. It is a vast expanse, a black sea with no shore. The lights of isolated cottages appear as vulnerable as small fishing boats adrift upon a terrible ocean.

      Rocket-propelled grenades seem to float across no-man's land in deadly, graceful arcs, which end in a fleeting, orange flash. It is disturbingly beautiful. We seem too removed from the violence at this height. I struggle to remember why these men are killing each other.

      A Ukrainian sentry keeps watch at a frontline position called "Shakhtar" ("Mine") on March 30, 2016. Photo by Pete Kiehart

      Avdiivka is not the only furnace. Flame, thud, and tracer fire mark the tortuous frontline westwards. Donetsk Airport, Opytne, Pisky — all besieged outposts of a forgotten war. There are too many fictions her: there is a ceasefire, no outside nation is involved, terrorist fights fascist. Lie begets lie.

      By day, international monitors from the OSCE occupy this pitiful vantage point. Now the observers have gone home, allowing the war to continue unfettered and unnoticed by the outside world. But one man stays upon this lookout: Oleg, a soldier with the Ukrainian Army for 22 years. He is stationed here to keep an eye on the conflagration.

      "I've been up on this roof for five days now," he says. "It's given me time to think. I hope this war will end sooner."

      A cold wind picks up and the lines remain the same. "This is a hybrid war," Oleg continues. "We fight against our own countrymen and against Russian soldiers."

      Explosions echo in the abyss below. His gaze over the fighting does not shift. I ask him what he sees. "The same as you."

      Follow Jack Losh on Twitter: @jacklosh

      Follow Pete Kiehart on Instagram: @kiehart

      Related: Meet 'Muslim': The Chechen Commander Battling Russia With Some Unlikely Allies

      Topics: ukraine, russia, europe, donbas, donbass, war & conflict, avdiivka, prom zone, donetsk, luhansk, moscow

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