Luhansk Eyewitness: Visiting the ATO Zone

By George Sajewych
Edited by Voices of Ukraine

For some reason I always thought of Luhanshchyna [the region of Luhansk] as a throw-away oblast [region], with a population of people who don’t know who they are, natural settings that offer nothing worth remembering to take home with you, and an economy that lets the people survive, but just barely.

However, it’s anything but. If. If you’re judging the entire oblast by Starobilsk, a mid-sized town on the road from Luhansk to Kharkiv. The streets are clean, with few potholes, the people, like all over the rest of Ukraine, supplement their $200 average monthly salaries by raising fruits and vegetables on their small plots.

They’re rather laid back and friendly and easily switch to Ukrainian to accomodate a non-Russian speaker. But not all can, so they stay with Russian or the hybrid language known as surzhyk, which is a rather seamless amalgam of the two.

I was in this part of the Luhanska Oblast Anti-terrorist Operation (ATO) zone in order to check out how members of our Samo-oborona sotnya No. 27 were faring in Territorial Defense Battalion “Aidar” (the name of a local river). They were doing well, Starobilst being the only raion that hadn’t been under the control of the Russian surrogates. Riding from Kyiv by van, we came in well past midnight, I and three soldiers returning to the battalion and one new one recruited off Maidan. Early the next morning, thinking the assignment from my sotnyk gave me the run of the camp, I rambled about the grounds, talking to Sotnia 27 alumni whom I recognized or who recognized me. They, like the soldiers in the van, were pleasant and accomodating with me (no doubt part of that was the novelty of having a genuine American in their midst), but as soon as courtesy allowed returned to discussing soldierly things. A favorite topic was bullet-proof vests, which many still did not have, or had some Ukrainian-made vests that couldn’t stop a spitball, because the allocated funds had been diverted into someone’s pocket. (Later, back in Kyiv, I heard people say that the soldiers swore that, when the fighting was over, they would come back to Kyiv with their weapons and hunt these traitors down.

Soldiers are a tight fraternity, even if they haven’t bonded by going through fire. I took notes but thought better of taking pictures until I talked to someone about what I could shoot and what I couldn’t. The chief of staff was very friendly but I could tell by his demeanor that the issue of my remaining with the battalion was not on the agenda. He even showed a sense of humor. If I stayed and got captured by the terrorists–he said–Putin, out of gratitude, would make him minister of defense of Russia. I wouldn’t let go, pointing out that if, out of desperation, the Kremlin trotted out a 68-year old cripple (arthritic knees) as evidence of US involvement in the Ukrainian conflict, this would, in fact, be undeniable proof that there is no such involvement.

Source: George Sajewych FB 


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