Portraits and stories of people who have experienced the inferno of war
Taras Polataiko’s project War. 11 Portraits showed in August and September at the National Art Museum of Ukraine’s [NAMU] charity fundraising initiative to help wounded soldiers and museums who have suffered or been damaged within the Ukrainian ATO (Anti-Terrorism Operation) zone.
For several days in early August, the artist talked with patients of the surgical department of the Central Military Clinical Hospital in Kyiv who came there from the front with serious injuries. Polataiko had 11 photo-portraits taken and recorded the stories of the people who have been in the inferno of war. They are very diverse people: volunteers, mobilized and contract soldiers, veterans of the Afghanistan War. They belong to different generations and went to the war zone from different regions of Ukraine. They have different attitudes to war and their experiences.
Voices of Ukraine has transcribed and translated each of the 11 audio stories that are part of this exhibition so that they may be read in English. This is the third in a series of the stories in English for our readers. This exhibition, and the stories, will travel to other parts of Ukraine, the USA and Canada. See it if you’re nearby and support our troops!:
• Center for Contemporary Art, Odessa, Ukraine (Oct 22)
• Toronto Art Fair, Toronto, Canada (Oct 24)
• Ukrainian Institute of America, New York, USA (Oct 28)
• Chernivtsi Museum of Art, Chernivtsi, Ukraine (Nov 25)
• Barbara Edwards Contemporary, Calgary (Jan 16, 2015)
This is Denis’ story:
Denis, reconnaissance: After surviving, you begin to value your life differently
Denis: My name is Denis, from Khmelnytskyi Oblast [region].
Taras Polataiko: How did you get to the ATO? Were you drafted?
No, I’m a contract soldier. I was already serving before the ATO. I was in reconnaissance.
Was it your first time in a real war?
Yes. (chuckles) We haven’t had wars before.
What were your first impressions? What is the honest impression of an average person ending up at war?
It’s difficult to explain. When you see your officers, missing half their head, or something along those lines… It’s difficult to explain such things. You want impressions? There definitely aren’t any good ones.
Did anything at the war change you personally?
After surviving, you begin to value your life differently.
Is it a change of priorities? Or just the appreciation for the fact that you survived?
All your needs in life become different. For a while, even going to have a wash was luxury for me, being bed-bound. I’m feeling a bit better now, but it was very difficult at the time. All in all, after experiencing such things, you find you really need very little in life.
When you end up in a frightening situation, between life and death, what helps you hold on?
Personally, when combat was happening, I wasn’t even thinking of anything. Over there, you can’t think. You just go ahead, and onward.
You were scared at first, weren’t you?
Who wasn’t? But an order is an order.
Are you scared all the time, or does it pass?
No, you gradually get used to it. It becomes a habit. But some fear remains. Everyone wants to live, after all. It’s the survival instinct.
How long have you been at war?
In the east, starting from the 8th of April. In the ATO area, since the 23rd [of April]. And a whole month in the most active combat area, between May 2nd and June 3rd. Then I got wounded. I spent a whole month at the Karachun [mountain], on different combat missions. There was constant shelling there, the bombings never stopped.
Do the locals support us [Ukraine]?
No. Over there, there was no support. When we arrived, a bridge near Sloviansk was blocked. [Russian] special ops were working in the city at the time. People were shouting ‘Russia!,’ calling us fascists, Banderites, and suchlike. ‘Get out of here!’ they told us. All they wanted was Russia. And now, once Sloviansk has been liberated, they’re shouting ‘Ukraine!.’ I don’t understand those people.
The result of propaganda, I guess?
Yes, people have been brainwashed. When we took the [TV and radio broadcasting] tower on the Karachun [mountain], there was no Ukrainian television at all. People were watching Russian television, and seeing things the way Russia wanted them to see.
What are you going to do after the war?
Getting treatment now, and then I’ll see.
Thank you very much. Glory to Ukraine!
Slava [Glory] to the heroes!
… [continues on] …
What kind of shortages are there?
We need thermal imagers and night vision devices. Personal medical aid kits, those are important too, because the only thing we have is a tourniquet and a first aid kit. As for the gear, myself, I had a bulletproof vest, grade four, and a Kevlar helmet.
Did you buy those yourself?
No, we were issued the gear. I’m from the 95th [separate aeromobile] brigade. We were issued with armor and helmets right away. We have been supplied with everything we needed when were heading out to the first combat mission. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t have helmets or vests.
So the main things we need are thermal imagers, night vision devices, and medical kits. We had no problems with armaments, and we had equipment protection, like radio jammers, and mine dampeners. For example, if a bridge is rigged with mines, two such dampeners suppress the mines within a 300-500 meter radius, so the bridge would not blow. We had some of those, too.
As for other things… We had enough radios, eventually. Many different kinds, some Ukrainian-made, some imported. But many of those radios, the enemy could tap into. More expensive radios, costing 1,000 hrvynya [USD 80] or more, work through a satellite and are protected, so the channel can’t be tapped.
Were you issued with everything at the start?
Got some things at the start, and then more as I went on further missions, as needed. Got a uniform, a balaclava, a wind protection suit [for mountain terrain]. We were well-supplied, and people helped, too. Myself, I had no complaints about my gear.
What about medicines?
Medical kits, we need those. All we get is a tourniquet and a basic first aid kit. But to stop the blood properly, you need some medicine. Everyone has butriphenol for anesthetic, but the guys need more medical supplies. That’s what I know about the current needs, based on what I saw. But different units may need different things, of course.
This is Serhiy’s story:
Serhiy, “Dynamite,” volunteer: We will not give away a single piece of our land
Serhiy: My name is Serhiy Ovrazhko, I’m originally from Khmelnitsky Oblast, currently living in Boryspil, Kyiv oblast. I went to the ATO as a volunteer.
Taras Polataiko: Did you go there from Maidan?
I was at Maidan, back in the day. Then, after Maidan, I was doing a lot of work for Kyiv. Then I headed to the ATO as a volunteer. My call sign in the battalion was ‘Dynamite.’
How did you find out about volunteering? Was there a call for volunteers?
No calls or anything. My friends were going, and I went too. I wanted to volunteer for the 72nd [mechanized brigade], but my friends were going to Aidar, so I went with them.
Was this your first war?
What were your first impressions at the front line? Anything that particularly stuck in your mind?
Not really. I was morally prepared, so nothing shocked me. War is war.
Were you scared?
No. In my life, I’m not scared of anything. Fear is something I simply don’t understand. Survival instinct, yes. I have a very strong survival instinct, it’s like a sixth sense for me. But not fear. I’m never afraid.
Did your experiences in the war change you? Did your priorities change?
Somewhat, yes. You start treating different things as more important or secondary. Secondly, I knew that our country was at war, but after being there, I can see that we’re fighting two wars. The way things are going over there are beyond sense and reason. The army command is in complete disarray. Half of the higher-ups should be fired. More than fired – half the generals should be kicked out on their asses and stripped of their rank. They’re not fit for their ranks, and too many of their titles have been bought. This is something I could go on about.
When you end up in a life or death situation, what helps you hold on, in the most difficult moments?
The fact that we’re fighting for our own land. I want to live in an independent country, without some scum coming here and telling me what to do. I remember the words of my late friend about this. On our way to the ATO, we were passing Kharkiv, and the region once called Slobozhanshchyna [Sloboda Ukraine]. And my friend, from Volyn [western Ukraine] himself, he said, “This is a land you can give your soul for. Your very life and soul.” And this is the way this is going to be. We will not give away a single piece of our land.
Thank you. Slava [Glory] to Ukraine!
This is Roman’s story:
Roman: For two weeks at a check point, we were short on bread and craved fruit and vegetables
Roman: We spent two weeks on a check point between Shchastya and Luhansk. Until our kitchen was set up, we were always short on food. Even after it was set up, during the last week, we didn’t have enough bread, and we were really craving fruit and vegetables.
Our position was held pretty well. I got wounded on the 8th of July. That’s all I’ve got, in brief.
This is Maksym’s story:
Maksym: Now that volunteers are helping us, I don’t think we’re short on anything
Maksym: At the time, we didn’t have enough bulletproof vests. We were also short on helmets, the good Kevlar kind. The rest was fine. That was back then. At this time, volunteers are helping, so I don’t think we’re short on anything right now.
Taras Polataiko: When was that?
Two months ago. I’ve been in the hospital since then.
This is Dima’s story:
Dima: We need more air drones
Dima: First of all, the ATO is lacking supplies for individual medical aid. We also need more air drones for reconnaissance and target detection. We don’t have enough high-quality collimator [red dot] sights, they are expensive. Range finders, too. We need more protection, high-quality bulletproof vests and helmets, as well as good protection for armored vehicles. We also need anti-sniping devices.
This is Sasha’s story:
Sasha: The guys are courageous, all will be well!
Sasha: I heard from the guys that they’re lacking water and sleeping bags. Aside from that, they seem to have everything. The guys are very courageous, they will succeed.
Taras Polataiko: What is their situation like?
Their situation is one word – war. They sleep in the trenches.
Were you drafted to the ATO?
Yes, I was mobilized, on March 31st, nine years after I finished my compulsory service. I believe that all will be well.
National Art Museum of Ukraine, Exhibition view.
Lions never abandon their pride / Lion’s Help, the Facebook page for the fundraising project connected to this show. Please help to support these men and the Ukrainian army.
Link to the next stories: Serhiy, Roman and Olexander’s stories