By Vika Yasinskaya, text and photos, for Tsenzor.NET
Translated and edited by Voices of Ukraine
Soldier Yevgeniy Kovtun: “To walk along the runway – 99 times out of 100 it is certain death, but I knew that I would die with a gun in my hands, and that they won’t take me prisoner.”
Among the lads, no one was side-lined, even the wounded guys who were conscious, tried to help – loaded ammunition, passed magazines, cleaned the weapons, everyone was involved, like on a conveyor belt. Virtually every single one of us thought that we would die and no one will probably know of our feat. But we knew our price, knew what we stand for, and generally, we just reached such a stage where, understanding what awaits us, only one thing was left – to fight to the end.
I am a soldier in the first battalion of the 93rd Brigade, which is based in Pisky. Our guys held the airport until the end.
I live in Kyiv, before the war I worked as an engineer in IT. I was mobilized in August, and before that I had not served in the army. After a two-week training centre I ended up in the 93rd Brigade.
My speciality is a mortar assistant, then I received another role, but I won’t mention it here, it was in that capacity that I went to the airport. And I also went there because of my friend Denis, he was sent there as a fire corrector. As it turned out, my friend ended up at the control tower. There he became famous for his bravery. And was filed for awards, but hasn’t received anything yet. But, we didn’t go there for awards anyway, we simply did our job. And I ended up at the new terminal.
I already had a shrapnel wound in my arm that I had received in Pisky, but even with a half-working arm I was drawn to the front. While I was being treated in Kyiv, I could not fully get on with some affairs, knowing that out there the lads are waiting for me. All jobs must be completed to the end – that is my principle. And the war is not over, so, the job is not done.
Psychologically, I was prepared for the airport because I saw the death of my guys, knew what shelling is, what close combat is when you see the enemy directly.
We arrived in the new terminal on January 6, it was the last day of the green corridor.
We called it the “corridor of shame” because we had to stop and get off our “Urals,” then they lined us up, searched us, looked at what we were carrying, how many of us are going and so on. We came with our allocated weapons, but the enemy had their own rules: the magazines must be unfastened and empty. There was to be only one loaded magazine, but that must not be fastened. It was an absurd situation, but that was the decision of the command, and we could not discuss it.
In the terminal 2-3 days after arrival, so around the 7-8th, we understood that by and large the ceasefire was over, because the enemy became active and started attacking from all sides. But we held the defence completely normally. I was helped by my contact with Denis, I knew that he is covering me from the right on the tower, and while he is there – the enemy cannot get through from that side. Once this was confirmed, around the 10th or 11th, I was resting after a change of guard at a post, he called me and said: “You are sleeping, and meanwhile a group of rebels has come up to you, a fairly significant one, around 50 people, and a second one is beginning to approach.” But he asked us not to do anything and that even the officers not use their walkie-talkies on our side. He said only to strengthen the positions, we immediately organized this. He himself very nicely corrected fire and the groups were completely broken.
When the enemy realized that they cannot approach us from that side – they started using tanks, so that they have the ability to come in from the side of Donetsk, and also to methodically destroy the terminal and the control tower, which were our eyes and ears. In the end, the tower collapsed. It was not destroyed completely, but it tilted and fell. I know that many guys were wounded there, but still they did not leave there. After a brutal assault of the terminal we had a very long battle. But because of the help of our artillery we repulsed the attack. And in the evening, the separatists again called for a ceasefire, but not from us, from our command. So that they could take their wounded and dead, I asked the commandant what has happened, why has our artillery stopped working. I was informed that we got the green light for a ceasefire. I thought that, maybe, in some sense it was even right, because we also needed to take our “200s” and “300s” [Russian military terms for dead and wounded]. But when our artillery stopped working, the enemy used the rubble of the tower like steps, and came up to the terminal, from the side of Donetsk, so our defensive line was a bit broken, because we could not control that territory.
All in all there were not so many of us, around 50 people from different brigades: 81st, the 90th and the 74th separate recon battalions, and my 93rd. Each had their own zone of responsibility, we weld the enemy, who was coming from the old terminal, it was the checkpoint “gate” in the first hall. That post, like the first one, held our back practically until the end. On the floors there was heavy fighting, and from above they threw grenades at us. On the ladder the line was held by fearless machine gunners. One of them was wounded, several bullets went into him, later the medics took him, and the fate of the other I don’t know, but they held out until the last.
Because they pressed us strongly, we decided to pull back and hold one hall, it was no longer possible to hold a larger area. We started building up a barricade around it and wanted to blow up the stairwell. I ran down to find the sappers and on one of the floors, behind a door, heard the voices of separatists. The door was shot through, they tried to break in, breaking it down, but one of the gunners held them until we had made our barricade from whatever was around us, which, in all honesty, protected only visually and could be easily shot through. Our sapper had time to mine the stairwell, but didn’t have time to detonate it, him and the gunner were injured. But we managed to pull back the wounded and to retreat into the hall.
Despite the fact that we lost territory, no one was thinking of surrendering. I never even heard hints of this from the boys. Everyone was angry, because we realized that there were no rules of war for the separatists and mercenaries. We gave them the opportunity to evacuate their own, and they did not give us the same.
Then, day by day, they slowly clinched us. For us the concept of “day-night” disappeared, because some battles went on for almost 24 hours. New guys broke through, but often they did not make it. And those who came for the wounded, for me, were heroes, because they knew where they were going, that it could be a “one-way ticket.” And though often they couldn’t take anyone, because their vehicles were burned down, they still went again. Among such guys are Rakhman and Andrei Sever. And also they came to help out, because those who were there from the 6th were already exhausted.
When we ended up in one hall, they started gassing us, first with tear gas, then with pepper spray. But we found ways to fight it: took wet tissues and put them under our balaclavas, even though it was very cold then, the tissues froze, but everyone tried to carry them under the bulletproof vest, to melt them. It was worse for those buys who at that moment were at the checkpoints, because after gas they always waited for the enemy to go on a brutal offensive. But that did not happen often, because they also did not really want to go at us. They saw that, even though we are cornered and have nowhere to go, we will not surrender, they understood that they can’t take us easily and that we will hold out until the end, and they already had quite heavy losses without us.
But this could not last indefinitely. I understood that the terminal was finished when the separatists went onto the upper floors and took the basement. Tactically they ended up in a good situation. We did not receive orders to retreat, and didn’t have the opportunity anyway, because we were almost surrounded. After the frosts, which reached down to minus 28 degrees [Celsius], it was impossible to sleep properly, or to eat because of constant shelling. I got a high fever, probably because of tiredness, and had a broken rib because of bullets that hit my bulletproof vest. But everyone felt that, if you can’t stand, you could fire while lying down. Among the guys, no one was side-lined, even the wounded guys, those who were conscious, tried to help – loading ammunition, passing magazines, cleaning the weapons, everyone was involved as on a conveyor belt. Virtually every single one of us thought that we would die and no one will probably know of our feat. But we knew our price, knew what we stand for, and generally we just reached such a stage where, understanding what awaits us, only one thing was left – to fight to the end. The only thing that was scary was being taken prisoner. For myself I made the decision not to get captured and in the last days even slept with a grenade. I knew that this would all end soon, that help was not arriving, and that the help that was arriving often ended up in the same situation as us. But the fact that they remembered about us gave us strength, plus many people called us, found out about our situation; all of Ukraine worried about us, prayed for us. You turn on the phone and there are 110 messages: “We are praying for you, hold on!!” – and stuff like that. From my boys, of the 93rd, in the last days only three men remained out of ten.
And they decided to detonate us, probably, because they gave up on trying to capture us. We survived, but everyone was covered in rubble and concussed. We somehow dug in, found weapons and held on. We tried to make 3 lines of defense, even though they weren’t very high, just below knee height. Those who were tougher lay behind the first and second line, while the wounded were pulled behind the third one. That is how we spent the night, and by noon on the second day they detonated the floor below us. Virtually everyone fell through into the basement. Then we lost the most guys, because almost three floors fell on our heads. The overlapping blocks buried the people quite heavily, it was hard getting them out. But even in this situation I did not hear panic.
I was buried by a wall, coming to my senses, I felt that my legs worked, but that I couldn’t get out on my own, and the enemy had just gone on the offensive. I had one comrade run up to me, saw my hand which was protruded from the wall – I had tried to dig myself out. He wanted to pull me out, and I said: “Don’t, for now just shoot back, I’m OK, I’m alive.” He said that he was running out of ammunition. Then I felt for my ammo by my hands and gave it to him. He did fend off the attack, though at that moment a grenade flew in and cut us up a little.
They dug me out, and we got out the other guys while we had the strength. And two of my guys were buried and they never found them. Many were unconscious and couldn’t call for help. But the saddest and most unbearable thing was when guys were calling for help and we could not help them. We needed heavy equipment to get them out.
After we fell we had enough ammo and weapons for maybe 20 minutes of fighting, and even that only if we fought very weakly. At some moment I just switched off, I got woken up by one comrade, Vova, and said that we are pulling out. I replied to him that I can’t get up, and he says that it’s also hard for him, because his legs are shot through. But we gathered our strength, I helped him up and we started coming out. To walk along the runway – 99 times out of 100 it is death, but at least I knew that I will die with a gun in my hands and that I won’t be taken prisoner. Many were walking away, and some stayed to guard the heavily wounded, it was not possible to carry them out. Many of them died in front of our eyes. We decided that from those who make it out, at least someone can get to their own, to tell what happened and from which side one needs to drive up to take the rest.
We got lucky because it was dark, and I think the enemy took us for separatists. Then something happened, and there was no mobile reception and the radios were jammed too. Maybe this had an effect on the fact that we managed to come out, because we were simply walking straight along the runway. And not everyone managed to make it because there was no road as such, and in the dark – after a concussion and with injuries – you lose orientation, you can’t think straight simply from exhaustion. It was foggy, many simply got lost, some fell into potholes. But later they found virtually everyone.
We came out onto the meteorological station in the morning, an APC took us and drove us to Vodyane, from there we were sent to hospitals. I know that the fate of my two guys – their callsigns are Beard and Yakut, who held out there until the end – is unknown, but I have heard information that the enemy found them under the rubble and that they are in captivity. I hope that if that is so, it would be possible to trade them. I haven’t seen them in the lists of the dead either. We need to get the boys out from captivity, and our leadership and command should not forget about those who stood there to the death.
Nobody wants peace as much as soldiers who have fought, because we saw what sorrow the war brings to everyone: to soldiers, to the civilian population, to nature, to homes. It is like a trauma that will never heal. For me – it’s painful memories. But every war ends in peace, no matter what happens. The question is: at what cost? Many guys have survived and are planning to go to fight again. I am also going through VVK (military-medical expertise – ed.), they have sent me for more analysis, because the injuries were serious, but I want to get back to the front. My war is not over yet! I will fight for a year, and then will see what happens next. We, as civilians, came to the war to help our country, to help the army. But we can’t wage war our whole lives. We have families, and the supply you receive there is not enough to feed your loved ones. Then again, all these years we lived only for our selves, bought nice cars, apartments, but no-one ever thought of the army. That freedom that we received, we got it kind of easy and relaxed, we never went through becoming a nation as such. Maybe, now it has all come back to us with a vengeance, and we must walk this path. The hardest thing in war – is to watch how your wounded comrades are asking for help, and you cannot always help them. People are important and valuable. Only at war do you understand that the one close to you can come to you in the morning to drink coffee, and after an hour he may not be alive any more.
And those guys, who died, have kids left. No one will replace their fathers, but we, if we survive, will try to smooth this loss, because their fathers died defending this motherland. And we will not let the government forget about these children. Just like it is vital not to forget about us, the soldiers. We shouldn’t be thinking about our rear, and our rear for us is the supply of families and some guarantees from the government. Many people have not even received statements that they were at war. We are surprised that the civilians do not understand that a war is happening, but it is even sadder that some soldiers do not understand it either. Some headquarters work with weekends, days off, well, there are no days off at the front. Going through a war we all change, and the psyche of many is disturbed, because many of us have said our goodbyes dozens of times. Some mundane detail is an outrage for a soldier, so many can react inadequately. Society should start to get used to us. It is important that someone can come back and be needed at a job, that he is helped to adapt. We fight to achieve some changes in this country, but we must get something in return: politicians must talk to the people, and officers must talk to the soldiers. Then, maybe, together we can come up with something new.