Senior Lieutenant Roman wasn’t happy when I asked him to pose for a photograph with the medal he received from the Ukrainian President. He had been officially honoured for saving the lives of his men, after his unit was encircled and captured by Russian regular forces at Ilovaisk city, in the eastern Donetsk region, in August 2014. Roman wasn’t happy about being photographed because he was told by his Russian captors never to return to fight. He was afraid they might recognize him on the photograph and deliberately kill him.

Ukraine medal order
The Ukrainian order “For Bravery”

But Roman only hesitated for a minute. And then he let me take photos of his Presidential medal. Moreover, he told me the story of his capture …

The owner of a small coffee shop in an industrial city in central Ukraine, Roman, as a senior lieutenant reservist, was drafted in May 2014. At the time of our talk in January 2015, he had been serving in the Ukrainian Army for over eight months. Roman and dozens of ex-captive Ukrainian servicemen are participating in the anti-terrorist operation again now. I’m with them too. I’m in the war-torn area for the first time; they are here for the second. They have seen death and carried the corpses of comrades on their backs. I am trying to understand why they look different to other servicemen, and how their personalities have been changed.

Being unexpectedly encircled by Russian troops at Ilovaisk last summer (2014), Roman, as commander of an infantry unit of twenty servicemen, received an order to retreat via the only road. Roman’s superiors told him that the Russians had assured the Ukrainians of a safe passage via that road. But, in fact, as soon as the Ukrainian convoy lined up to head west, it was plastered with artillery shells—one of which struck the ground beneath Roman’s open truck. A fellow soldier, sitting on bench beside Roman, was badly wounded and, in a couple of minutes, died in his arms. Roman was injured too, but somehow found the strength to cope and continue commanding. Wounded soldiers and NCOs scrambled out of the demolished trucks, picked up the bodies of dead comrades, and hid in a nearby wood to await rescue.

But there was no rescue: all Ukrainian forces were now heading west. For hours Roman and his men stared at the abandoned road, littered with demolished Ukrainian trucks.

Ukraine army Ilovaisk roadpost
The Ukrainian army road block post near city of Ilovaisk in Donetsk region in August 2014. Archive photo of 40 Battalion.

At midday a Russian squad appeared and ordered Roman’s unit to surrender. Roman didn’t clarify why they didn’t resist to the last round. But maybe he just wanted to live, and to the save the lives of his men in what was, after all, a hopeless situation—many wounded, many without weapons, no support …

Anyway, the truth is that the Russians captured all Roman’s guys and sent them for interrogation. The Russians also took the corpses of dead Ukrainian fighters, promising to pass them to the Ukrainian authorities later.

Ukraine army troops Ilovaisk
Ukrainian troops at city of Ilovaisk in Donetsk region in August 2014. Archive photo of 40 Battalion.

Roman said the Russians interrogated everyone in his squad, asking them about personal and military data. He told me that the Russians asked many questions but didn’t harm the captives. Roman also recalled the words of one of the mid-level Russian commanders: “You’re lucky that WE found you, not the Donetsk separatists! They would simply kill you, and that would be that!”

Roman was in Russian captivity for several hours. After the interrogation was over, the Russians took him and the rest of his squad to the nearest Ukrainian checkpoint and released them.

Ukraine army troops Ilovaisk
The Ukrainian troops deadly withdrawal from city of Ilovaisk. Archive photo of 40 Battalion.

Senior Lieutenant Roman could mourn his comrade Andriy only after three and a half months had passed. According to available information, the driver of a refrigerator truck—detailed to transport Andriy’s corpse, along with the bodies of about fifty dead Ukrainians, from the Separatist-controlled region to the Ukrainian lines—died from a heart attack after he saw their remains. Later, another driver took Andriy’s corpse to the Zaporizhzha morgue, where soldiers were mourned at the local cemetery as “unknown warriors”. Andriy’s remains were identified by DNA-analysis in December, so his young wife and old mother could mourn him, back in the home city.

Roman surely saw the painful video from Donetsk in January 2015, showing Russian-sponsored terrorists parading dozens of Ukrainian captives and blaming them for the death of civilians. He also saw a video in which the angry pro-Russian mob struck a captured Ukrainian colonel Oleh Kuzminykh in the face. And so the ex-captive understands the meaning of the words and threats told by his captors at the end of August. Both enemies—Russian regulars and pro-Russian terrorists sponsored by Moscow—play a game of “good cop, bad cop” in their undeclared war against Ukraine. Russia denies any involvement of its troops, thus rejecting responsibility for invasion, military crimes, acts of terror, deaths of civilians, etc.

Ukraine army APC Debaltseve
The Ukrainian army APC near city of Debaltseve. My photo.

Was Roman lucky that Russian regulars found him in the forest? The answer isn’t simple after a year of the Ukraine–Russia war. Roman has no doubt that the Russians also kill, and the humiliation of captives is just another part of the invasion strategy orchestrated by the Kremlin. But now he has a greater understanding of the enemy. Therefore he isn’t afraid of sharing his story and defending his homeland.

(Edited by Christopher Summerville)

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