During our two-month stint in Debaltseve city, Donetsk region, 40 Battalion was reinforced with new soldiers and officers from time to time. They were mostly mobilized reservists — like me — but also young professionals recently contracted to the Army. Some of these servicemen were sent to us after learning to operate anti-aircraft, anti-tank, or grenade systems etc.

Several times our officers — like Sr. Lieutenant Vladislav Lomaka — went to the depot in Kryvyi Rih to fetch reservists who had previously served in our battalion, and who were ready to rejoin us after recovering from wounds. In this way, during January 2015, battalion strength at Debaltseve had grown from 330 servicemen to about 400.

In Ukraine, new-contract soldiers are sworn-in at the training centres, but reservists — who served in the Soviet Army some 25–40 years ago — had sworn no new oath since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. For decades, successive Ukrainian governments pursued a policy of defence-budget cuts and reduced military capability: consequently, no one had called for reservists to take a new military oath to the people of an independent state, which, in truth, they should have. And so we were obliged to fix this issue ourselves and conduct swearing-in procedures right on the front line at Debaltseve.

To perform the oath-taking honourably, and in accordance with military etiquette, we needed to assemble all available staff. This was possible in December and early January 2015, when enemy shelling temporarily ceased, following the “Minsk-1” peace accord. But from the middle of January mass gatherings of servicemen in a particular location became risky. That’s why newcomers took their oath elsewhere — for example, in the underground shelters or corridors of the main building of our base, which was located in the premises of a children’s summer camp, appropriately named “Salute”. The walls of this building protected us from sudden bombardments …

Ukraine soldier military oath Debaltseve

“Attention! Don’t move! Unit commanders, conduct the military-oath procedure for your servicemen!” barked the battalion commander, Lt. Colonel Victor Pocherniaev, on 3 February 2015 at 8.30pm. Here, in a narrow, dark corridor, the chief officers of the battalion were gathered with off-duty soldiers. Enemy fire missions had resumed and our camp had only just emerged from the latest bombardment — several mortar shells fell outside the 6th Guard Post, injuring no one. We must now use this rare moment of peace …

“Soldier Kobzar! For taking military oath, step forward!” said the commander’s deputy, Colonel Ihor Shcherbyna, addressing a soldier standing before him in the corridor. The Colonel managed the whole procedure instead of the unit commanders, because they were far away in snowy trenches on the front line. (For more on Colonel Shcherbyna, please, read the #18 installment of this “Debaltseve Diary”.)

“I, soldier Kobzar, have come to take the military oath!” replied the reservist, standing at the designated spot and saluting the Colonel with his right hand. For sure, there was no room for marching in such a narrow space! A folder was then produced, containing the text of the oath, to be read by flashlight:

“I, Maxim Kobzar, am assuming my military service and solemnly swear to the Ukrainian people always to be true and faithful; to defend Ukraine and protect its sovereignty, territorial integrity and inviolability; conscientiously and honestly to perform military duties and the orders of commanders; strictly to observe the Constitution and laws of Ukraine and to keep state secrets. I swear to carry out my duties in the interests of compatriots! I swear never to betray the Ukrainian people!”

He signed the paper and declared: “I, soldier Kobzar, took the military oath!”

The Colonel stepped up to him and shook his hand with warm congratulations.

“I serve the Ukrainian people!” the reservist soldier swore loudly in Debaltseve.

“Good for you!” the Colonel encouraged him.

Then two other soldiers from the grenade-launcher unit — Anatolyi Shvets and Olexander Kobyliov — took the oath by this standard procedure.

Ukraine soldiers military oath Debaltseve

Now, I hoped, we could celebrate. But in war one’s hopes are not always realized. At the conclusion of the oath-taking ceremony, a soldier Olexander Lazarenko ran into the corridor and cried: “The camp is under attack!” (For more on this serviceman, please read the #8 installment of this “Debaltseve Diary”. On 9 February 2015 he was captured by Russian-led terrorists. As of 15 October he has not been released and his fate is unknown.) As it happened, I had heard the sound of a grenade explosion outside, while filming the oath procedure on video. But no shooting followed as in a normal attack.

“Attention! Go fighting!” replied Colonel Shcherbyna to all of us standing in the corridor.

Well, it was an order! Everybody quickly grabbed Kalashnikovs or machine guns and hurried outside to their battle stations at the hilltop trenches above the camp. I ran to the 6th Guard Post — recently shelled — accompanying the deputy commander, Lt. Colonel Volodymyr Sarychev. We scrambled out onto the hill via an icy, slippery footpath, and then ran to our reserve trench through an open field under the moonlight. While running I tried not to think about being hit by a bullet or mortar shell …

So finally we reached the trenches and jumped into the deep snow, with which they were fully covered. Looking for a convenient place for shooting, I cracked a couple of jokes with on-duty soldiers in nearby trenches. The bright disc of the Moon shone before me in the clear frosty skies above Chornukhine village, 5 kilometres from us.

Debaltseve fields Ukraine military trenches

Very soon I realized that everything was silent around — no enemies in the fields and no shooting. The winter wind in my face didn’t bring any sound of tank or APC engine working. The on-duty soldiers in the trenches said they had heard the explosion as well. It was similar to a grenade going off, and it happened in a small wood to the left. But, as they said, it could have been one of many anti-personnel mines located around the camp: a random fox or abandoned village dog could step on one, or drag a tripwire to cause a detonation. Even a falling branch from a tree might trip a mine …

After half an hour — while a special unit checked the area and found nothing suspicious — the combat alert was revoked. This time it was false. Unfortunately, I had no chance to ask Colonel Shcherbyna and soldier Lazarenko whether this mass response to a random explosion was based on a genuine threat, or whether was it just their pre-arranged ploy to test our combat-readiness.

(Edited by Christopher Summerville)

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