I see their faces

From 1843 Magazine:

On the first day of the war, Sasha woke up to the sound of bombing at 4am. It was roughly “the same time that Hitler began his invasion” of the Soviet Union in 1941, he told me. From the direction of the explosions, Sasha (not his real name) reckoned that the Russians might be attacking the airport at Hostomel, several kilometres from his apartment in central Kyiv. He drove his wife and two sons out of the city. They went with his brother-in-law’s family to the border, where they crossed into Poland. Sasha was a reservist, having spent a year in the Ukrainian army on national service in 2007-08. Once his family was safe, he returned to Kyiv to fight. “If I did not”, he said, “I could not look my sons in the eye.”

. . . .

It was a calm, sunny day, which felt strange, said Sasha, after the constant shelling in Kyiv. He shuffled a tablet out of a pack of anti-inflammatories: “I have had a terrible headache, especially since yesterday. There was a lot of shooting.”

When he joined the Ukrainian army after Russia invaded, Sasha was issued with a set of camouflage fatigues, a Kalashnikov with a wooden stock (“It’s not very accurate,” he said with a wry half-grin, “but it’s very powerful”), and webbing containing two clips of ammunition, ear plugs, plastic protective glasses, a black balaclava, a flick knife and a medical pack with pressure bandages, painkillers, clotting agents, antiseptic, syringes and a tourniquet. He was also given an armoured vest with steel plates at the front and back. I asked him if steel was better than ceramic. Sasha shook his head and showed me a photo on his phone of a similar vest with a bullet hole.

. . . .

Sasha’s unit of 12 men is made up of a mix of regular soldiers, reservists and two Ukrainian former members of the French Foreign Legion. He had known some of these men before the war; a couple were friends. “But we all now trust each other with our lives,” he told me. “I am sure of them 100%.” Each one has his own specialism: Sasha is the sniper. They look like any ordinary Ukrainian unit, perhaps one assigned to guard supply routes. “But no one knows what we really do.” “What do you do?” I asked. “We kill the bad guys,” he replied.

Sasha sounded both proud and regretful. To me, it seemed that he needed to say out loud what he did to truly believe it. His life had turned from peace to war so recently, so fast and so thoroughly that he had no time to catch his breath. He is in his late 30s, a father who in peacetime worked as a manager in a construction company. His hair was cropped close in a military style, but his blue eyes were large and boyish, simultaneously sad, sure and scared. From time to time a muscle flexed in his cheek and he bit the inside of his lip. He was one of those people who, in ordinary life, would probably have a smile ready for everyone and any situation.

It was obvious that he was under stress, and could already see that the war was changing him. He sat straight in his chair, his hands cupped around a vape in his lap. “I didn’t smoke before the war,” he said, “I only started two weeks ago.” “Does it help?” I asked him. “No.”

. . . .

Sasha explained that his unit was responsible for finding and intercepting Russian saboteurs who try to infiltrate Ukrainian lines. These groups, he said, might lay mines or booby traps, mark targets for Russian artillery, place hidden cameras and other kinds of signalling devices, or attack Ukrainian checkpoints to clear a path for advancing troops. (1843 magazine has confirmed that Sasha is a member of this unit. Of necessity, we have relied on his testimony alone for details of its activities.)

The nightly curfew in Kyiv is partly designed to make it easier to identify suspicious activity, though inevitably a few ordinary Ukrainians drive about after dark. “Of course we can’t shoot at every car. We have to stop them, check their documents, listen to their explanation. If it’s a medical emergency we might follow them to the hospital.”

Approaching cars is dangerous. At night it’s impossible to see if someone is hidden on a back seat, or if the occupants are carrying guns, until you’re almost at point-blank range. The saboteur hunters deem a car suspicious if it’s driving too slowly, zigzagging, has more than three occupants or if the driver flashes his lights to blind Ukrainian patrols. When his unit stops a car, the men shout for everyone to put their hands up and get out. As well as checking documents, they inspect the boot and bonnet, and peer inside the footwells.

We speak Russian and they speak Russian. It’d be easier if the Taliban had invaded”

It’s tense work. “Saboteurs are dressed in ordinary clothes”, said Sasha “and it’s hard to tell who is a civilian and who is a saboteur…We speak Russian and they speak Russian. It would be easier if the Taliban had invaded.” Russian soldiers have also been known to wear Ukrainian army and police uniforms. Recently Sasha’s unit received a warning that some saboteurs were female. To counter such threats, there is a password for military and police that changes every day: “Usually something in Ukrainian that is difficult for Russians to pronounce.”

Satellite images allow Ukraine’s armed forces to see enemy movements in real time. “We see everything. We know where they are and where they are headed,” said Sasha. His unit usually gets word about the whereabouts of a Russian group and is sent to intercept it. Sometimes they set an ambush. They secure firing positions, scout exit routes, send up a drone with night-vision cameras and then wait, sometimes for two or three hours.

. . . .

One night Sasha’s unit received information about a group of saboteurs in a car. They knew the licence plate, the make and colour, but didn’t know how many people were in it. They stopped a vehicle on a deserted road between two villages. Inside were three men in their late 20s or early 30s. One member of the unit approached and saw a gun. “He shouted ‘Contact!’ We opened fire and killed them.” They knew they’d found the right target because all the men had guns and telephones with Russian phone numbers. The police and Ukrainian military intelligence turned up to take the bodies away.

The operation affected him deeply. “It is impossible for me to return to my normal state of mental health,” said Sasha. “I had never killed people before.” Sasha has not told his mother that he is serving in the army; she thinks he’s still sheltering at home. “I don’t want to worry her. I want her to be able to sleep at night.” He talks to his wife every day, though she doesn’t know exactly what he does either. “She tells me to take care of myself and I say, of course.” He offered a small laugh at this absurdity, then sighed, long and heavily.

I asked him if he was frightened. “Every time”, he said. “You begin to get scared when you hear everyone sliding the bolts of their guns.” He took up his Kalashnikov and demonstrated the action. It made a hard, metallic, fatal sound. “Then the adrenaline kicks in and you don’t feel anything.” Sasha was more worried for his family’s safety than his own. “For me personally, I am not afraid to die – everyone has their fate…” He screwed his knuckles into his eye sockets. “I see their faces”, he said, talking about the Russians he had killed in the car. “I have these people’s faces in front of me all the time.”

. . . .

He sleeps fitfully. “All you need is 30 minutes a day,” he said, not very convincingly. “The apartment is very close to one of our air-defence batteries.” The worst noise is when the Ukrainians manage to intercept a Russian missile and all the windows shake.

“I hate the Russians because they made me into a killer”

Link to the rest at 1843 Magazine