We arrived in Kiev on independence day, unfortunately missing the big military parade but still experiencing some of the festivities. The streets were lined with people clothed in traditional garb chanting Slava Ukrayini! Heroyam slava! (Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!). People of all ages thronged the streets chanting and waving flags in patriotic fervour, it was an impressive sight!
John Spent 2 days wandering around the city to get to know it better, resulting in him meeting an arms dealer and visiting the American ambassador. This is something we cannot go into to much detail with due to the people involved but was a very interesting experience that gave us a few good contacts.
Through a girl Elliott had met (Thanks Marina!) we were introduced to 2 men from Aidar battalion who agreed to be interviewed, so we went to the outskirts of the city to interview them in the exotic location of a shopping centre. The interview went ok, but the real benefit was that one of the soldiers, Dima agreed to let us follow him around the next day as he prepared to leave for his first time at the front.
We arrived at the meeting spot the following day along with Joe, the previously mentioned American who had come to Ukraine to get into Conflict Photography. He was interested to meet Dima and see how the volunteers work here. We had learnt the previous night that volunteers pay for every aspect of their equipment, uniforms, ammunition, radios, transport, fuel and a plethora of other items needed to fight. This was a shocking realisation, these men were forced to almost bankrupt themselves in order to fight and die for their country.
We sat round of 3 hours waiting for Dima, to pass the time we had some food in the sun, then eventually he arrived and we walked over to the garage to pick up the ‘military vehicle’ he would be undertaking the 16 hour drive to Lughansk in. He seemed overly happy and excited as we walked over we asked if he was scared, “Not at all.” he replied.
We reached the garage and saw the jeep he would be driving, it was an old mitsibushi decked out in bad camo (although it would be considered art compared to some of the separatist vehicles we saw) and missing most of the back lights. The suspension had recently failed and the garage had agreed to repair it for free to help the war effort. This was a common theme, Dima told us a local; garage had given him a card to get free petrol and a lot of food and resources were donated to help. This really was a people’s war, the government had little or no input except deciding where the battlefronts should be.
After working out where we needed to get to on Elliott’s iphone we set off to gather supplies before they finally set off for the east.
As we drove along the crowded motorway, people cheered and honk their horns in support. Unlike when we were driving in the separatist van, we were proud to be travelling with Dima and to see the massive support the Ukrainian people have for their army. However we felt a little unworthy of the attention as we were not the ones volunteering and going to the front line to risk our lives, but it was nice all the same.
He lived amongst a jungle of tower blocks like most people in Kiev, he led us through to his 1st floor apartment, a smartly furnished 2 room place where he and his girlfriend lived. On a table in the front room all of Dima’s personally acquired military supplies were laid out.
A flak jacket, gauze, infra-red camera and helmet were among the items. Next to the table Dima’s rabbit called ‘cat’ was nestled in it’s cage. We had agreed to edit a promotional video for the battalion so whilst Elliott was sorting the footage I looked around the small apartment. It was quite sad to see pictures of Dima and his girlfriend, knowing that there was a chance he may not return.
Dima was running 6 hours late so he quickly wanted to pack up and leave, he became more agitated and tense the more he arranged his items as he realised what he was about to do. He spent a further 10 minutes trying on the different uniforms he had washed to find his, it seemed he was stalling so he didn’t have to leave the apartment. John asked to film him on his own as he packed up, so the others left. It was quite heartbreaking to watch him pack up his things and sombrely gaze around the apartment he might not return to for some time.
He began to get frustrated as he packed the last of his things, his nervousness was quite obvious now, it was quite touching when he said goodbye to the rabbit (something he wouldn’t do in front of everyone) He began to relax after a few jokes and John filmed him as he left his apartment for the last time and locked the door. He had left his hat but refused to return, “it’s bad luck” he said, superstition seemed to be a running theme with the soldiers here.
We loaded up the car and headed to the final meeting point expecting to find some more vehicles. It turned out it was only Dima and 3 other soldiers heading to the front. This is an extremely dangerous journey to make alone without a convoy or protection. Their dedication to the cause was admirable. As they all said a heartfelt goodbye to their spouses (except Dima, his girlfriend had to work, but we suspected she couldn’t face seeing him leave) other helpers packed the car.
One of the soldiers was female and seemed keen to leave, indeed another who we interviewed the previous night, had been injured a few weeks before but insisted on returning to his unit. The dedication of these men and women was extremely impressive, but as they whooped and cheered driving past, you couldn’t help but think what horror could be in store for them in the East.
The following day we met with a volunteer who raised funds for the army by producing and selling different clothes, items and keepsakes. We had met a really friendly salsa singer who lived in Dublin but was back in her home town of Kiev to catch up with friends and family. We had spent the last few days with her and she had organised some interviews and put us in contact with the volunteer.
It had been nice to spend some time with someone who knew the city, and we had enjoyed seeing the other side of Kiev. Oleysa’s band Dislocados had been nominated in 2012 for IMA’s best latin album, despite the fact they were not South American which many of the judges only discovered after the award was given. Oleysa helped us out a considerable amount and we wish her the best of luck in the future and will hopefully see her soon in Dublin.