July 10, 2015
By Marcin Ogdowski
Translated from Polish by J.Hawk
Before the war, Mayak was a summer camp for children from all of Ukraine. Today, this facility located right on the Sea of Azov looks like a huge rubble pile after months of shelling. I got there in early July, discovering Azov Battalion soldiers among the rubble. Young, aggressive, and unusually brave. Wearing Nazi-inspired battalion emblems and tattoos.
1130. The jeep, which we drove the dozen kilometers from Mariupol stops in front of a small building.
–Now it’s on foot–says Natasha, a lovely blonde with a braid as thick as a forearm. The girl, who works at the battalion HQ, is supposed to deliver us to the front line. A little earlier, in the trenches in the northern part of Shirokino, we left Rafal and Jarek, members of the journalist team. Me and Darek, the photographer, were sent to the south, to Mayak.
–Let’s go!–Natasha is impatient. In spite of the heavy flak vest and helmet, she moves skillfully, indicating at least several months of wartime experience.
We’re walking along broken park trees, passing by shell craters. Our cover on the right consists of a small hill and ruined buildings.
–Now be careful–our guide stops by the corner of one of the buildings–Here we have to run because it’s open, and the “separs” have decent snipers–she says and immediately takes off running.
It was over 30 degrees Celsius and hellishly humid. I realized only after a few dozen meters this is going to be an exhausting spring.
–Go, go, go! –I hear male voices. A group of men is sitting in front of something that once must have been Mayak’s main building. They are cheering us on, but nobody gets up form the wooden bench or plastic chairs. They are having good fun watching our struggle.
1140. “Paramedic”, the oldest in the unit, a thirty-something who never parts with his flak jacket, takes over the function of the host.
–I’ll show you where you’ll sleep, he says and takes us into a dark room with over a dozen bunk beds and…a TV. We usually have electricity in the evening, from a generator, he explains. If there’s heavy shelling, here’s the exit to the basement, he adds, pointing at a broke door. We piss here, he says a bit later after we come outside, pointing at the yard covered with all manner of trash. As to the more serious business, we take care of it in the theater, he finishes when we find ourselves in a rather large auditorium.
I think of the NATO field outposts in Afghanistan, where dug in barrels served as toilets. Whose contents were regularly covered with diesel fuel and set on fire, thus making room for new “drops.” Nobody seemed to care about hygiene that much at Mayak. They simply dedicated the theater for this purpose, where the soldiers defecated all over the place, but mainly on the stage.
–Nothing taking a dump on stage, I comment, smiling at Darek.
–Let’s go before the stench kills us, I hear in reply.
1200. The big building where we are stationed was clearly hit by heavy guns at least several times. The holed walls and partially collapsed roof testify to it. It also was hit many times by RPGs and hundreds, of not thousands, of times by small arms fire. Therefore moving on its higher floors, exposed to observation by separatists occupying part of Shirokino requires special care. Ukrainians have designated dead zones to be avoided, clearly marking relatively safe pathways toward the exit or to the roof.
I am most curious about other wall paintings.
–What are these windows for? I ask one of the soldiers.
He winks at me.
–Those are “euro-windows”, and several of his colleagues burst out laughing. The term “euro-windows” usually refers to plastic window panes, however we all knew that he was referring to something else–that the red signs on walls are swastikas with “missing” sides added.
–I already know those euro-windows of yours, I reply, provoking even more laughter among Ukrainians.
–What, you don’t believe us? A young, no more than 20 year old kid slaps me on the shoulder. On his flak vest he wears a yellow-blue emblem whose main motif are two lighting bolts. Like all other soldiers, he also wears the Azov official logo, very similar to the Wolfschanze, a heraldic symbol used by the SS.
–Guys, there’s gonna be an international scandal, says an Azov soldier with the word HATE tattooed on his forehead. Give it a break, he says, stroking a kitten on his lap. He’s a Pole, he hates the Russians as much as we do–that argument is supposed to end the conversation.
1330. Dinner arrives by jeep which covers the last 200 meters at extremely high speed. Risk and determination worthy of an exquisite feast, but all we get is ground meat with rice covered by a think sauce.
–Nothing to complain about–Wadim, who only a few months ago studied international logistics in Gdansk, speaks Polish with a pronounced eastern accent. –What they cook at the base is much better than this crap–he points at the rows of cans of meat arranged on the table.
–Even a dog won’t touch this crap, and they want soldiers to eat it–Wadim is referring to MOD officials. –Look what happens–he opens one of the cans and places it before the cat.
“Padruzhka” sticks her nose into the can for only a moment and then walks off toward the pot full of meatballs and rice.
1410. Somebody yells “we’re going up!”, and suddenly there’s a crowd next to the ammo boxes.
–Time for a little war–Hate (the name I assigned him) is putting on his flak vest. –We need to shake up those bitches and pedofiles, he says sticking a magazine into his AK-74.
–That tattoo on your forehead–I take advantage of the opportunity–is this a message to the “separs”?
The solder bares his teeth, smiling.
–Separs, he repeats. Russkies, bitch. Russkies–he says emphatically. I hate these sons of bitches for what they did to my country.
–So you shoot at them but the tattoo, in a place like that–I am not convinced.
–These bitches take scalps off our dead–Hate leaves no illusions that he is absolutely serious. –They won’t touch my scalp, because otherwise they’d always know what I thought of them.
–You speak of the Russians as the worst of the worst, yet you speak their language–I notice.
–Russian is a language of pigs. It’s not my fault I speak it since childhood, he adds with obvious regret.
1415. PK machine gunner starts with a short burst. Then he pulls the trigger again. And again.
–Look at these pederasts run…he laughs from above the stock.
–Give it a long burst–a colleague standing next to him advises.
He fires a long burst.
–He fell!–the shooter looks to the side and I note the triumphant expression on his face. –One more time! he yells and fires again. Then he takes the PK and moves it to another position.
–Let’s go–someone places his hand on my shoulder. A soldier in shorts takes me up the stairs. There were three Ukrainians there, each with a Kalashnikov fitted with a 40mm grenade launcher.
–We’re busting caps–says one of them, loading a cylindrical grenade. I photograph him as he carefully approaches the window and aims at separatist positions. The sound similar to that of a cork leaving the bottle means a shot. I hear it several more times, and the subsequent muffled explosions.
–Wanna shoot? –I’m offered a rifle with a loaded grenade. Those weren’t exercises. There were actual people dug in 300m from here.
–No–I shake my head–I’m a journalist.
–As you wish–he seems genuinely surprised. But he does not insist. He walks up to the nearest hole in the wall and fires.
Then the other side opens up. We are higher, therefore the bullets hit walls above our heads. We run to another room, escaping bullets and fragments.
–Pigs and pederats! –Hate is shouting, laughing like mad. –I think we pissed them off, he adds when mortar shells begin to land on the Mayak. –I think we really pissed them off, he corrects himself when the shelling forces us to leave the sieve-like second floor.
1610. Paramedic sits on a bench at the entrance, sips tea, and reads a book. The majority are napping in beds, and some are taking advantage of electricity and are watching TV. Or actually Sex in the City CDs, with a funny-sounding Russian dubbing. A little idyll.
–We’re going to the beach houses–Wadim says in Polish. –Coming along?
–You have to see these shacks–Sigma already attracted my attention with his belt with runic signs and a suppressed Kalashnikov.
–Sure! I reply, and a moment later we are walking down an escarpment, enjoying the view on the sea.
But a few hundred steps later we see a post-apocalyptic world. This part of Shirokino contained residences of wealthy Ukrainians who built houses right on the beach, houses worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. None of them survived intact, and some of them are completely destroyed. The township was shelled by artillery and rockets, it was fought over by infantry. The fighting took place in February when Azov, impatient at UAF’s cautious attitude, decided to eject the rebels from around Mariupol on its own initiative. The task was accomplished, giving the city a buffer of a dozen kilometers which protects the city from the “separs” bandit shelling.
–If we had more ammunition and heavy equipment, we’d have advanced further–Wadim and Sigma are in perfect agreement. After a year of war, the morale in volunteer formations is still high, even in battalions which, like those at Mariupol, operated practically without UAF support.
I believe these young kids. Since a day earlier I saw the teeming with life Mariupol, I feel a certain admiration for them. But I am struggling with thoughts. All these runes and swastika, all the Nazi swag are bothering me. Plus the sign on one of the seaside villas occupied by Azov: Dirlewanger. Skinheads….
1815. After leaving the beach we move to the trenches which are Mayak’s first line of defense. Deep, with solid dugouts which give a good view on separatist positions. Here Ross, an Irish operator who joined us in the meantime, is recording a conversation with a Ukrainian volunteer. I’m sitting by the entrance in a tourist chair, catching the rays and listening to the conversation.
–You see, Ross–the soldier says in broken English–whites are threatened by blacks. I read that in the US the blacks have a saying: you want to have a good day, kick a white.
–I haven’t heard that–Ross, who is shooting a documentary on Donbass volunteers, is not betraying any emotions. –But I lived in Mexico, not in the US.
–Where there are Latinos–the Ukrainian sighs–They are also trouble.
–I haven’t noticed, and I’ve lived there for four years. And I have a Latina girlfriend–Ross sounds every bit as professional as before.
His interlocutor falls silent for a few seconds. Ross was at Mayak before, they liked him–and now this confession…
–Let’s not talk about blacks and Latinos–the Azov guy recovers his composure–We are not just fighting for Mariupol and Ukraine, but all of Europe. The entire white race–against Russian encroachment.
–But Russians are also white–Ross notices.
–Not white, and not European–the soldier says that very emphatically. –They are an Asiatic horde.
2010. The next “small war” is provoked by the “horde.” While we sat on the beach and in the trenches, the Mayak garrison came under sniper fire. The observers located him in the old school building. They were shooting from everything at hand–small arms, grenade launchers, DShK 12.7mm machine guns, even 82mm mortars. The cannonade was accompanied by Azov’s own snipers.
When the school building starts to burn, the firing ends. Unnatural, almost menacing silence sets in. I was in Mayak long enough to know that “they” would soon return the favor.
2030. The first shell falls a dozen meters from “our” building’s entrance. It’s accompanied by a terrifying screech which is followed by an explosion which I notice out of the corner of my eye. There were more of us by the entrance, and we all jump back into the building cursing, then sigh with relief.
Then only more explosions.
Mortar and howitzer shells fall all over, the building shakes in its foundations. We’re being shelled by heavy caliber artillery which theoretically should not be at the front line. According to the rules of the ceasefire which entered into force in February.
The shelling is so heavy that the commander makes a decision:
–We’re going to the basement.
The mood there is as if at a picnic. Coffee, cigarettes, barracks humor. And a heated debate over what to watch once they return to the first floor, another episode of Sex and the City or part 2 of Transformers. Transformers won.
2300. The shelling is continuing. We hear a mortar shell explode nearby every dozen or so seconds. Azov guys are watching TV. Not very attentively, and occasionally commenting on the situation outside and at the front in general, but it’s still a surreal sight. I take a few photos then, after my neighbors on adjacent bunks, take off my boots and stretch out on the bed. Falling asleep, I keep hearing explosions.
0700. Paramedic–this time with freshly brewed coffee–is once again sitting by the entrance and reading a book. I walk up to greet him, walking by two soldiers disassembling and cleaning a DShK.
–Got enough sleep?
I nod, looking around. The park before us now has even fewer whole trees, the stairs to “our” building are even more damaged, and all that’s left of the adjacent building is the smokestack.
–Who will rebuild it all?–I say out loud.
Paramedic smiles sadly.
–This is not the end, he replies. This is what their “russkiy mir” looks like, he adds.
–Russkiy mir, I repeat in my thoughts. This wordplay has two meanings: a Russian World and Peace, the Russian way.
1100. It’s time to say goodbye. Hate, Sigma, and Wadim went to the trenches this morning, so I shake the hands of a few other soldiers. When I walk up to Paramedic, he says
–See you in Moscow
I am amused by this audacity, but then feel sadness. I feel sorry for these guys, first used by stupid ideologues and then by their own country whose inertia is condemning them to this senseless existence on a pile of rubble.
–I wish you luck, I reply in Ukrainian, wondering how many of them will survive the next “small wars.”
J.Hawk’s Comment: My skin was crawling as I translated this piece, but I didn’t want to edit the original author’s attitude toward these monsters (he’s “bothered”…though you have to give him credit it wasn’t a complete whitewash–pun intended) because that is a story in and of itself. But his attitude is not exactly unusual in Europe. And this is why the Nazis got as far as they did back in the ’30s. As long as you designate Russia and Russians as your enemies, the West will forgive you almost anything. Today it’s no different. And the more people know about this, the better.