A volunteer soldier on the front line in Ukraine: ‘Fear is the most precious thing I have lost in war’

Gennadiy joined the Territorial Defense Forces after the Russian invasion and has been in some of the most brutal battles of the war. His signature was on the flag Volodymyr Zelenskiy presented to the U.S. Congress

Ukraine war
Gennadiy, bottom left, looking at the camera, during Volodymyr Zelenskiy's visit to Bakhmut on December 20.Cedida
Luis de Vega (Special Correspondent)

“That chocolate bar saved my life,” says Gennadiy, a 26-year-old soldier who has had several brushes with death over the last year, since the Russian invasion was launched on February 24, 2022. He touches his head, finding the scar that serves as a reminder of the day when a shrapnel fragment miraculously caused only a superficial wound. He had just bent down to pick up a Kit-Kat when a Russian bombing raid hit the base where he was stationed last April in Barvinkove, Kharkiv province. He was inside the building when the bomb struck. “No helmet,” he says with a grimace. A window ripped out by the blast flew over his head. Cadette, a compatriot, was outside smoking. The attack took them completely by surprise.

Like many others of his generation, born after independence from the Soviet yoke was gained in 1991, no one has imposed Gennadiy’s mission upon him. It is clear from his words that he is simply following a script that has been played out in Ukraine before. First, during World War II eight decades ago and, more recently, in the 2014 Donbas conflict. After leaving his job at a technology company out of patriotic impulse, Gennadiy volunteered for the army without any previous military experience. He considers himself just another of the tens of thousands of self-taught soldiers fighting in the most hostile environments.

However, Gennadiy has also been present at less fraught moments that will mark Ukraine’s history, such as the day when he was one of a handful of military personnel who received President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on his first visit to the besieged city of Bakhmut, on December 20. The abandoned factory where Zelenskiy was photographed with Gennadiy and his comrades fell weeks later to Russian mercenaries of the Wagner Group, who triumphantly published a photograph taken in the same place. Gennadiy plays down the existence of this photo, which he claims not to have seen. In any case, he says he has been stationed in far worse places than the Bakhmut front, where the bloodiest battle of the war to date has been raging for months.

Gennadiy signing the flag that Zelenskiy presented to Congress during his visit to the United States.
Gennadiy signing the flag that Zelenskiy presented to Congress during his visit to the United States.Cedida

He enlisted as a volunteer in the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces, nominally made up of reserve units. Their deployment is a source of some criticism among its soldiers, voiced by Gennadiy: “What makes me most furious is that they send the Territorials to the front line and not more experienced fighters,” he says, referring to the bloodletting in Bakhmut, which he describes as “hell on earth.” In the devastated city, he says, “the most paradoxical and incomprehensible thing” is that there are still civilians there. He makes no attempt to hide the fact that the Ukrainian military knows some of them are pro-Moscow and holding out under the bombs for the Russians to “liberate” them.

But Bakhmut is not where Gennadiy’s worst experiences of war have taken place. He went through basic training nearby, on the Sloviansk, Dolyna and Bohorodych front, where he could see that things were already starting to look bad. He took part in the liberation of Izium, but it was in Kreminna, where he fought for two months, that he first questioned his courage. “Sometimes I thought I wouldn’t be able to take it,” he says. There, the Ukrainian defenders were not faced with untrained mercenaries from the Wagner Group - thousands of them ex-convicts that Russia uses as cannon fodder - but with regular army soldiers who at least, he notes, “carried their dead” from the battlefield. During his conversation with EL PAÍS, Gennadiy reveals his emotions, his frustrations, his hopes. His entire story can be condensed into one poignant sentence he offers up: “I wouldn’t wish the hell of this last year on my worst enemy.”

The war has awakened an animalistic instinct for survival in Gennadiy, even if he admits that on occasion he has thrown in the towel and waited for death in a foxhole, puffing on a cigarette. “Fear is the most precious thing I have lost in the war,” he says. He has also lost 25 kilograms from the 135 he weighed a year ago. Some of that was dropped during a mission at the end of last year. He remembers December 31 as one of those days when he thought his time was up. The transport vehicle that was taking them to their position broke down. They were cut off and Russian infantry was advancing towards their location under an artillery barrage that left many of his comrades dead or wounded.

Gennadiy recounts the engagement: “At exactly midnight, shells began falling on us, lighting up the night. From the trench we couldn’t see what they were. Someone started to panic because he thought they were phosphorous bombs. I thought that, if they were, we would just burn up. Even if I ran, it was possible I would be shot by a sniper. So, I sat and waited, smoking. I didn’t care about anything anymore. Later we found out they weren’t phosphorus shells. It was a horrible situation. I couldn’t understand how the Territorial Defense, with the most basic weapons, made 70 years ago, had been deployed at ground zero. This situation dragged on for three days. Now, January 3 is my second birthday.”

Volodymyr Zelenskiy addresses Congress while Vice President Kamala Harris and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hold the signed flag.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy addresses Congress while Vice President Kamala Harris and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hold the signed flag.MANDEL NGAN (AFP)

Meeting Zelenskiy in Bakhmut

When his commander told Gennadiy’s unit on the morning of December 20 that they were going to Bakhmut, he did not expect to be one of the few who would receive Zelenskiy. It was the president’s first visit to this hornet’s nest in eastern Ukraine, where both armies have suffered horrific losses. Gennadiy was among the soldiers who signed the Ukrainian flag that Zelenskiy himself delivered to the United States Congress a day later. The soldiers had not been forewarned of the president’s visit, due to strict security protocols. Gennadiy even hugged the deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, whom he mistook for a reporter. The young soldier was struck by how Zelenskiy arrived “in the most dangerous hole on the planet.” “He wasn’t wearing a bulletproof vest. Nothing. He had just three men from his security detail with him. And all of us with our weapons, with the ammunition, with the grenades...”

Bakhmut was then, as it is now, “an absolute horror, but at least we thought it could be saved, we could force them to retreat. But now I just don’t see any way to keep it going, with so many casualties. I don’t think it makes much sense,” he says. In recent weeks, the Russians have been making gains, with many casualties on both sides. Zelenskiy, on a visit to the front last week, made it clear Kyiv does not intend to cede an inch to the Russians. “I am not a great strategist,” Gennadiy acknowledges, which is why, he adds, he may not be able to understand what is behind the decisions being made by the Defense Ministry in Bakhmut. “They are are not fools,” he says. “Maybe all these sacrifices are necessary to strike the final blow against Russia.”

On the night of February 24, 2022, Gennadiy did not sleep. He was listening to music when the first missiles began to fall on Kharkiv. Then his mother got up. They started watching the news. He wondered at first what they should do, where to run to... but within a few minutes it became clear to him that he had to take an active part in the defense of Ukraine. That was his mission. A little over a year has passed since then, an eternity in which he has had to learn about strategy, weapons, and battlefield first aid: “Sometimes I am not even able to remember what my life was like before the war.”

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