The 8th Poltava Company remembers Ilovaysk:
Veteran medics recall the evacuation of the wounded and dead after the Battle of Ilovaysk in August 2014
Veteran medics on the fighting, captivity and evacuation of the wounded in August 2014
To this day, the feats of many of the fighters at Ilovaysk remain unknown to most Ukrainians. As do the efforts of the 8th Poltava Separate Medical-Sanitary Company. According to official information, the 8th operated in the worst hot spots of the ATO zone, evacuating more than 11,000 wounded in its first 13 months. Even those who were rescued often know little about what happened and how.
According to the man who coordinated the rescue of the wounded and the removal of the dead at Ilovaysk, Ihor Palahniuk, the 8th Company sought and removed 159 bodies, evacuated 212 wounded, and provided medical treatment to 400 Ukrainian POWs whom the Russian army refused to release. Oddly, most of those saved during the Battle of Ilovaysk to this day think that the Red Cross was behind their rescue— that’s who they thought the boys from the Poltava Sanitary Company were because their rescuers were in unmarked uniforms and cars with white flags. Later on, the work of this group, which went on to work in the Donetsk theater in all the hottest spots, from Mariupol to Donetsk Airport, was reported on somewhat more. But in the last three years, their feats at Ilovaysk remain largely unspoken
UNDER WHITE FLAGS
Just before the third anniversary of the Battle of Ilovaysk, a gathering of the members of this medical group was organized at the Poltava Museum of Long-Range and Strategic Aviation. The idea was to publicize the titanic effort of these medics and to review the course of evens during the evacuation in the hope that some of the bodies that remain unclaimed nearly three years later might be identified. Possibly because they understood the difficulty of identifying the dead and the importance of this process, the members of the
8th Company agreed to come. It was unlikely that any purpose, other than to assist, would have persuaded them to delve in the terrible memories of those bloody August days.
“We went out on the 28th [of August]” recalls Volodymyr “Did” [Grandpa] Strazhko.
“Yeah, on the 28th, in the evening we arrived at Rozivka, but no one said anything about Ilovaysk,” says Ihor “Paravozik” [Steam engine] Bernadskiy in a quiet, slow voice. “The hospital set us up in a landing, what we called greenery. And told us: 'Dig in. This is where you’re going to live.' By the next day, plans had changed. Now orders were to drive out to bring people in. At three in the morning, we lined up and the commander of the hospital told us: ‘Get to our last checkpoint and load your vehicles with wounded under armored cover.’ There was no word about bodies or about where we were moving to.”
His chupryna, the classic kozak ponytail, and single earring announce Oleksandr “Kozak” Taran’s nom-de-guerre as he picks up the thread of Bernadskiy’s recollections.
“When we were already near Ilovaysk, I called home and asked what was going on at Starobesheve [Donetsk Oblast], because we were near the road into the village,” he says. “They looked on-line and called back immediately. ‘Starobesheve is under the separatists. Get the hell out of there!’ That’s how we found out what was going on in Ilovaysk. The hospital commander lined us up and gave our orders: ‘Drive to your position.’ No one knew that it was no longer ours… Our senior officer was a lieutenant who went with us… He asked if anyone was afraid: ‘If so, you can step out of the ranks and go back.’ Soon after that, we were told to make white flags, but we didn’t understand why. In the situation we were in, there were two possibilities: either we were about to surrender to captivity or we were about to start negotiations. But we were not prepared for either option. And it was right after this that our officer disappeared. He grabbed a machine gun and stayed at the gas station in Rozivka.”
Kozak continues to recollect. When they found themselves without the lieutenant, they are told that the senior officer will now be Dr. Yuriy from Ochakiv. “We weren’t prepared for the separatists or the Russians to capture us. Let alone how we should act if we are taken prisoner,” Taran explains.
Serhiy “Ryezviy” [Quick] Ternoviy remembers that, just about then, they were ordered to turn in their papers and drive without anything to territory under Ukrainian military control. “Only when we finally got there, it turned out it wasn’t ours anymore.”
Kozak continues to recreate those terrible scenes. Afterwards, they drove to Starobesheve to check out the lay of the land, where talks with the militants were organized by Col. Giurza, an experienced veteran of Russia’s previous wars, and Lt.-Col. Putnik.
According to Paravozik, the militants ordered them to lay down all their weapons. If they found even one bullet, they warned, they would shoot the medics on the spot. At the same time, the militants played mind games and tried to provoke the Ukrainians. The medic recalls that when his men stood near their positions and waited to move on, a red-bearded militant kept sweeping the column with his AK. When he got bored of this, he got a Mukha RPG-18, set it up 20 meters away and began to pretend that, any minute now, he would fire into the car.
“PICK ’EM UP!”
When they finally let the 8th Company go into Russian-controlled territory, the separatist reconnaissance group drove
off in another direction and the medics were told to pick up the bodies of the ‘separatists’ and bring them to the ‘corpsepark’ as the militants called it, which was near their headquarters. Initially, nobody escorted the Ukrainians, but as they were moving, another group of the militants came towards them. From their talk it was clear that a Ukrainian tank was being held in the center of town but the soldiers in it were still shooting from its machine-gun… Kozak claims that the militants were behaving weirdly and were probably stoned.
Even without knowing what mission the Ukrainians were on, the militants began to beat them and lay them face down on the ground. After a while, someone told them over the phone who it was and they left the Ukrainian medics alone after that. The company finally pulled up near the headquarters where there was a lot of equipment. They drove on to deliver the dead bodies they had collected to the “corpsepark,” which was already overflowing. Then they unloaded the wounded. Then they were divided into two groups: 10 cars went in one direction and 15 went in the other.
The column that had evacuated the wounded drove off towards Novokaterynivka. There, just past the “DNR” checkpoint, in a small forest on a rise whose names none of the boys remember, they found a depression—they couldn’t figure out if it was natural or dug out—with a lot of POWs and wounded men.
The group in which Kozak was did not evacuate them. The medics kept driving around the outskirts of Starobesheve, beyond which were the militants. Some 800 meters further, they came out on Horbatenko hill, where the Russian army took them under control. There they could see Ukrainian tanks rolled over. When they got there, the medico-sanitary group saw a huge amount of equipment. At this point, their helmets and bulletproof vests were taken away, and all their ammunition.
Paravozik recalls that now their column was formed according to the scheme: a BRDM armed reconnaissance and patrol vehicle, then three “orderlies,” then another BRDM, and again three “orderlies.” In this order, the militants took their group from Starobesheve to collect bodies in the fields. In every BRDM, 10 militants sat, glaring angrily the entire time.
“We kept moving towards where all the equipment was,” says Bernadskiy. “When we got there, they said ‘Pick ’em up!” and that’s what we did. An old woman rode by on her bicycle and told us, ‘Over there, past the corn, there’s piles of them. You’re not picking them up at the right place.’ We were picking them up where we were told. The bodies were already quite swollen by then.”
NOTHING BUT ASHES LEFT
Oleksandr “Tankist” Sydorenko remembers that one of the spots with the most dead bodies was the place where some 55 policemen died at once as they were driving to mop up.
Paravozik pipes up: “There actually weren’t any bodies there. They’d been shot up as though it was a shooting gallery. There were no papers, nothing to even remotely identify anyone. But we saw gold chains and rings among the remains that no one had taken off.”
Beyond the completely burned out remains, the 8th Company entered the village. There it was met by Russian military and civilians with shovels who were busy burying the dead. Later they turned out to be searchers with the Black Tulip Evacuation-200 mission, 200 being the code for KIAs.
The group of medics picked up bodies among buildings, under doors, in forest stands, in the fields… At first, they used cloak-tents to carry the bodies, then they used stretchers, and by the end they were even using blankets. At this location, the orderlies say, one of the KAMAZ trucks was already half-full with the remains of the dead.
“On the first day, you could still count the bodies. They were relatively whole,” says Kozak, recalling the evacuation. “After a while, we were coming across body parts, bones, fingers, and we picked everything up. Skulls, ribcages, burned bones… mountains of bodies. There were two major trips.”
Afterwards, the Company entered Chervonosilske, where there were many killed men from the Donbas volunteer battalion.
Ryezviy recalls that on the last night of their evacuation work, they were ordered to take the wounded to the “separatist” headquarters where they were taken prisoner by one of the militants. He accused the Ukrainian medics of being “Ukrops”1 and “invaders” and held them at gunpoint until two in the morning, when another militant nicknamed Matvey showed up. He ordered the first guy to let the group go and announced that the rest of their entire medical company had been shattered.
As it turned out, this wasn’t true. At that very location, the medics had actually seen a captive youth who, according to the militant, they captured after destroying one of the units and refused to release.
Based on what Did, Kozak and Tankist remember, at that very time, the Russian army and its proxies were hunting down the Ukrainian military who were trying to get out of the encirclement on their own. Those whom they managed to capture, they shot. Among others, the 8th found the stripped bodies of Ukrainian fighters who had been tortured and slaughtered.
There were incidents where local women came to the 8th and let the medics know that Ukrainian men were hiding out in their basements and they took these men with them, too. Often fighters would come running out onto the road from a corn field, right in front of the medical company after having hidden in the farmer’s field for 3-4 days without food or water in order to avoid running into the enemy. When they were
moved to Ukrainian territory, they immediately jumped off the vehicle and went looking for their unit, showing no interest in knowing who it was who had rescued them. They were in a complete state of shock.
One participant in the battle who made a very strong impression was a medic who had been wounded more than five times. He would give himself a shot of painkiller and, while still conscious, advised others how best to treat his wounds. He managed to survive and has kept in touch with his rescuers to this day.
On the last day, Did’s crew was joined by a security service agent from the territory controlled by Ukraine: he had been found by one of the pilots from a Ukrainian plane that had been shot down. The medics managed to pick him up in the fields at a crossroads and to evacuate him successfully.
WHAT STAYS IN THE MEMORY
Among the fighters that left a lasting memory, the medics recall those men who died holding a grenade in their hands. Ryezviy and Dr. Yuriy: “There were lots of them. The soldier never even got to pull the pin…”
Paravozik also remembers the body of a Ukrainian soldier torn in two pieces as though with a scalpel, near a vehicle that had blown up from the heat like a shell. Its turret lay dozens of meters away. Dr. Yuriy has never forgotten the image of that man’s body burned to a crisp with a red heart that was completely undamaged. Did was particularly struck by a soldier whose spine was in pieces yet he struggled for two long hours to fight for his life. Volodymyr Strazhko says he and his buddies found a note on him and, as they talked to the dying man, who could only nod and wheeze, they found out that his name was Andriy and he was from Vinnytsia country.
As they finish talking about their memories of Ilovaysk, the medics say it was clear that the Russians were trying to keep the medical and sanitary company together, but the local militants kept wanting to destroy it and even tried a few times to stage a firing squad. Paravozik also remembers how relations between the Russian soldiers and the militants were quite strained. Fighters were showing up at the front from the Caucasus, bearded and unwashed. The Russian army backed them up, mostly young men under the age of 25. Some of them claimed that they had no idea that they would end up in Ukraine, that they were told they were being taken to Rostov for military exercises. However, all the Russians were armed and in full gear.
THE COMPANY STORY, THEN AND NOW
The 8th Company began to be formed on July 31, 2014. In the village of Vakulentsi outside Poltava, draftees were collected and went through base camp in three short weeks. Every county in Poltava Oblast contributed its own vehicle to the unit, but most of the cars were useless. There were other, more positive moments, such as Ryezviy’s boss, who donated a brand new car to the company when he heard where his employee was going.
The medics repaired their own vehicles for the most part, or with the help of volunteers. Thanks to the volunteers as well, they had medicaments, NATO first aid kits, painkillers and provisions. Paravozik recalls how, one day, when the medics were moving to a new position, the commanding officer asked them to hand over an inventory list, but they had no idea what kind of a document that might be. It turned out that their company was not attached to any army units for 11 months, and only after that were they made the responsibility of the 93rd Brigade. Only after 12 months of service were the medics officially issued uniforms, although not all of them were given the right size. When they first left for the ATO zone, all they were given by way of medicines was a tube of Butorphanol, a type of morphine.
Only after the events at Ilovaysk did they finally start to be sent out in groups of 2-3 cars as reinforcement to all the hot spots in the Donetsk theater. That was where they drove all the wounded and the dead. Ryezviy recalls how they arrived at the zero point and the other medical and sanitary groups would line up for repairs and hand over all the work they had to do to the medics from Poltava. As a result, the Poltava Company was driving unarmored cars into the worst of the battle. Somehow, when they were at Avdiyivka one time, they found out that there were two civilian cars in need of repairs standing around, but the head physician had taken the keys when he heard that the 8th was coming in. The medics then warned him: if the crews don’t start working, they will take the cars for themselves. It worked.
After Ilovaysk, the medics had no body armor or helmets, either, they say, but every one of them came back alive from the most dangerous spots in the ATO. Still, the traumas and wounds they received in the conflict zone made themselves felt: some time after being demobilized, three of their buddies died.
At the very end, the medics note that the psychological pressure was caused not only because of the horrible images of war, but also because of problems with the chain-of-command. For instance, after Ilovaysk, they were ordered to remove the ammunition from their weapons…and check it against the serial numbers of what had officially been issued to them, all under threat of a reprimand. Another example was when the commanding officers wanted to “centralize” the aid from volunteers so that they could later issue it from HQ.
The medics would like to track down a lot of the wounded whom they evacuated—not in order to be thanked, but just to find out what happened to them. Paravozik notes that his colleagues take the deaths of young soldiers very hard because the average age of the Company is 40-50 and they all have young sons or nephews at home who might just as easily have lost their lives.
But what saddens them the most is that when the work they did is reported on, it’s treated like the work of the Red Cross. “If there had been men from different oblasts in our company, this kind of distortion might not have been as painful,” says Kozak. “But the 8th Company is Poltavans. We hear stuff like ‘oh, there’s Lviv going to battle, there’s Ternopil,’ but the 8th Poltava Company is not mentioned anywhere… We should be able to be Poltava’s pride! We went to war on our own enthusiasm.”
According to the man who coordinated the rescue of the wounded and the removal of the dead at Ilovaysk, Ihor Palahniuk, the 8th Company sought and removed 159 bodies, evacuated 212 wounded, and provided medical treatment to 400 Ukrainian POWs whom the Russian army refused to release
Destined for hell. The 8th Company began to be formed on July 31, 2014. In the village of Vakulentsi outside Poltava, draftees were collected and went through base camp in three short weeks
Meet & remember. The veterans of the 8th Company gather in Poltava three years after Ilovaysk, in August 2017