The 8th Poltava Com­pany re­mem­bers Ilovaysk:

Vet­eran medics re­call the evac­u­a­tion of the wounded and dead af­ter the Bat­tle of Ilovaysk in Au­gust 2014

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Oleksa Koba

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

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