Some residents of the Azov Sea port city of Mariupol train for a possible Russian invasion on May 24, while women sunbathe on the beach. Some Ukrainian soldiers are angry about the unequal sacrifices being made in society to defend Ukraine. Russia’s war against Ukraine is in its 16th month with no end in sight. See story on page 5. (Volodymyr Petrov)
While young, carefree revelers take selfies on the dance floor of a Kyiv beach club, a funeral procession is taking place in another part of the city for a soldier killed in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
For more than a year, Ukraine has been living a dual life – a peaceful one in which civilians go about their normal lives, or try to, and another mired in an ever-bloodier war that has killed more than 6,500 people and uprooted more than two million from their homes, according to the United Nations.
Many who have risked their lives to fight are having trouble readjusting to civilian life, where they face bureaucracy, indifference and unemployment.
“Society doesn’t feel that there is a war going on,” says Artem, an Azov Regiment soldier on temporary leave. He requested anonymity for safety reasons since he is planning to return to the Donbas war front. “There is no atmosphere of war.”
He told the Kyiv Post that a fellow soldier went to Kyiv on leave and took pictures of a peaceful life – people walking around and sitting in cafés, seemingly unconcerned about the suffering and sacrifice of the troops.
When he came back to the war front, he showed the pictures to other soldiers and said: “Look, they don’t care.”
Such stories, especially when soldiers face discrimination just for being soldiers, make them angry, Artem says.
He once was banned from entering a college in Ivano-Frankivsk when he showed his military documents. There is a popular prejudice that soldiers “are insane, they bring grenades, and they need treatment,” he says “The gulf is brewing between society and those who are on the front line.”
According to Artem, who left his home in Luhansk last spring to join the volunteer battalion, every person should be in the fight to defend their homeland.
“If you are a man, why aren’t you at war?” he asks. “Some of them even manage to post online their pictures on the beach, or while they grill shish kebab… Everyone knows how you live, everything is fine, but there are people dying for you to live like that. Maybe just to show respect you could be more modest.” Others feel the same way. Volodymyr Shumeyko from Ukraine’s Donbas Battalion is irritated by men who “are dancing here dressed to the nines.” Shumeyko was seriously wounded last summer during the fierce battle now known as the Massacre of Ilovaisk, and is still recovering. But he plans to go back to war as soon as he can.
“This is my land, my home, I have to defend it,” he told the Kyiv Post. “If you don’t fight, do something, support the army, but don’t tell people in social media that you are a hero.”
Sociologist Iryna Bekeshkina, head of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, a Kyiv-based policy center, said that society has gotten used to the war and understands that it will go on for some time.
“Let’s remember World War II. Have you seen the pictures from occupied Paris? We can’t say that Parisians were happy that their city was occupied (by Nazis), but the majority continued living their lives,” Bekeshkina told the Kyiv Post. “We can see that from the photos - restaurants were working, concerts were held, etc.”
Dmytro Neyman from the Dnipro 1 Battalion said more Ukrainians need to see what’s happening in the combat zone. Neyman, who went to the front as a partisan last spring and later joined the Dnipro 1 Battalion, told the Kyiv Post he is also annoyed by those who continue to be oblivious to the nation’s war.
“Sometimes I want to break into one of those nightclubs, to send them all to the front line – for a short period of time, just to show what’s there,” he said. “They shouldn’t be indifferent about this situation. If they don’t want to end up there, they have to start doing something in the rear. There are many things to do to change this country.”
Iryna Turchak, a volunteer in the Povernys Zhyvym Foundation (Return Alive), knows many angry and disillusioned soldiers.
“These are two different worlds, here and there,” she said.
Turchak thinks that people are ready to welcome their heroes, to help and support them, but said “the state isn’t ready.”
The first problem returning soldiers encounter is getting an official certificate of military service, a prerequisite for social benefits. A person needs to visit numerous state agencies and collect a pile of documents.
And soldiers often aren’t told where to go, Turchak says.
“Imagine if he lost his leg or his arm, it’s inhumane to make him go from office to office,” she says. “This paper- work is so exhausting. Many of them just give up. ‘I don’t need it,’ they say, ‘I will earn everything on my own.’” Unfortunately, many don’t. When war veterans come home, they often find that their vacated job has been filled by someone else, Turchak says. When employers, pressed by financial problems, need to reduce staff, they decide to choose a soldier, who is far away anyway.
“And then they decide to go back to war,” she adds.
Others make the readjustment to civilian life.
Leonid Ostaltsev from Kyiv is one of them. After spending about four months in the combat zone, he established a local veterans association to provide former soldiers with psychological assistance, information and just lend a hand.
He says that only about 15 percent of his fellow soldiers were “sound of mind, understanding that they were in a war, that their head might be hammered with all the explosions and shelling, and who didn’t drink. The rest were those who just learned how to behave with the guns. They come back and need to do something. What can they do? Drink and shoot. I am worried that we will get many new found criminals.”
He said many soldiers think men who avoid the war are all jerks. But he tries to persuade them that peace – including dancing and the summer pleasures of barbecue – is what everyone is fighting for and not something by which someone should be alienated.
But it would help if more would join the fight, one way or the other.
“We fight there for peace here. I see children going to kindergartens, I see entrepreneurs that work, people making money, growing, living, new people being born,” Ostaltsev says. “Me, personally, I stand for that.”
A National Guardsman watches as beachgoers stand on the shore of the Azov Sea in the coastal city of Mariupol in Donetsk Oblast on May 28. (Volodymyr Petrov)
Many soldiers feel lost after they come back from the war, facing bureaucracy, indifference and unemployment. The picture was taken on Sept. 15, 2014, when approximately 150 soldiers of the volunteer Azov Battalion arrived in Kyiv from the combat zone....