Soldier wants to fight, but also wants reform
Viktor Trofymenko was shocked during his first patrol on the Russian-Ukrainian front line more than a year ago when he, together with comrades from the Dnipro-1 Battalion, first saw shell craters and houses that had been completely destroyed by the fighting.
“We then felt – this is war,” he says, and takes a drag from his cigarette. “I am sorry; I always smoke a lot when talking about war.”
When Russia unleashed its war in Ukraine’s Donbas, Trofymenko was working as the acting director of the Misto (City) television channel in Poltava.
He says he’s always stepped up to help his country in difficult times – during the 2004 Orange Revolution, and the Euro-Maidan protests. So when Russia brought war to Ukraine, he had no doubts about going to fight to defend his homeland.
In early March 2014 Trofymenko started knocking on the doors of recruitment offices, trying to get into the army. But for two months the only response he got from army recruiters was “come back later,” he says.
“I absolutely couldn’t bear just sitting around. I read about the Dnipro-1 (volunteer) battalion and felt that was exactly what I wanted,” Trofymenko says.
He signed up with the battalion late in May and, after training and tests, was sent to the front line.
“Everything seemed unreal, fictional. You’d have had to have been a total idiot to believe that peaceful miners and tractor drivers were firing rocket artillery,” Trofymenko laughs nervously. “For instance, the fire direction officer for a Grad rocket launcher unit has to train for a minimum of two to three years. You can’t shoot it at random. It’s not a machine gun.”
Trofymenko served mostly near Pisky, the village near the Donetsk airport. He calls himself a walking punch line because he always finds himself in funny situations.
In one incident he was talking on video about Russians in Crimea when the shelter he was in came under shelling. Trofymenko was wounded, and the video, which contains a great deal of soldierly language, went viral. A link to the video can be found in the online version of this story on the Kyiv Post’s website.
“I can’t even be shelled normally,” he smiles.
The video was so popular that even Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite watched it, and wanted to meet Trofymenko personally when he was sent to Lithuania for medical treatment.
“I liked what she said first the most,” Trofymenko says. “She said: ‘It’s not important what the circumstances of our meeting are, I want you to talk to me not as a soldier to a president, but as one person to another.’ Her schedule gave us 15 minutes, but we ended up talking for an hour-and-a-half. I told her everything. I told her about the documents of Russian soldiers I have seen with my own eyes.”
Before leaving, Trofymenko presented Grybauskaite with the flag that he had with him when he was serving near Pisky.
After recovering, he returned to serve two more tours of duty in eastern Ukraine. Now he is on leave, but says he might go back to the Donbas again.
“I’m ready to fight as long as I know that the authorities are changing the country for the better. Ukraine needs reform – it’s crucial,” Trofymenko says. “And people should be more demanding of the authorities. Society has to understand that there’s a war going on.”
Not much has changed yet, he adds, and that’s a bitter fact for soldiers to face when they come back from the war.
“Taking one step forward, two steps to the side and two steps back – that seems to be the way our authorities are trying to change things in Ukraine,” Trofymenko says.
Viktor Trofymenko from the Dnipro-1 volunteer battalion says the only time most people in peaceful cities are aware of the war that has claimed nearly 7,000 lives is when soldiers come back in military uniform. (Volodymyr Petrov)