Story #143. Remaining a Humanist at War

April 8, 2024
Reflections from the Avdiivka direction: a Ukrainian soldier on the value of his own and the enemy's lives.

Vitaliy, 28, call sign "Keks," is a master sapper who recycles ammunition, equips it for attack drones, and helps the pilot navigate the terrain while in flight.

Vitaliy enlisted in the army voluntarily. It took him some time to take this life-changing step.

"I used to want to join the army, but my doubts got in the way. Later, my desire managed to overcome my doubts," he says.

Vitaliy did not consider which branch of the army to join, the most important thing was to find people who would do the job well.

So, after he decided to mobilize himself, he reached out to a friend who was already serving.

"I have never seen a Mavic in my life," I told my friend. He reassured me, saying, "Come to us, and we'll teach you everything."

After medical check-ups and a successful interview, Vitaliy began his basic military training, which lasted one month. There, he honed his skills in a number of disciplines, but most importantly, he slowly integrated into the army's reality.

"I shot about 1000 rounds during the training. It was the first time I've ever used a weapon, but I learned quite quickly. For civilians new to this environment, the army may seem like something trashy. However, over time, you get used to it and begin to understand how the system works."

"Training is necessary for acclimatization and for understanding that you are no longer a civilian, but a soldier of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. In the army, there is no such thing as 'I want to do it, I don't want to do it.'"

After completing his training, Vitaliy worked for some time in the Kupiansk area.

"Back then, everything felt quite easy. Despite the constant mortar and artillery incoming fire, of course. However, we were never directly shot at," Vitaliy recalls.

Now, the soldier is serving near Avdiivka, in one of the most intense combat zones.

War differs from location to location. It is volatile. In a few weeks, we can adapt to the enemy, and the enemy can adapt to us.

Vitaliy says that, in addition to military skill, everything depends on mother luck. Recently, an enemy drone fell three meters away from him, but he managed to roll away just before it hit.

According to Vitaliy, some people who go to war are not immediately aware of the nature of their new responsibilities because "war is not only about killing the enemy but also about peeling potatoes and cleaning up."

"People often do not realize what they're in for. They think that they will run around like Rambo, jump away from machine gun fire, and get medals for it. Later, they arrive at their positions and have to wait three days for the shelling to stop. The soil is literally falling on your head, and you just sit there and can't do anything about it. If there is an order, it must be carried out, whether it is to make a successful flight or to unload a truck with water. This is what keeps the army going."

Despite the horrific reality of war, Vitaliy does not harbour a blind hatred for the Russian military.

"My hatred for Russians wore off about a year ago. Obviously, at the beginning of the full-scale invasion, when I watched Russian troops brutally wipe out settlements and people, I was filled with hatred. However, as time passed, this reality became more familiar, and with the start of my army service, I began to see it as a job, because hatred, in my opinion, is ineffective."

"I often hear the argument that Russians are not people. However, I see them as people just like you and me. I used to be a humanist, and I probably still am. For me, human life is the highest value."

"For me, this war is largely about social roles. I am looking at a person who fulfils the social role of an occupier. He is a person with his own unique inner world, and at the same time, he is an occupier who will kill by his own will or on the order of a command."

If you want to remain a humanist and at the same time be an effective warrior, you need to realize that the concepts of 'human' and 'occupier' are separate and yet interconnected.

"I think of it this way: this is a man who was apprehended by the police on his way to work one morning and taken to the enlistment office. Maybe he doesn't want to be there. Maybe he doesn't deserve this reality. Maybe he doesn't want to kill anyone. But at the same time, I realize that if he is 20 meters away from me, he will kill me."

"It is easier to be a pacifist outside of this country. However, in war, there are no other options but to defend yourself. Personally, I have not killed anyone yet, but if the situation arises, I will do it and I will be satisfied with the job well done. I am a soldier - I am a weapon. My task is to work so that the enemy does not advance further, does not destroy cities, villages, and people, and, of course, we must push the enemy as far back as possible for Ukraine to return its land."

"People often do not fully understand that this war is not just about territory. This is an imperialist war. This is how empires operate: they either expand or collapse. As for me, this is an attempt to preserve and strengthen the influence of the "Russian Empire." They are comprehensively promoting the thesis, "It is better to be Russian because if you are not, we will come and blow your city to smithereens."

War is always about personal transformation.

"Military "Keks" has become much bolder in various ways, even in his communication with others and self-awareness. He's less uptight. He is more disciplined and responsible. For example, in civilian life, you can afford to postpone something, or not do something at all. In war, you cannot, because inaction has severe consequences."

"I began to perceive challenges more easily. Now the scale of problem situations seems smaller, and I've begun to appreciate life more. I've started to see the beauty in it."

"You get out of the dugout, watch the sunrise over Avdiivka 'Koksohim', mines, GBUs, and Grads falling everywhere. Huge mushrooms are rising on the horizon, and you think, "Damn, it's beautiful." If I were sitting in Kyiv, what would I be doing? I would have continued to work in some pub and surf the internet. "

"Every time you go to a combat position, you realize you could die."

In war, the awareness of mortality becomes more acute, and therefore the love of life increases.

"Even digging a trench for 12 hours starts to seem like a thrill. So, while I'm here, I need to enjoy simple conversations with people. Enjoy what I'm doing and in everything I see."

Nika Krychovska
Journalist at UkraineWorld