In E. Ukraine, Civilian Deaths Push Men to Join Rebels

March 12,2015

DONETSK— After months of fighting in eastern Ukraine, the presence of the Ukrainian military and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods seem to be pushing more men to join the rebellion.

New recruits for Ukraine’s rebel army, part of a battalion of Don Cossacks, are on their way out of Donetsk to a piece of wasteland for weapons training.

Their targets are the faces of western-leaning Ukrainian politicians, including Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

It's been months since the Ukrainian government launched a so-called "anti-terrorism operation" to retake the east of the country. But these Cossacks have a long tradition of defending the Russian empire. To them, the offensive felt like an armed invasion by a new government they were already suspicious of.

Sasha, their commander, was an economist and businessman before the war. He traveled to Kyiv and had friends there. But now, he said, no one there understands why he’s fighting.

“They think that we are terrorists, and pro-Russian citizens. But I do not think like this. We were born as Russians in our blood, and we are living on our land. As a rule, we have no contact with 90 percent of our old friends on western Ukraine and there is a massive lack of comprehension between us and them,” Sasha said.

Civilian deaths

The use of artillery and rockets in built-up areas by both sides has led to many civilian deaths and huge damage to property. And instead of discouraging the rebellion, these men say it has obligated them to join up.

One, who goes by the name “Spiker” worked as a miner until his village was largely destroyed by shelling.

“A lot of my neighbors were killed, a lot of my friends who I worked with before were killed. All the houses and church on my street were ruined. The children's playground and school were ruined,” he said.

The men said they are most concerned about the volunteers coming east to fight for the government, some of whom are part of far-right political movements. It’s here that one can see the lingering effect World War Two has had on the region.

“Many women and men were fighting on the side of the U.S.S.R. and the coalition. The western part of Ukraine was under [Adolf] Hitler's coalition and that is the reason why today we still have a lot of far-right nationalist organizations,” Sasha said.

Weapons training ends with grenade launchers and a demonstration of explosives using old equipment from the coal mines.

Despite the cease-fire, these men say they expect the fighting will start again soon.

In this war, one side thinks they are fighting terrorists, the other thinks they are fighting the Nazis. And the longer the fighting continues, the more polarized this region will become.