Lyonya Khmelkov was wounded on January 22nd – Ukrainian Unity Day. Lyonya serves with the Zhytomyr based 95 Airborne Brigade. He fought with his brothers in arms in Slovyansk and Yasynovate, liberated Lysychansk. He was injured at Donetsk airport. He has shrapnel wounds. During the conversation, Lyonya recalls vacationing in Germany and Bulgaria, and the kamikaze slide at a Bulgarian waterpark.
I don't have a nom de guerre because I'm not a commander. But my secret nickname is myasnyi (meaty). You wouldn't believe it, but I used to weigh 110 kg. I lost some weight over the past month.
What do social psychologists do? Sit at home unemployed. It's not easy finding work in this profession. Turns out I need to have experience, but I don't have experience because nobody will hire me, and nobody will hire me because I don't have experience. I freed myself from this vicious circle and started working as a taxi driver. The work is similar, the pay is a little better, the schedule is flexible, and it's much more interesting.
A taxi is like a psychologist's chair. People run with their problems, jump in the car and go to their next problems. They have to feel that they can get things off their chest. I think that communicating with people is the best thing you can do.
I used to be very interested in ants. They have a very interesting way of communicating. If one ant learns something, it crawls up to another ant and they touch antennas. Then the second ant knows what the first one knew.
I signed a contract on November 26, 2013. On March 8, 2014 we went off to war.
Back then I thought we were doing very important things, but when the war came, I realized that we weren't quite doing the right thing. We attended training and did all sorts of stupid things – not the things that an army should do. When time came to go somewhere, it turned out that our vehicles were broken. Imagine, we had 200 armored personnel carriers and none of them worked.
I don't think it's normal that a tank takes three shots and then the turret jams.
Actually, I'm a driver in an anti-tank platoon. But in war it's arbitrary, you can be anyone: a grenade launcher, a machine gunner, a sniper. We were storm troopers, burned tanks. I replaced the unit commander sometimes. He had the least vacation of us all, and I decided to help the guy out.
There was no ceasefire. Not even once. More precisely, we stopped shooting, but they battered us with Grad missiles and mortars. New Year was the only day there wasn't much shooting. On New Years everybody was shooting, but not at each other. The guys had some fun — if you shoot tracer bullets with a machine gun they glow red.
I have a pinched nerve that hurts and torments me constantly. I call it Putin. What else can you call it?
It's not that I'm afraid of pain, but I have a feeling that even a drop more and I'll break down. I’m on the brink, like an overloaded car: the springs go squeak, squeak, squeak -throw a pebble in there and they'll snap.
My girlfriend is from Slovyansk, I took her away from there. We met a long time ago, while working as counselors at camp Artek. We were just friends, and when the war started we had a bad falling out. Our views differed. The discussions lasted for hours. It was especially difficult to explain that we were not shooting at the city. We couldn't shoot – we were given orders not to shoot at civilians. How could we shoot at a city if we knew there are people living there? But I recruited her.
I called her and said: "I'm injured. I'm in Dnipropetrovsk. Don't even think of coming here." In the morning she was breaking down the door to the intensive care unit. She
showed her ring and said: "I'm his wife. You have no right not to let me in."
If the medical board clears me, I will immediately return to war.
I don't know about you girls, but we guys have a rule: if your word is worth nothing, then you're nobody. I don't understand guys who are dodging the war. Ok, you've got the civilians, but those in the military that stood there with their machine guns, in front of their mom and girlfriend and said: "Look how handsome I am," swore an oath, and then ran away with their tail between their legs.
I don’t regret anything. This is my life. There is no other place for me other than where I am now.
Ordinary people don’t understand what it’s like when your head can’t believe what the eyes see: burning iron, burning steel, burning bodies, broken cars and broken bodies. Everywhere.
Why do people from Western Ukraine travel to Poland, or elsewhere, and bring all the money here? While they go to Russia with coal, iron, and sell everything they can? For 23 years one half of the country brought things here, and they took them there. And now we idiot Banderites are even eating children?
I saw with my own eyes, we even have video, as their tank shoots at us, then at the city, then at us, then at the city, then they go to the city and say we were the ones shooting.
They call and threaten. Some suggest switching to the side of DNR, and some do. Let them switch sides, I don’t mind. If they are willing to betray their friends, then let them go. If a person sells out once, they’ll sell out again.
We had to live in the forest, in pits, in tents, in cars and sometimes in abandoned homes.
Some guys caught a taxi because they wanted to go to the bath. Instead the taxi driver took them to the separatists.
I was offended when I was told my soul is worth $1,000. They get a thousand dollars for a soldier, three thousand for a sergeant, five for an officer, and ten for a senior officer.
It’s not about defeat or victory. It's just business. But for us it’s a way to survive or die. Find something for yourself – assert yourself.
The war will end once these hungry jaws are satisfied. But will they ever be satisfied? No, they will never be satisfied.
There is no conflict, people – wake up! These guys did nothing to me. I have no personal problems with them. It's a phantom with which our government, and not only ours, is earning unreal sums of money.
This way of thinking brought us to this state. The state of not giving a damn.
A few days later we meet Lyonya’s girlfriend Alina in the hallway of the purulent surgery department. She tells us how she met Leo, how she ran away from the constant shelling, and how she changed her opinion about the war.
Lyonya and I worked as counselors at the same camp. We became friends and stayed in touch after the camp. We talked a lot – we were best friends. I could tell him a lot, even things I couldn’t admit to myself.
Then the fighting began. It all started with Slovyansk, where I live, and I had to go to Crimea for some time. I had nowhere else to go. And we stopped communicating. We had a small argument in the midst of all these events. I didn’t know he was here. He said he was at the training camp.
And then on TV I heard that his unit was there. I got nervous and I wrote to him, said everything on my mind. Until September we spoke through emotions. It was important for me to write to him and know that he is alive. Even go on Vkontakte to see if he’s logged in – meaning he is alive.
Then I came from Crimea and threw a housewarming party in my new apartment. We met and that’s how it all began.
When I arrived from Crimea, I was in shock. There you see the Russian flag everywhere, the children all know the Russia anthem, everyone is shouting “Russia!” It was scary to see. Yesterday they were holding their hands on their hearts to the Ukrainian anthem — yesterday they were Ukrainian. Ukraine fed and clothed them, gave them jobs and a salary, and now they’re somebody else. How is it possible? Then I returned to Slovyansk and gradually the veil fell from my eyes. I talked with Lyonya and he helped me understand some things that I hadn’t understood before.
The propaganda is so strong that you understand nothing. For example, there was a Grad missile launcher that fired at Karachun, then turned around and fired at residential areas. They hit schools, kindergartens, houses. One shell hit an apartment where a family was eating dinner. Everyone thought it was the Ukrainian army.
They blocked Ukrainian TV. They managed to play on the territorial peculiarities and convince people that THIS is the truth. We simply didn’t accept any other information. During the Maidan there were Ukrainian media reports, but we understood it all slightly differently. I wasn’t up on the situation. I was busy holding down two jobs.
Very few locals joined the rebels. They were mostly people who wanted to cash in. Very few did this for the ideas. I think no more than 5% of them remain. Some may have become disappointed, some realized what’s really going on, and some went to Russia, where they wanted to be.
After I got to Crimea, I remained neutral. I was working with Chechens. I had a group of 93 children and two counselors. I don't understand how people who had a war in their own country, and not without the involvement of Russia, then consider themselves Russian. It doesn’t make sense.
A lot of people have changed their minds – sincerely changed. And in many regions people just want peace. They don’t care who will be in power. They're just afraid for their children, for their families. During a recent shelling in Kramatorsk, a mother covered a small child with her body. The mother died and the child received minor injuries. The child is now an orphan. Everyone just wants peace.
Some people just want to leave, but they don’t have the means. Lyonya took me to live with him, but I left my mom there.
During events like this, you find out who your real friends are. The relationship with our closest relatives has been ruined. We planned to leave together, and they ran off on their own and left my mom behind. She was afraid to go alone. A total stranger helped us.
He told the guys not to tell me what happened, but I found out through friends. Lyonya was in the field, so I knew we wouldn’t talk for a few days. Sometimes you say a prayer and things become easier. But that day І was restless. I felt that something was wrong.
Just as I was coming home from work, one of his friends was returning from the mission, and I got all the information from him. They told me he would have a small scar on his rear end, but it turns out part of his rear end stayed behind at the airport.
He said everything was fine and told me not to come. I arrived the next day. Іt was late – 11 pm. The hospital was closed, and they weren’t letting anyone in. I came again in the morning. I walked in and was so scared. The area was empty. You didn’t know what to expect. I was told he was in intensive care.
I stood by his door for an hour and begged to see him. One doctor came and then left. Another came and went. I stood with my eyes full of tears. I put my ring on a different finger, as if I were his wife. Finally, they agreed.
They told Lyonya that his wife was here and he couldn’t understand what wife. When the doctors realized that I was only his girlfriend, they asked him again. He didn't want me to see him like that.
But I went in anyway and it was the scariest sight. You send off your big strong man and then see him in the hospital room as a pale spot connected to a large number of devices, and he has trouble lifting his arm.
Ninety percent of what happens here (in the hospital) is organized by volunteers. Everything is on their shoulders: diapers, underwear, food, water, juice. An old lady shows up and you can see that she is barely making ends meet. She says that she can’t give much, but she brings apples and donates a few kopecks. It’s not about people bringing things; it’s that people understand that if we don’t help each other, we won’t get out of this mess and will have to help each other for a long time. But what’s most important is that the level of consciousness of the Ukrainian people has grown significantly. We hadn’t had such unity as we do today for a long time. We’ve paid a very high price, but it’s an opportunity to change something.
On Friday, March 20, 2015, Lyonya, Taras and 15 more men flew to Germany for treatment. Lyonya didn’t make it into the general program from the German government, but a doctor from the military hospital found another clinic. Lyonya’s future doctor is Ukrainian and his clinic gave the soldier a 30% discount. The clinic also covered the cost of transportation. It’s not certain how long his treatment will last, but he has a visa for six months.