Taras Moklyak, 23, came to Kyiv in December 2014 after being wounded. Since then, the only Kyiv landscape he has seen is the one from the windows of the purulent surgery department of the Kyiv Military Hospital.
Taras is from Ivano-Frankivsk, where he studied and worked part time at a furniture and lighting shop. Now he shares a hospital room with three other patients, one of whom was also wounded in the ATO.
While we talked, volunteers came by. They know the name of every soldier and their favorite dishes. They brought Taras his favorite pie and pistachios. The ward is filled with gifts, toys and children's drawings on the walls. On Taras’ bedside table is a small icon embroidered with beads. Volunteers brought it from Crimea. Taras’ mother Vera takes care of him and sometimes his girlfriend and friends visit.
He was mobilized on May 12, 2014. He was in Pobeda in the Starobeshivsky region, and then in Debaltsevo. First Taras served with the Precarpathian Battalion, and when it was disbanded, he moved to the 128th Mechanized Brigade, 15th Battalion. He was wounded in the village of Starodubne. He has severe injuries to the abdomen and pelvis.
Taras has a tattoo on his left shoulder saying: “I live on my God-given land.”
- I did it in autumn, when I came home. Five or six guys from my battalion did it, and I joined the crowd.
Did you support the Maidan?
– No, it didn’t make sense in Frankivsk. Everything was happening here – in Kyiv. I was working a lot and didn’t have the time. Moreover, in our city it was mostly children: university students who didn’t want to go to classes. A child walks and shouts something – what’s the point?
Is your attitude different now?
-I wouldn’t have joined the army if I wasn’t a patriot.
Taras’ military occupation is grenade launcher. However, he says that in war it doesn’t matter:
- Your military specialization does not matter in the war. Everyone does what they are told.
Did you speak to locals?
– When I was the first time, we spoke.
How did they treat you?
– Fine. When we were at the roadblock near Telmanove, they brought us food every day. They even brought beer and cigarettes. There were priests who said that if the DPR [Donetsk People’s Republic] army were here, they would treat them the same. There was no difference for them. The main thing is not to be hassled.
But when we got to Debaltsevo, there was nobody. It’s an abandoned village, only one old lady. Nobody was in Nikyshyno either when we arrived. People left everything behind in their homes: furniture, appliances. Even volunteers did not go there. They went as far as Chernukhino, and the rest was brought by our people. The road was blown-up – we drove across the field.
But we had everything except for cigarettes. There was food, which we just had to cook. We even had a whole box of medicines.
Where did you live?
We lived in abandoned houses. Ours was big, similar to a dormitory. Other soldiers had already lived there; we just took their place. A local biker probably used to live there. There was a garage and photographs in the house.
How did you spend your time outside military duties?
It depended on what needed to be done: sometimes we went to the village to find food, like potatoes. We searched in cellars for canned foods, preserves and potatoes.
Those who were before us, took TVs, refrigerators and sent them home through volunteers.
Did you ever speak to the rebels?
Sometimes. They would say they got lost, or had just been released from prison and didn’t have any documents. We let them go. What else could we do with them. Nobody would admit to being a separatist.
Did you see Russian soldiers?
They said there were Cossacks. But the Russians didn’t come close. Only some jerks came dressed in black.
Weren’t they afraid to approach you?
They knew we wouldn’t shoot. They stopped 150-200 meters away. They just wanted to tease us. They could have put up trip wires, surrounded us or entered the village, because we had only one thermal imager for the whole post. At night we couldn’t see anything, especially because there was no electricity. Without night vision there is nothing you can do.
Were they doing this for the money or did they really believe you are Banderites [followers of WWII era Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera]?
They have no other option. What can they do? Maybe it’s better for them. If a guy was a drug addict before, he had nothing. Now he takes anything he wants.
Did you have equipment?
- The first time I went we didn’t have any.
What did you do without military vehicles?
- We went by bus.
And what about bulletproof vests and helmets?
- Some. Volunteers brought more. But we still didn’t have any equipment. My second time we had armored infantry vehicles, two mortars, a heavy machine gun and two tanks.
Did you fix the equipment yourself?
The main thing is to paint them correctly. One of our infantry vehicles was destroyed almost immediately. It was standing in the wrong place. We took it away for scrap metal.
How will the war end?
It won’t. It will go on.
But one day it has to come to the end, doesn’t it?
- One day, but not soon.
Is it possible to end the war by negotiation?
- There is nothing to negotiate. How can we give up territory? We can win easily, but we need more men. We only have 50 thousand mobilized. They want to recruit 150 thousand more. The Russians are conscripts capable of nothing.
Are they not as strong as they are shown?
- I think many more Russians were killed this year than our people. There are too few of us. Defense posts with 30 people is not enough. There should be 100-150 people. What can 30 people do, especially without equipment?
The second time we see Taras is the day before he flies to Germany. He and 16 other soldiers have injuries that Ukrainian doctors can’t treat. While Taras sleeps, we talk with his mother in the hallway.
Taras studied full-time at college and part-time at the university. When he graduated from college, he didn’t want to continue studying full-time. He went to serve in the army. And only now, three years later, he confessed that the army doctor didn’t give him medical clearance, but he begged the surgeon to clear him. He said he had to give that year of service to his country.
My husband is a patriot. His grandfather was a leader in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army [Ukrainian military organization that fought both Nazi and Soviet forces during and after WWII]. His grandmother’s two brothers were killed while serving in the army. They were soldiers too. My husband brought up Taras as a patriot. When Taras was wounded, I said to my husband, "This is entirely your fault that our son is such a patriot."
After Taras was wounded, he wasn’t immediately taken to Kyiv. He was in several hospitals in different cities. He’s had so many operations that Vera has lost count.
I can’t say the exact number of operations, but he has been put under anesthesia more than 50 times. If there’s anesthesia, there is surgery. And that’s only here. I don't know how many he had in Artemivsk, in addition to the three or four operations in Kharkiv.
He called me that day and said, "Mom, I'm wounded." He even said it jokingly: "They shot me in the ass." Those were jokes. He said: "It's okay, they’ll sew it up."
It was a rural hospital, he doesn't even know where. He was laying there, no one was looking after him. After a day he was sent to Artemivsk. That day was recorded as the date of injury.
He called me at 7 o'clock and said he had surgery. I said, "Is the doctor near you?" The doctor took the phone and read the diagnosis. I screamed.
There was an attack on the roadblock. He won’t tell us the details. Taras is a grenade launcher. The guys used to joke when he said he was a grenade launcher. They would answer: "Grenade throwers don’t live long."
Taras had an assistant named Andriy. He was killed. They found his body a month later. The separatists had him. They made a trade. That was in January. He was killed when the wounded were being evacuated.
Last year Taras immediately said he would go to war. He came home from work and said, "I decided I'm going to war."
Incidentally, we didn't know it would be the ATO. He was taken to the territorial battalion to protect our region. The guys tricked him and snuck him out at night to the ATO.
Vera moved to Kyiv to take care of Taras. She lives with a volunteer she met in the hospital.
She somehow found us and donated money for Taras’ treatment, and then called and asked if we needed help. I asked if she knew anyone renting out a cheap apartment nearby. She said we could live with her. My mother was with me at the time. She took both of us in for free. The first thing she did was open the fridge and said to take anything we needed. She is out of town on business and left us the keys.
Taras is already moving around the hospital in a wheelchair. He smiles and jokes. Tomorrow his girlfriend will come. And the next day he will land in Germany.