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A Ukrainian soldier’s life under siege

Ukranian pro-russian protesters demonstrate outside the air base in Belbek, not far from Sevastopol on March 6, 2014. (AFP PHOTO/Filippo MONTEFORTE)

BELBEK, Ukraine: It’s seven in the morning and the alarm clock buzzes: a new day dawns for Oleksandr – a Ukrainian soldier in Crimea living under siege from a foreign army.

For the past week, this 27-year-old aviation mechanic has been stuck at his base in Belbek, Sevastopol’s military airport, surrounded by Russian forces and kept away from his wife and 6-month-old baby.

“I usually work 8 to 5,” says the young, blue-eyed soldier, as he stares out from behind the gates of the base.

“I refuel planes but since the Russians arrived, we all sleep here in the barracks,” says Oleksandr, whose family lives off base.

“We’re on sentry duty. Nobody knows how long this is going to last. For the moment, they’re allowing food supplies through.”

One morning, well-armed professional soldiers turned up near the Mig fighter jet hangars where Oleksandr works.

They wore no identification or flag, but to Oleksandr’s trained eye, they were clearly members of Russia’s special forces.

The Ukrainian soldiers were ordered by their superiors to avoid a confrontation and pulled back to the barracks, leaving their equipment and the runways to the Russian military.

“Now the orders are to stand guard by the gates for four hours in shifts,” he says.

Oleksandr keeps his bulletproof vest open and has no magazine in the Kalashnikov he carries slung across his shoulder, indicating he is not combat-ready.

“When your shift ends, you have to stay awake for two hours in case of emergency, then you can sleep for two hours.”

As Oleksandr speaks, a hundred pro-Russian activists turn up at the gates of the base waving flags and shouting, “Russia! Russia!”

Under orders from their commander Oleg Podovalov, the deputy head of the base, the soldiers line up in three rows behind the gates.

No one is brandishing their weapon, and some of the soldiers have their hands in their pockets, although six with clubs and riot gear stand ready behind a wall.

“We want to speak to whoever is in charge,” a white-haired man in a black leather jacket says.

“Our grandfathers fought side by side in the glorious Soviet army and now you’re playing America’s game,” the man shouts at an officer standing nearby through a small red and white megaphone.

“Be brave! Don’t play the game of the bandits in power in Kiev!”

The officer does not respond as the demonstrators cry: “Cowards! Cowards! Shame! Shame!”

An elderly woman approaches the gates and tells the soldiers: “Be brave, don’t play NATO’s game.”

Oleksandr stays back, sheltering from a freezing wind.

“Both my parents defended the Soviet Union. They were soldiers too,” he says.

“My father died when I was a boy. My mother was an army engineer who built the buildings you see there.

“These people are not going to lecture me,” he says bitterly.

Asked about a possible war with Russia, Oleksandr says there is a “50-50 chance.”

“It’s possible. I am a bit worried for my family but if we have to fight, we will fight.

“At the moment, the Russian soldiers around the base are not so many and they only have light weapons, while we have jets and armored vehicles,” he says.

“If they get reinforcements in, I am sure we will get reinforcements too from other parts of Ukraine.”

After a half-hour standoff, the pro-Moscow demonstrators lower their flags and leave.

At the base, a soldier sets a speaker on a car roof and puts the radio on full volume.

The song “Katyusha” blares out – a patriotic anthem about the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 08, 2014, on page 8.

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Summary

BELBEK, Ukraine: It's seven in the morning and the alarm clock buzzes: a new day dawns for Oleksandr – a Ukrainian soldier in Crimea living under siege from a foreign army.

For the past week, this 27-year-old aviation mechanic has been stuck at his base in Belbek, Sevastopol's military airport, surrounded by Russian forces and kept away from his wife and 6-month-old baby.

One morning, well-armed professional soldiers turned up near the Mig fighter jet hangars where Oleksandr works.

They wore no identification or flag, but to Oleksandr's trained eye, they were clearly members of Russia's special forces.

The Ukrainian soldiers were ordered by their superiors to avoid a confrontation and pulled back to the barracks, leaving their equipment and the runways to the Russian military.


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