The Frozen War

   They might be warriors, fighters, and generally seen as just rogue militia men desperately looking for a fight but after spending two weeks living among them at their base I got a close look into their daily lives and saw just men and women not much different from the rest of us. They were dealing with the daily issues of keeping warm, shovelling snow, and keeping up to date with the news in their country.  The difference is in the fact that these men and women are members of the 1st Assault Company, Volunteer Ukrainian Corps, Right Sector. It is a group operating in the war-torn Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine which has been fighting since the beginning of the war back in 2014.
   I met them originally back in July 2018 when I was in the area working on my previous project called The Forgotten War. It was a bit of a hectic trip travelling between military positions, different battalions, cities, visiting either civilians or the official Ukrainian Army soldiers. This time I wanted to go deeper and to take a bit more time so I contacted the group and said I'd like to come live with them for two weeks to document their day to day lives and activities. They agreed and so I arrived at the earliest possible time for me which happened to be in the first week of January 2019. The country was constantly being covered in a seemingly endless influx of snow. The temperature often dropped well into the negative numbers which naturally meant life in general just slowed down. This story is going to be very different from my previous one.
   I've arrived in the Donetsk area roughly around 11 in the morning after picking up my photographer's accreditation in the Press Centre in Kramatorsk and then taking a local taxi to a place in a different city where I was supposed to meet my contact from the group. I didn't really need the card to be able to document them as they are not technically an official body but I'd rather be safe than sorry in case I'd get stopped by the authorities having to explain what am I doing in a military controlled area wrapped in camera gear without having the proper paperwork. About an hour or two later I finally meet my contact Alina who is one of the paramedics in the ambulance unit of the Company. She is accompanied by the commander nicknamed DaVinci. He is young, definitely in his early twenties, commanding a company of men twice his age but they clearly respect and trust him as he is clearly experienced in fighting the almost five-year-old war.
   We get into their old Jeep Cherokee and head towards Avdiivka where their compound is based. There is a strong blizzard going on for the duration of the drive. Most of the time we can't see the horizon let alone the road which in such a thick layer of snow the Jeep is just sliding left to right for kilometres at a time. DaVinci is clearly fighting the steering wheel trying to keep the car on the road but it also seems like he's having fun. It only makes sense. We are all laughing as were drifting along a road we can't even see. I finally understand the term 'snow blindness'. Once we get closer to the town the large ever burning coke plant starts getting more and more prominent on the horizon. The pollution is again visible in the sky even through the snowstorm. The first thought that comes to my mind is that the heat next to the furnaces has still got to be ridiculous even in the freezing cold weather.
   Once we're in Avdiivka I start recognising landmarks and buildings, not much has changed. I remember feeling sorry for the soldiers stuck on the checkpoints in the 37-degree heat. Not sure if they're happier now. We get to the gate of the compound and once it opens and we drive in I notice some changes from the last time I visited. They have built a training ground in the area previously covered in shrubbery. It has wooden climbing walls, metal bars to work out, free weights and rubber tires in the ground to run over.  Well, It's completely covered in snow, so I'd guess it hasn't seen a lot of use recently, but it could be just the snow from today's afternoon. I get out of the car and meet some familiar faces as well as some new ones.
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   There is a large building in the compound in which a large portion of the men lives in dormitories. They have a kitchen, a laundry room, storage, pantry, and a common room in which they spend quite a lot of time. It's fairly small with two sofas and three armchairs with a table in the middle. There is an old LG CRT TV in the corner running pretty much all the time surrounded by books and all kinds of memorabilia. All kinds of images of soldiers defending Ukraine drawn by children or personalised blue and yellow flags signed by the people hang on the walls of the rooms. There are also some black and red flags of Right Sector some with the crest some just plain, some with images of and quotes from Taras Shevchenko in the dormitories along with printed photographs and posters of their comrades fallen in the war as well as few images of Roman Shukhevych, the former leader of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and one of the Nachtigall commanders back in the year 1941.
   Each fighter has his own little space with a bed and either a small table or a cupboard for personal items, gear, their weapon and clothes. All of these seem at least a little personalised as this is their home for months if not years. Some lean their weapons against the bed, some have nails in the wall to hang them up for an easy reach. One item that seems to be common and in abundance in every room is a frame filled with multiple gold plated orthodox icons of Jesus.
   The men spend most of the afternoon just relaxing, sleeping, watching TV, cleaning their weapons or doing some laundry. Some play backgammon which seems to be so often they rarely even bother putting the board away. There hasn't been a day when I haven't seen them play it. The blizzard has put an imaginary stop to most of the outdoor activities around the base. I chat with them for a bit to get used to the language more and more. I speak with them using a broken mix of Ukrainian, Russian, Czech, and English but we are capable of having simple conversations. One of the men actually speaks decent English. His name is Yus. He's 24 years old and has an interesting backstory. Originally from Chechnya where he's fought against the Russian forces since his early teens now living in Ukraine and fighting to protect it from Russia again. He's got black hair and a mid-long black beard with a shaved moustache. My best guess is it is because of him being a Muslim and this way of trimming the beard is traditional in some regions. He always keeps it neat, brushed and shaped well. He's a happy and often smiling man with a family back in Kyiv but he can be serious at times when we're having conversations about politics, religions and general situation of the world.
   He shows me around the compound, where the storage rooms are in case I need to grab some water, the workshop and some more rooms with equipment. He takes me to a room full of supplies like warm winter boots and tells me to take anything if I ever need it and not to ask as they have plenty. I've pretty much packed everything I needed so I didn't take anything. Still, it was a nice gesture from him.
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   I wake up rather early the following morning. Most of the men are still asleep but the sun is already slowly coming out. The only one awake I met was the current guard duty at the gate. I walk around the compound just to get a good look again and to memorize where what is. The blizzard is already over at this time. The snow is reaching high above my knees at some places. All the cars and trucks look like they haven't moved in weeks covered in all this snow. Few completely frozen pieces of laundry are hanging on a string outside an empty derelict house in the corner of the base. As I walk towards one of the buildings I notice a line of paw prints leading from one of the storage buildings. Over the course of the next two weeks, I counted roughly 8 cats living here. Some are allowed to stay in the houses with the people, some are a bit more scruffy looking living in the warehouses. All friendly and domesticated though. The cats are not the only animals here. There are two dogs living it separate doghouses close to the entry gate one of which must've gotten in a fight with some of the Avdiivka's wild dogs last night because it is bleeding from a deep cut on the top of its head and another even deeper cut on the front of his nose. The wound is actually so long and deep it pretty much split his nose in half and you can see his tooth through even though its mouth is closed. It sounds and looks bad but seems like the men have dealt with this before as they do not seem too phased and just leave the wounds to heal naturally.
   I spend most of the day talking to the guys and trying to remember their names. I've already met some of them during my July visit. Gnom, for example. He got his nickname for being one of the tallest people I've ever met. He's always close to his PKM machine gun nicknamed Pokemon. It is a heavy gun to carry around but it doesn't seem to phase him. There is also an RPG by his bed just like the last time I saw him.
   Once everybody is up and there isn't much to do the shovels are put to good use and the paths are cleared for the base to be able to function normally. After that, some supplies can be shifted from one end to the other using a van to the main storage room.
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   There is a bit of commotion going on in one of the dormitories. A new weapon has arrived and they are all huddled around it looking at it, checking the sights out, setting up the tripod, and cleaning off any dirt and residue. It's a Soviet SPG-9, a 73mm recoilless rifle. 
   In the evening I talk to some of the guys I'm sharing the dormitory with. Yus, Borov and Christian. They are all in their early twenties and they all came here together. One of them used to be a professional MMA fighter in Kyiv. It ends up being a rather slow evening spent watching youtube on phones thanks to the blizzard not interrupting the 3G connection anymore and lifting some weights to keep fit. Some men go to bed early to be fresh when they have to wake up for their night shift at the guard post. 
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   The next day is in the name of cooking and preparations. Natali, one of the women on the base is in the kitchen making cakes. Vlas, Nastya and Alina are in the second house preparing more food in the bigger kitchen. Gnom, Borov, Kadet and more men are moving tables, benches, and chairs in to make enough seating and eating space for everyone. It is January the 6th and that means it's Christmas Eve according to the Julian calendar.
   The tables are being set up with plastic plates and cups, glass jars of hot 'kompot' are laid down to so they have something non-alcoholic to toast with. There is a strict no alcohol rule on the base which is being followed by every single person here. All the platters are laid out. Some of gherkins, peppers, tomatoes or potatoes. Some are full of all different kinds of salami, slices of ham, and smoked pork. The traditional food I'm told is in the cast iron pot in the middle of the table. It's groats with what seems to be poppy seeds, dried tangerines cut into star shapes, chocolate drops and plenty of other ingredients I am not able to pinpoint. Everybody comes to the table and as the last person sits down DaVinci stands up holding his cup and delivers a speech to wish everybody a happy Christmas followed by a moment of reflection to remember their fallen comrades. After the toast, everybody can finally delve into the food they've been looking at for the past hours hungrily. I keep taking photographs mostly unnoticed as the mood in the room seems to be rather festive. The men and women are smiling, laughing, chatting and enjoying this moment while it lasts. Later when some of them are full and head out to have a cigarette I am offered a seat at the table as well.
   The food is very enjoyable, especially the groat dish. Kompot tastes amazing as always and we have a little chat about the current situation of the world's view of Ukraine, the group's angle on Russia, the European Union, and the USA. It is clear that these men strive for a truly independent Ukraine. Free of Russia's influence, nor tied down to the EU. Once everything has slowed and calmed down a bit we have an interesting chat with Yus. He is clearly sick and tired of the misrepresentation of Muslims in the world and is tired of them being branded terrorist wherever he goes. He tells me if the West hadn't intervened in the Muslim world they wouldn't be forced to fight and defend their families. Especially with all the civilian deaths in the middle eastern countries due to drone strikes and bombings. He feels the same towards Russia after witnessing the war in Chechnya and seeing terrible things being done by Russian soldiers to the civilian populace there during the conflict. It is clear the men here carry no love for Russia's leadership or soldiers. When asked what is their favourite activity to do around here the reply almost in unison is "killing separatists".
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   Later that evening I'm told to get my towel and that we're going to a sauna. They've built it outside a couple of months ago before the winter started. It's a small concrete brick building divided into three rooms. A dressing room with a furnace door in the wall, a wooden lined shower room before the entrance to the actual sauna and the actual hot steam filled room with two levels of wooden seats and the rest of the furnace protruding from the wall surrounded by a metal fence filled with large rocks and a pot of birch water. the chimney is glowing red and the temperature is in the eighties on the upper level. We go out into the snow a few times before getting back into the heat. We spend roughly forty minutes inside there altogether.
   Some of the men here go on a daily basis and I end up joining them every other day. For some reason, it has really helped me cope with the cold temperatures. Taking photos in the steam is nearly impossible for my cameras but I managed to get one shot before the lens fogged up to an unusable level.
   The next morning I join Yus on his shift at the guard post. It's a small house next to a metal gate with a narrow hallway and a small room with two chairs a table and a computer screen showing a live feed from the security cameras around the base. It's rather cosy in here with a small furnace warming the place up. The window is blacked out and one of the walls is fully covered in sandbags to protect the person on guard. The duration of their shifts changes depending on the time of day and ongoing activities but they do have a book in the common room with a schedule. Every man does have that duty eventually. The walls of the guardhouse are covered in carved out names, phrases, jokes and one or two swastikas. I've been looking at these for a while before I've decided to ask Yus what is up with that.
   Now I knew that Right Sector is known for being a far-right nationalist movement with strong anti-communist views when I started preparing for this project I just wasn't sure how far-right and how open they are about it. Turns out quite a bit. One of the reasons is historical. Ukraine has fought alongside Germany in world war two and one of the reasons for that was because it was a way for them to get rid of the Soviet Union. Now a similar idea is in place as all they want is to be completely independent of Russia's influence. So even though there are swastikas on the walls or some of the men have SS tattoos and occasionally throw a Nazi salute around it is for different reasons than in the western countries. Mainly to symbolise the historical anti-Soviet or anti-communist and now anti-Russian rebellion. The men here do not care what race or religion you are. I am told the whole reason for this is their fight with Russia which has been threatening to the existence of Ukraine ever since its founding.
   Now I do not want to seem like I am trying to defend their views nor attack them. I am merely conveying what I was told. The men didn't try and hide their views from me and omitting them from this story would feel like lying. Important note though is the fact that only a few of them mentioned this to me or talked to me about this. The majority didn't seem to care and didn't show any signs of these opinions, therefore, I can't tell whether it is a common occurrence or just a few individuals.
   Later that day it was time for tactical training. Two units get geared up in their body armours and winter camouflage and head out onto the road outside the dormitory. Waiting for the rest takes a while so that gives them time to mess around a bit, joke about their experiences, take photos for Instagram or to teach me a couple of rude Ukrainian phrases.
   One of the units is off to the side to train setting up and aiming a mortar launcher. They are using an android tablet to help them with the calculations of angles as they are learning which way to divide by negative numbers and which way by positive numbers.
   The other unit is the assault squad honing their tactical knowledge in terms of formations, reloading whilst on the move, cover fire or the buddy system. Safety is key here and therefore the unit commander checks every weapon and magazine personally to ensure there is not a single round in there to be fired accidentally. The fighters always keep their fingers off the triggers even when the guns are empty for good practice. They all seem to be reasonable in terms of weapon awareness.
   The training starts with two men covering one another as they are reloading, moving forward or retreating. Then they do the same with two doubles, trios and eventually, the entire squad of ten men move in unison covering every possible angle whilst allowing safe reloading for the ones with no more ammo in their magazines. Occasionally the commander throws a smoke grenade on the ground to worsen the visibility or shouts a grenade alert to force the men to disperse and get down as fast as possible to lessen the impact of the imaginary grenade. Some of the men moving on the outside of the group find this quite enjoyable as they jump into the piles of snow accumulated from all the shovelling.
   The last thing to work on is fitness. A circle is formed around the commander with everyone still wearing full gear and the training session is closed with a couple of rounds of jumping jacks, push-ups and other exercises. Three of the guys end up recording a funny Instastory in the snow since they're already geared out.
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   Next thing on the program was another celebration. A birthday one at that. Natali has prepared a chocolate cake, most of the men squeeze into the small common room and the man of the hour brings a few jars of kompot to help with the cake. His nickname is Chechov and he's turning 25. DaVinci is the first one to wish him happy birthday following my the rest of his comrades with one handshake after another. Chechov slices the cake and passes it around to everyone in the room including me. DaVinci is playing what seems to be his first ever game of backgammon with an experienced opponent but thanks to being told the rules beforehand ends up winning and is visibly happy about that. The men chat, celebrate and enjoy the moment. The camaraderie is clearly strong here.
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   The next morning I'm woken up early by one of the men I can't seem to remember the name of even though he's told me many times. He gestures putting on body armour and a helmet telling me we're going to positions. Once I'm ready I see the small group I'm going with still smoking cigarettes and drinking tea, the sun still hasn't shown up. The rest is still fast asleep. An old 120mm mortar launcher constructed back in 1938 is loaded and we head out. The drive takes roughly forty minutes through a snow-covered countryside. Eventually, we drive off road onto a field which doesn't seem like the best idea as we're just in a regular minivan but the commander's Land Rover is clearing the path before us a little bit.
   Once we get far enough from the town and close enough to the line the men grab the shovels and start clearing some of the snow from the field in three spots. One for the mortar launcher, one for a tripod with a sight to make sure the launcher is set up straight and one to give the cars room to turn around. Setting up the mortar launcher takes at least three men. The barrel is large, heavy and needs to be mounted onto a pair of piston compressed legs. After a good portion of an hour of making sure the weapon is straight and well levelled they notice me getting my earplugs out of my pocket and I'm told it's not to be used today. Today is just the test of the sights and a trial run of how fast they are capable of setting it up.
   On the way back we head to an abandoned village called Spartak which is directly on the frontline. I am not allowed to take photographs to not give positions away so I just follow the men running between the houses knee-deep in snow hoping to not get hit by the ever-present sniper fire. We get into a rather large house where one of the men climbs over an old fridge and a makeshift ladder to a little space directly under the roof. It is most likely a sniper nest as he picked up some camo nets and we headed back to the Land Rover. Running as fast as we can trying not to trip in the snow I'm suddenly stopped by the fighter I'm following as he tells me "Foto sabachika" and points to a golden retriever in front of us. I snap a few images and then keep running to get out of this long and open shooting range making me feel like a fish in a barrel. The dog makes that a bit hard as it's constantly stopping in front of me trying to get a belly rub or two. Once we're back in the car the driver asks what the hell were we doing staying on the road so long and when he's told what happened by the man who stopped me he just shakes his head at him and apologises to me. "It's fine." I say.
   We're back at the base and life still hasn't picked up much. Many of the men are still asleep, some are just cleaning their guns, skyping home, petting the cats or watching television. In the afternoon they arrange their weapons into the shape of the Right Sector crest with the two AKs on the sides and an RPG standing in the position of the sword. Some ammunition is laid out on a wooden box next to it to look like a crowd and the guys record a meme for Instagram to a "Someone like you" song by Adele. They seem very entertained and huddle up on an armchair to watch peoples reactions to it once it's shared.
   Later in the evening when the room is dark I can only see their faces illuminated by their phone screens. They are shouting at one another. Not arguing though. A game of PUBG is being played on their phones and they are just giving each other instructions or calling enemies out as they are playing a squad game. The goal is to survive against a hundred players on a large map and they manage to do so.
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   A delivery arrives the next day. An off-road truck filled with fruits and vegetables and a large lorry loaded with briquettes, food, water, and plenty of other necessities. This has all been given to the company by the people of Ukraine from their own pockets as well as from the church. Every pair of hands lines up by the back of the lorry to unload it as quickly as possible as the temperature has risen above zero which turned the snow into an annoying rain. An hour and a drenched set of clothes later everything is in and I know which shop to never use for weatherproof jackets anymore.  The drivers now bring Ukrainian flags into the workshop laying them down onto a table. The flags are covered with signatures from other battalions and are about to be signed some more. I'm told it is for the people that have donated as a thank you for the supplies.
   The previous few days have been fairly relaxing to the men but now Christmas is over and time to do some work is here. Maintenance is on the program of the day. The smaller 4x4s need bigger wheels with more winter oriented tires, the van needs the brakes checked, the bigger Ford F250 is defrosted and cleaned of snow. Now it is time for the large trucks. Old Soviet Ural and UAZ vehicles are started up, defrosted, the engines are checked and a sorely needed oil change is done. After a drive around the compound, it's clear what works and what needs more fixing. The chimney for the main dormitory furnace is cleared as well as it was filled with ice and blocked. We can finally have heat inside again after a freezing morning.
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   Another morning, another trip to the positions. This time I'm travelling in an ambulance with the paramedic team which consists of three young girls Alna, Nastya, Uliya, and the driver who hasn't given me his name. The ambulance is a modern Volkswagen equipped for pretty much any emergency situation. I sit on the bed as there are not enough seats. It takes us roughly two hours to arrive at our destination. It's close to Horlivka, a town north of Donetsk which is a couple of kilometres from the frontline. We stay parked on the side of the road as the rest of the trucks and vans continues to the battle positions. The ambulance is to wait nearby in case there is an emergency and their help is needed. It seems like it's going to be a long one so the girls all move into the back of the van, get comfortable and start playing music from the Bluetooth speaker.
   It seems like we're going to be here for a while. Nastya is quietly drifting away on Uliya's shoulder, Alina is getting comfortable on the bed trying to get some sleep and Uliya has turned the music off so the girls can have some rest whilst the driver is playing games on his phone listening to the occasional radio chatter. A couple of military vehicles drive past every once in a while which can be recognised by the black license plates and occasionally an old civilian Žigulik tries to conquer the snow-covered roads. It is an old Soviet car from the seventies known as either Lada 1500 or VAZ 2103. Very common in this part of Europe. Cheap, does the job, and can be fixed easily in case something breaks down. It only makes sense for it to last so long.
   Every once in a while I recognise the voices and the names on the radio. Looks like the mortar team is closing in on their position to test out the mortar launcher. They are a couple of kilometres away so there is no way of hearing whether they are actually firing it or not. Approximately two hours later the first 4x4 returns. It's occupied by DaVinci and Bezsmertnyy. The name translates to Immortal and that is what is sprayed on the front of his off-road followed by the Punisher skulls on the rearview mirrors. They seem to be happy with the test saying it worked as they hoped for and showed me a phone photo of the weapon set up with a pile of neatly stacked 120mm shells next to a group of men proudly posing. After a while of talking the radio sounds a signal telling the men that it's time to return to base and we head out. Luckily the ambulance was not needed today.
   Not a lot has happened in the last few days. I was promised a visit to the frontlines to be able to photograph the 120mm mortar launcher in action but it has never happened in the end. Some of the men have left to go back to civilian life, some new faces have shown up. The temperature has dropped and not much has been going on except the last day when all the unused AK-74 rifles were fished out of the storage to be thoroughly cleaned and prepared for use. Each man received 3 rifles to bring back to life. Some were in a pretty bad condition and seemed like they were never cleaned, some looked well maintained and even customised with rails, improved stocks or holographic sights. The rooms smelled of oil and vaseline after hours of scrubbing the gunfire residue of the barrels and internals.
   I've been thinking for a while about how to end this story but the problem is there is no end. Still. The war is rolling over into its fifth year with no clear signs of ever being resolved. People are still dying, civilians in the region are still restricted and in danger and the country is still halted from entering new alliances due to not being entirely stable. The upcoming presidential election is in full swing and only time will show how much of a difference will that make.