Інтерв’ю з танкістом Сергієм Кушніром у рамках проекту “Серця, обпалені війною”

Serhiy with his tank
Пропонуємо вашій увазі друге інтерв’ю із циклу  “Серця, обпалені війною”. На цей раз співрозмовником став Сергій Кушнір, бойовий танкіст, який пізнав вогонь війни та жахіття полону, зраду з боку близьких людей і випробування мирного життя.
Нагадаємо, що автором і творцем цього проекту є 17-річний український хлопець Павло, який в силу життєвих обставин уже десять років проживає в Токіо. Однак, не забув і не відцурався ні від своїх коренів, ні від своєї мови, ні від своєї війни.
Отож нижче наводимо текст зазначеного інтерв’ю англійською мовою.

CHAPTER 2: SERHIY KUSHNIR

The second interview is with a tank driver who fought in one of the most tragic fights of this war to date, namely, the Second Battle for the Donetsk Airport, which took place in January 2016. He was responsible for the destruction of several spots of strategic importance for the enemy, and was subsequently captured and held there for a month.

“Let’s start from the beginning. Who were you before the war, and what was your life shaping into?”

“Well, I finished school – actually, it’s quite close to here, the #25th community college of Kyiv – where I studied for 3 professions (tiler, veneer, painter-plasterer). After that, I worked a bit in this field, but I didn’t really like the job that much. Later, I joined the army, and spent one and a half years learning how to be a mechanic-driver of a howitzer unit. After the army, I worked as a security guard for two years, got married, and had two kids. Once I had enough of being a security guard, I moved on to making furniture for a while. In 2013, I became a security guard, but this time it wasn’t guarding the shop, it was a private/hired security work which I still do to this day. Back to 2014, though. I was called to arms three times in total, but they only accepted me for the third time. I remember asking if I was going into any sort of branch or not, and they laughed, saying that I got into the tank division even though I wanted to be in the artillery at first. And in 2014, I had to start getting used to the tank, since I would be the mechanic and the driver of the tank, as we would soon go to battle on the frontlines.”

Serhiy in the army

“Is this already during the time of the battle for the Donetsk Airport?”

“The Donetsk Airport? Yes. When we were blowing up the Putylivskiy Bridge – it was the 18th of January, 2015 – we also blew up two enemy BTRs and then the bridge itself, which was important for the enemy as it was their only way to go from the city to the airport. In that battle 4 of our tankers were captured. There was a prisoner exchange not long time ago, and the last member from my tank finally came home. Later, I went to see him in the hospital… I guess that’s that.”

Serhiy reunited with the last member

“In the whole time that you were in the army, was there a loss that was particularly close to you, like a friend or a commander?”

“There were losses, but some of them were because of drunken stupidity. Those weren’t losses in the battle – just losses because of stupidity. Some others…even turned out to be suicidal. As for when the soldiers started coming back here to live a normal civilian life…they started to die one by one. How can I say this exactly…there weren’t exactly any losses explicitly from the battle. I just waited to get all of our soldiers back from capture, which is why I always went to meetings that would promote that. Even today, I still help out in other things from time to time. Mainly, there were no losses from the battle.”

“What would you say was the ratio of our forces compared to the enemy forces – were they even in terms of firepower, or was one side lacking?”

“In that battle, they had a huge advantage simply because we were attacking and not retreating, and they were also familiar with the area. When we were advancing towards the bridge, we had to travel two kilometres through the village without really knowing its layout. Once we started retreating, enemy tanks started advancing from all over the place – from the back streets, the alleys, you name it… Eventually, they encircled us, leading to my capture…We also had the massive issue of poor contact as well as bad spatial awareness of the surroundings. All the commanders did was show us a map, show us what point to capture, and that was it, that was what we had to do. And we ended up doing that. In that village, though, we were sitting ducks. We had no cover, nor any reinforcements, meaning that the Russians could bombard us with grenade launchers and we would be done for.”

“How long did the battle last for?”

“Somewhere from two to three hours.”

“From what I hear, your release from capture was quite fast?”

“I was there for a month. The first tanker was there for a week, maybe one and a half weeks passed until his release. After that came mine.”

“So we can say that that battle was the most intense experience of the war for you?”

“Yes, very much so.”

“Before I ask you about how war changed you as a person, could I ask you about how it felt and what happened in the time when you were captured?”

“When I was captured..I was beaten up a bit. The worst of all, though, was them saying that my tankers were scattered on the sides of the road, dead. In that way, they were trying to destroy my morale. Recently, I found a photo on the internet and recognized myself. I was among many prisoners in the photo.”

One of the photos Serhiy found

“So the Russians are posting this everywhere?”

“This photo in particular was found on some sort of English website and was reposted. When I saw this and recognized myself, I instantly saved it.”

“I can’t say that I would have expected anything better from Russia… Let’s talk about life after the war. How did the war shape you as a person? Not physically, but morally.”

“Well…everyone thought that I would break. Everyone was worried because they thought that that would happen. At first, when I was exchanged from capture, I did struggle a bit for around 6 months to adapt back to normal life. What I still don’t understand is that others were morally destroyed from this experience, while I somehow held up alright. Technically, my life is as it always was. After those 6 months, I found a volunteer movement and helped them out for a while. After that, I heard that there was a group of war veterans just like myself, and went there as well. I worked as a clerk in a office for 2-3 years there and acted as someone who would tell the other soldiers about what kind of things they need to obtain in order to get settled back to normal life smoothly. I told all this to the fourth, fifth, and sixth wave of soldiers that came back from capture so that they would have it easier.”

Serhiy on the frontlines

“Did war explicitly change your quality of life?”

“I think it changed the quality of life for everyone. I had many civilian friends, but now I only ever talk with two of them. As for the others, I talk with them quite rarely. My life itself changed, with me getting government pay for my “disabled” status as well as my pension. I also got an apartment (which I’m trying to customize right now, but as they say, more important stuff presents itself), some compensation for my injuries in the war, and a car, since I really don’t feel comfortable using public transport. Right now, I might even buy myself an electric scooter.”

“While this war continues (and I doubt that it’ll finish anytime soon), what do you dream of the most? That is, except for the war to end, because we’re all wishing for that.”

“For me…of course, I wish for peace, because our boys are out there dying, and it’s sad to see them go and to bury them, to see the tears of their parents, and that’s the saddest part of it. Other than that, I already made myself a list of the things that I wanted, and slowly bought all of it. That is, to get a metal detector, to get a dog, a car, and a garage. So yeah, I guess I’m finished with everything – oh, right, I forgot the electric scooter!”

“Alright, on to our next point. We all know how this war started, but what would you say is necessary in order to finish it? This view matters from person to person, which is why I’d like to hear your opinion on it.”

“Let’s start with the fact that war is actually a business of sorts. Someone benefits from it and gets money, while others dig with a shovel and die, so money to them is worthless. They sold, sell, and will sell more arms and shells. When it all ends, I have no clue how the Donetsk and Luhansk regions will react, whether they will stay separate or they’ll join back Ukraine. Of course, I can’t see the latter happening, because when I was captured and taken around all those squares, I saw how people there were being treated. We had to work for a power station where we would fill up bags with sand and then put those everywhere so that when an artillery shell would hit, the sandbag would soak it up and the power in Donetsk would still be operational. They also had artillery of their own close to that power station, where they were shooting us with the area of Donetsk in its trajectory, so they could also hold their own people in constant fear. Of course, they then say that we are responsible for all the shelling in Donetsk. I can’t imagine, how, even if there is peace between us, how we will have good relations. We have our own truth, they have theirs. While in capture, we listened to both the Donetsk radio and the Ukrainian radio. The Donetsk one says that they killed 30 Ukrainians and injured 30 while our radio is saying that 20 were killed while 15 were injured. That should give you an example of what kind of information they’re feeding their people. To answer your question, I’m still not entirely sure what to do. I just don’t know.”

“What would you like the world to know about this whole situation in Ukraine?”

“I’m certain that the world knows about it. It’s just that it doesn’t really care. I guess it all comes down to the fact that many countries signed agreements to guarantee peace between Ukraine and Russia, but when Crimea was annexed in 2014, they didn’t even bat an eyelash. It’d be nice if they could care enough to help us.”

“I mean, if the world can’t even get together and collectively address global warming, I doubt that they’ll be able to do anything about Ukraine. When the war ends, would you like to go back to the east and see how that region has changed?”

“Well, first of all, it ending in one or two years is one thing, but there will still be a lot of shells lying around, waiting to explode. All those regions will need to be cleared of mines so that people can safely move around, as those shells will explode at some point. For at least a year or two after peace begins, that region will need to be watched over for sure. As for whether I want to go back there…Yeah, I’d like to go back there and see the bridge I brought down. I know there’s literally nothing of it left now, but I’d still like to go anyway. In short, yes, I would go back to all those places we fought in.”

Serhiy with other war veterans

“We know that our current president Zelensky is planning to put an end to this war. Obviously, that means that there’ll have to be some sort of agreement with Putin and the Kremlin. So, do you think that the soldiers on the ground fighting there would support this plan?”

“The Ukrainian soldiers would gladly just shoot Putin.”

“Second of all – would you trust Putin? I’m pretty sure I know your answer, but still…”

“Of course not.”

“Do you think it would be possible after this to integrate the Donbass area back into Ukraine?”

“You obviously know that the people supporting Ukraine either quickly escaped from that region or stayed behind to fight. Many of the people there had businesses, and the separatists took it all from them, leading them to fight so that they could get back what was theirs. I’m sure that those people want to come back there, back to their homes, which by now would have certainly been inhabited by someone else. To tell the truth, I honestly can’t see a future for Ukraine there.”

“Do you think that the people in the Donbass region under the rule of the separatists, who listen to Russian media, would be happy to take the Russian flag upon themselves, in the same way that Crimea did?”

“I think it all comes down to the authorities in control, namely the ones in the DNR. They’ve built up quite a bit of debt over the years, so if they were to come back to Ukraine, they would have had to pay all of it along with interest. A friend of mine who’s also a veteran (currently working as a teacher) had some debt built up in a Russian bank, so when the collectors call him and tell him to give back his money, he says to them that they’re an aggressor against Ukraine, and that he won’t give back the money because he doesn’t want it to be used to kill Ukrainians. Essentially, that’s his way of telling them to go to hell.”

“Probably would’ve been more entertaining if he told them to give back the Donbass and then a piece of Russia, and that then he would pay off his debts. So, in these past 6 years of war (2014-2020), we’ve lost many people – soldiers, civilians, and many more. Do you think that it’ll be worth it at the end of it all?”

“I would say that it will be worth it. The thing is, a lot of civilians here have the mindset that the army seems to only care about defending all these politicians. In fact, I’m fighting for much more than that – my family, my friends, everyone. I went there to make sure that they would never get this far. And yet, they believe that that is the only truth and run away from conscription. Everyone has their own reasons. When I try to explain this to them, they still don’t understand and say that I fought for those politicians that are still in office. That’s their mindset in a nutshell.”

“Well, they’re just stubborn.”

“What kind of role does the Russian Orthodox Church play in this whole thing? I’ve heard that they’re using the Church as an incentive in the army, so I’d like to know to which extent the Church takes part in this war.”

“First of all, yes, they do play a role. Some pastors from the Russian Orthodox Church don’t even want to bury Ukrainian soldiers which die on the battlefields.”

“So you’re saying that they act as chaplains there?”

“Well, if you were to listen to our “propaganda”, then there’s a lot of FSB involvement. Of course, with every joke that is made, there is some grain of truth behind it. Some of these Russian Orthodox people even want to participate against us on the frontlines. Of course, everyone has their own reasons. I know a person who frequently goes to the east and blesses the fallen, regardless of who they were fighting for.”

“Do you feel that we’re winning so far?”

“No..I think we’re just holding them off.”

“Do you think that we will win when we gain back this territory from Russia?”

“Well, once we take back the Donbass area, I’m not sure if we’ll win yet, because there’s also Crimea. We’ll also need to invest heaps into there, because a lot of infrastructure and industry is simply gone because of Russia. We’ll lose a lot in the end, that’s for sure; but we will win in the fact that we’ll stand our ground successfully.”

Serhiy with his tank

“Do you think that our soldiers are ready to sacrifice their lives in order to end this war?”

“Yes. While I can’t say that this is the same for everyone (because everyone has their own breaking point), I was ready. If it hadn’t been for the fact that I have a family with kids, I likely would have died there.”

“So the majority would have been ready?”

“The majority, yes. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can say the same nowadays, because for a lot of people now it is a way of earning money, while others simply believe that they are doing the right thing. There’s also people that come from the villages because they were ordered to, and volunteers that come and treat it like it’s a vacation. Everyone has their own…style, so to say. Everyone thinks differently.”

“When you were standing on the frontlines, and saw all those collapsed mineshafts, abandoned villages, cities, destroyed bridges, you looked past many things – fear, torture, tragedy. Was there anything else that kept you going until the end? I know that you already answered this a bit, but I’d like to know if there was anything else that fueled you.”

“Like I said, I fought in that territory so they couldn’t get here, and my family wouldn’t have to see all of the things that happened there. The most scary thing of all is when children see this, feel it all, and then have lasting impacts for the rest of their lives….and for me, that’s what I feared most.”

Serhiy today

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