Photographer Christopher Occhicone recently visited a paramilitary unit in Ukraine. He related his experiences there to In Sight:
In the now abandoned industrial outskirts of Avdiivka, Ukraine, the 74th battalion of the Ukrainian army maintains several small positions within 100 meters of those held by separatists troops of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). Despite the conditions of the Minsk ceasefire agreement, separatists continue to fire 82mm,120mm and 152mm shells, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns into the area. They have also deployed snipers. The strategy is to destroy the remaining buildings so that Ukrainian troops can entrench and fortify their positions.
“The soldiers on the ground believe that the separatists, who have suffered heavy casualties, are panicked; thinking that Ukrainian forces are preparing to move into the gray zone. Control of the zone means control of the road to Horlivka and the train station, both essential for supplies coming to Donetsk. On the other side, the city of Avdiivka is also strategically important. It is home to the only functioning coke plant. If it is lost again or destroyed, the Ukrainian steel industry will come to a halt.
An unpaid volunteer unit belonging to Right Sector maintains one of the positions and fights alongside the regular army. It is a tight-knit group who have fought together in nearly every major battle of the war and have yet to suffer a casualty. Despite benign code names like Santa, Donut, Newt, Martin, Jar and Shaman, they maintain a reputation for bravery and discipline. As the battle for Avdiivka escalates, they take shifts operating defensive weapons outside the relative safety of their bunker. Days and nights are long and restless as shells pound the area randomly. At night, they operate in complete darkness and silence for fear of giving away their positions.
Meanwhile, below ground in the basement bunker, they nervously wait out the shelling. Even indirect hits shake the foundation, and direct hits threaten the the integrity of the building. Despite the hardships, the group has made a decision to remain independent and unpaid. So, while they are free to come and go as they please, they routinely choose to man the most dangerous positions. Despite the dangers, the local army commander, inspired by their confidence, has taken up residence with the volunteers.
Their position has also become a social hub on the front line. They have a reputation for doing their jobs with a smile and for having some of the best food on the front. Soldiers from other positions come to coordinate operations that could otherwise be done over the radio or electronically in order to enjoy their company and a meal.
As the political situation in Ukraine continues to change, the Right Sector volunteers understand their role in the war is precarious. The army command regularly denies permission to fire into the gray zone. However, as freelance soldiers, they have occasionally made the decision to fire at DNR troops seen delivering weapons to the front line. While this endears them to regular army soldiers, they know that they can easily be used as a political tool. While a blind eye is turned to certain ceasefire violations they know they can just as easily be blamed for undermining the ceasefire. They understand that their own government may one day turn its back on them. But they say that they don’t fight for the government, but for the idea of Ukraine.