Ukrainian reservists shift from civilian life to war zone battlefields

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MUKACHEVO, Ukraine — At the end of January, The Washington Post interviewed four members of Ukraine’s 130th territorial defense battalion in Kyiv: regular citizens who spent their weekends preparing for a full-scale war with Russia – a prospect many people at the time found doubtful.

Fast forward three months: Moscow has launched the largest conflict in Europe since World War II, large swaths of the country lie in ruins and thousands have been killed in the fighting.

And the battalion’s members are now battle-tested veterans.

All four have returned to the front, as Russia launches a major offensive in eastern Ukraine. The Post spoke with three of the four men earlier this month during a break in fighting and discussed their baptism by fire.

Oleksiy Bida, 48

Bida, a graphic designer originally from Luhansk, woke up at five in the morning of Feb. 24 to the sound of Russian rockets striking Kyiv. His family was able to figure out what to do.

While he stretched tape over the windows to protect them from blasts, his wife, Yulia, and Yulia’s mother, Tanya, quickly gathered their things to leave Kyiv with the couple’s infant, Simon.

A friend arrived shortly to take them by car to western Ukraine. Bida said goodbye to them and headed for the prearranged meeting point of his battalion in Kyiv.

“Everything according to plan,” he said.

That Russian forces launched a multipronged attack surprised him. He believed that Moscow would invade first the eastern region of the country. He said, “I believed that they would change to Kyiv later.”

For two weeks, Bida’s part of the battalion fought in the Kyiv suburbs of Irpin and Bucha, which saw some of the heaviest action, and where evidence was later discovered of horrific atrocities by Russian forces. Bida stated that the Russians were relentless and indecisive with their shelling, which continued for two weeks before they retreated from Kyiv.

“To say that their shelling was directed at our positions – no,” Bida said. They shot all over the city, randomly shooting residential and industrial areas. Cars and buildings were on fire all around us.”

The many weekends of training helped prepare him “and then some,” he said. He also learned new skills, such as how to move under fire. He said, “You know the range of the bombardment, and you can move wall to wall if it isn’t in our direction.”

Bida thinks that the Russians’ supplies “aren’t limitless,” which will decide the war in the Ukrainians’ favor, and “gradually” they’ll regain control over Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014.

“I plan to go there for my next birthday, as I’ve always done,” he said.

Yaroslav Mudryk, 43

Mudryk, a Kyiv-based account manager for the New York-based company International Flavors and Fragrances, was “morally prepared” for the war. He said, “I had expected it.”

As he heard the first explosions, he remembers asking himself, “Are you ready?” and answering: “Yes, I’m ready.”

“Then go and do what you’re supposed to do,” he said to himself.

When he arrived at the battalion gathering point, he was overwhelmed by the “lines of people waiting to sign up” to fight.

Mudryk said that the battalion normally consisted of around 540 fighters. He said that the number of new recruits increased “by many folds” but did not give any specific figures. The recruits weren’t able to handle a gun.

“They weren’t prepared to fight,” Mudryk said. “They hadn’t been taught anything, and we had to teach a lot of them from the very beginning, because their skills are their survival.”

Mudryk said that among his group of fighters there have been losses, but he can’t speak for the entire battalion. The commander of Mudryk‚Äôs platoon died in a battle against a Russian tank. Four fighters were also wounded.

“Out of seven of us, two were in one piece in the end,” he said.

Later, he suffered shrapnel wounds from mortar fire. He said that he felt an injury to his face from mortar fire. “We stopped the bleeding and continued my work.” “I found out about the fragments later when they did a CT scan on my face in Kyiv.”

Mudryk hopes to visit the United States when the war ends. He said that he had friends in the USA and would like to visit Miami, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. But, first, Ukraine has to defeat Russia.

“If we let the Russians go now, sooner or later they’ll want to return — they always do that,” he said. They must be defeated to the end — till our victory is complete. There’s no other way.”

Maryana Zhaglo, 52

Zhaglo, a market researcher, said her training prepared her well for the battles she faced, but in the beginning, the frequent explosions threw her off. She said, “That was unanticipated.” It can be very difficult on the psyche. But with time it becomes a usual thing.”

Before the war, she said, Western journalists visiting the battalion would ask her what she would do under Russian occupation. This scenario, she said, was not possible and that it wasn’t surprising that the Russians drove her back.

What surprised her instead was the response of Ukrainian society, which she had believed would be “apathetic” and would prefer “to stay on the sidelines” if an invasion happened. She said, “I was very suspicious of my compatriots.”

Today, she admits her mistake. She says that she encounters the same attitude among all Ukrainians on a daily basis: “This is our homeland, this is our land, our family, our children, our parents.”

“I’m not fighting for money or that someday there will be some kind of reward,” she said. “And this is exactly what any person who has a family, who has a house, who has something to lose will do.”

Her three children were in a “safe spot” away from Kyiv, while she and her husband, who is also fighting, remained. She said that both of them have their assignments.

“There were hot moments in the beginning of the invasion – Russian (forces) managed to enter Kyiv,” she said. Thank God the situation has calmed down. But we are reacting to everything.”

She thinks that there will be many more battles to come. She says, “This is the calm before the storm.” “There will be withdrawals, and more hot days, and there won’t be a quick end of the war.”

“But in the end, we’ll win anyway,” she said.

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