Independence Day

There are too many people with guns in this hospital. It is full of soldiers and the odd journalist nursing bullet and shrapnel wounds – one of them is a dear friend of mine. This war is getting too close; sometimes it seems as though any injured child here has been pulled out of a bombed building, as though every man with a limp must be back from the frontline.

But for now anyway, it’s still true that most people in Ukraine are in fact just going about their usual violent, accident-prone business, falling off buildings and under cars, getting beaten up by family or random strangers.

Most of the soldiers here were civilians going about their ordinary accident-prone business until a few months ago. Sergei, injured fighting in Ilovaisk last week with the volunteer Azov battalion, says “My life is completely different to this. I’m not from the military, if someone had told me last year that this year I’d be holding a gun in my hand, I wouldn’t have believed them. I was never interested, I never needed this. I had a life: work, a family.”

He still has a life – for now. He still has a family, who don’t know where he is or that he’s been injured. The work he’s decided he needs to be doing right now is fighting to protect his country from attack, from people he says picked up guns first, because “We have to even the odds.”

Of all Ukraine’s volunteer battalions, the Azov has one of the worst reputations. It is said to be full of extreme neo-Nazis. I can’t find a trace of extremism in Sergei. He’s a friendly blue-eyed sales director who believes he has to protect his country from Russian aggression, and ended up in hospital because his scant two months paramilitary training was set against (he says) professional Russian soldiers and mercenaries.

“It’s not entirely just,” he says, “putting volunteers against professionals. But someone has to fight for the country.”

I’m sitting in the ward typing up my story when the man in the next bed to Sergei asks me “What are you going to write about? I’m just asking since it’s because of your country that there’s a war here.”

He’s in his 30s, about the same age as Sergei. I think he must be a wounded soldier from the Ukrainian army or special forces – a career military man who leaves the ideals to the volunteers; this is his life, his job.

But in fact he says he is just someone from nearby Dniprozherzhinsk who got in a random accident. And his view on what is happening in Ukraine could not be more different from Sergei’s.

He talks about how in Dniprozherzhinsk men are being taken right from the riverside beaches and forced into the Ukrainian army. He repeats the story I’ve heard from many people in East Ukraine this last week – that the conflict has nothing to do with Russia, but is provoked and fuelled by the West which wants to get its sticky paws on the shale gas that lies under this region.

“I just don’t understand,” he says, staring out of the window. “The only reason I’d go and fight would be to protect my land from attack. Not because of shale gas.”

These two men lying side by side in their hospital beds are divided by an ideological fence – a fence that has created this war. But they are not arguing about it. Maybe it’s just that they’re too doped up on painkillers to be able to hate. They call each other by the most familiar short versions of their names. They help each other get slowly round the ward with their various injuries, they share tea bags.

It is a beautiful, hopeful thing to see. But it also makes me sad, because pretty much everything in Ukraine is so sad these days. Here in this hospital ward these two have found… tolerance, I think (that word that President Putin so despises). Despite their differences they have nothing to fight about here, because they have something stronger in common – and that something, I guess, is pain.

It was Ukrainian Independence day yesterday. Every country should be able to decide its own future, independent of the imperial and economic pressures and aggressions of others. But at the same time, no one of us – whether individual or nation – is truly independent. We all need help when we get hurt.

Shrapnel from Slavyansk

Shrapnel from Slavyansk


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