Just a week ago I met a group of young people who signed up to volunteer at a recruitment center in Kiev to fight for Ukraine.
Most of them were teenagers, not long ago high school graduates. They told me that, after three days of basic training, they would go to the front, or very close to it.
Maksym Lutsyk, a 19-year-old biology student, told me he wasn’t fazed by trying to become a soldier with less than a week of preparation. He would make it, after five years as a young scout (scout), where he not only learned survival techniques but also a little about the use of weapons.
He was 10 years old when the long war with Moscow-backed separatists began in 2014..
Maksym was enrolling with his friend Dmytro Kisilenko, 18, who was studying economics at the same university.
These recruits were like any group of young people who decide to stop being children, laughing too hard when someone told a joke to hide their nerves, or acting like bullies.
Some had knee pads that seemed to be too small for them, as if they had arrived on the skateboards they received for their 12th birthday. Others had sleeping bags. One had a yoga mat.
Waiting for the bus that would take them to the training base, they looked like friends on their way to a festival, if it weren’t for the guns. They had each been given a Kalashnikov assault rifle..
I have been in contact with Dmytro and Maksym and the other volunteers. This weekend I went to visit them where they were stationed at the eastern end of the city, where they had been given uniforms, bulletproof vests, helmets and real infantry knee pads.
A strong wind blew through the checkpoint volunteers tried to strengthen with sandbags and anti-tank steel barricades. They made the most of their very basic training.
Dmytro told me: “I got used to my gun. I learned how to shoot it and how to react in battle, as well as many other things that will be very crucial in combat with the Russians.” He smiled, as if it was hard for her to imagine what he was looking at.
Maksym seemed more urgent, more serious, less like a relaxed student.
“I feel much more confident than before, because we received enough knowledge in tactics, martial arts, tactical medicine and how to do things on the battlefield.” Half jokingly, he said that he wanted to see the Ukrainian flag flying in the Kremlin.
The question everyone is asking is whether the battle will come closer to Kiev.
“It’s definitely possible,” Dmytro said. “What we have to do is stop them, because if they get to Kiev this war could end.”
They both come from the same town near the border with Russia, which is being bombed. Their families are still there. I asked the young people what their parents thought of what they were doing. Maksym joked that his mother had told her to stay in a shelter and volunteer to cook food.
He hadn’t told them about his work because he didn’t want them to worry.
Dmytro’s parents did know what he was doing. He began his volunteering making Molotov cocktails and after a few days he called his dad to tell him that he had decided to join the territorial defense force. Her father told him not to try to be a hero.
“My parents,” said Dmytro, “are proud of what I am doing.” He looked delighted. I asked him if he was afraid of what was coming.
“Not much, but it is human nature to be afraid, and of course deep in my soul I feel a little bit afraid, because nobody wants to die, even if it is for your country. So, death is not an option for us.”
Dmytro and Maksym talked about their dreams for the future, of having fun with friends, finishing their studies, having a career and finally a family.
Their parents must be praying that the plans, energies and even the lives of their children are not shattered by the brutal reality of war, like those of so many other generations of young people who went to fight in European wars.
Foreign journalists do not have access to young Russians who are a few kilometers across the front line. Many are believed to have been conscripts, not really told what is planned for them. Wars are mostly fought by young men.
I have no doubt that many young Russians in the war have such lofty aspirations as Dmytro and Maksym. One difference could be that they are less motivated to fight, though without the ability to properly report on that side, it’s hard to tell.
The two young Ukrainian students turned soldiers returned to their work at the checkpoint. The professional army finds itself a few kilometers further on directly confronting the Russians.
But if the Russian forces do arrive, like all volunteers, Maksym and Dmytro will be shooting from the trenches they helped dig around, where there are boxes of Molotov cocktails waiting to be used – old bottles filled with gasoline and bits of ground up Styrofoam and a rag by way of of fuse with which they hope to perhaps disable a tank.
If that doesn’t work, the NATO military alliance is sending thousands of much more sophisticated anti-tank weapons.
Everyone here in Kiev is looking forward to what is likely to be the crucial battle of the war: civilians in and out of uniform, alongside Maksym and Dmytro and the other volunteers preparing to fight with them.
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