The civilian fighters taking up arms on Ukraine’s front lines

Kyiv, Ukraine – Dmytro Moskalenko was 12 years old, the same age his son is today, when the Soviet Union collapsed three decades ago. Now, he fears his child will be thrown into a world he never wants to return to.

“I don’t want him to live in Soviet Union 2.0 … I want him to live in a free democratic country,” says the 43-year-old father who goes by the name Dima. He is sitting in a small cafe in Kyiv as Russian ground troops encircle his city and planes attack from the sky.

After nearly two decades working for a Western embassy in the Ukrainian capital, he left his job to become a soldier just days after Russia invaded at the end of February.

The soft-spoken Dima is nostalgic, and at times emotional, choking back tears and pausing to collect himself mid-conversation as he recounts the last three weeks of his life.

“I did not believe until the last moment that Putin would invade,” he says. “I really thought that he would never do such a crime [in the] geographical centre of Europe in the 21st century. But unfortunately, I was wrong.”

Dima is one of reportedly tens of thousands of people across Ukraine who have traded in their suits and laptops for army fatigues and AK-47s, joining the Territorial Defence Forces – volunteer military units of the armed forces – to try and stave off Russian troops.

Dima in his military uniform in the capital, Kyiv [Sam Mednick/Al Jazeera]

The Ukrainian government has barred men between the ages of 18 and 60, with a few exceptions, from leaving the country, forcing them to stay and fight or help the war effort in other ways. Many, like Dima, have never fought before; the minimal military training they’ve had was when they were in school. But most say that even if they hadn’t been made to stay, they would have chosen to.

The numbers wanting to take up arms to defend Ukraine have been so overwhelming that many told Al Jazeera they were turned away because units were full. Some remain on waiting lists.

Ukraine’s army – which numbered some 240,000 soldiers before the start of the war – has held up against Russian forces longer than expected. However, the war is intensifying, as Russia, which is accused of potential war crimes, targets civilians and hospitals and decimates and cuts off towns. At least 925 civilians have been killed according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, but the true number is likely higher. Nearly 10 million people (PDF) have been displaced, some 3.5 million to neighbouring countries, in what the UN has called the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since the second world war.

The ground offensive towards Kyiv had slowed after the initial invasion as Russian convoys stalled approximately 15 to 30 kilometres (nine to 18 miles) to the northwest and east of the city. But air attacks have escalated in recent days, several buildings have been hit by rockets, and people have been killed.

Strolling through downtown Kyiv with his colleagues – on one of the few occasions that he’s been allowed to leave the military base since joining – Dima points to the buildings and neighbourhoods where he went to school, played with friends and lived with his parents and sister, landmarks now reminiscent of another life.

Before the invasion, Kyiv was the busiest city in Ukraine, hosting concerts and exhibits and boasting a vibrant nightlife. The now-fortified capital of some three million people has largely emptied of residents; buildings are barricaded and windows taped; and the once-bustling streets are lined with checkpoints and Molotov cocktails waiting to be used. The soldiers who man the posts are sometimes friendly, at other times tense, as everyone braces for the onslaught of attacks.

Kyiv
The empty streets of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in March 2022 [Sam Mednick/Al Jazeera]

Several rounds of talks between Ukraine and Russia have yielded little. Some humanitarian corridors have been established and respected allowing people to be shuttled out of hard-hit towns, but hundreds of thousands remain trapped. Talks are ongoing, last week both sides signalled that progress had been made on plans to end the violence.

But as the war has endured for a month, the fighting shows little signs of abating.

Life under Soviet rule

As a child, Dima says he dreamed of leaving Ukraine.

Growing up under Soviet rule, television programmes decried the West and broadcast information about how the Soviet Union was the only free place on Earth, something Dima started questioning as he got older.

“I heard adults talk [about] politics and you know, as I was growing up, I was realising more and more that [everything wasn’t] true.”

He buried himself in Jules Verne novels, wishing he could go on adventures like the characters in the stories. Knowing that there were only a few ways someone could leave the Soviet Union, he told his parents he would join the military academy and become a sailor so he could see the world.

Ukrainian man
Dima walks around the capital, Kyiv [Sam Mednick/Al Jazeera]

When Dima thinks about life under Soviet rule, what stands out most were the long lines and uniformity, he says; how everyone dressed the same, and people’s apartments were styled with similar furniture because there was little choice.

Sometimes he and his father would break the rules and buy delicacy foods at a store his aunt ran for veterans, which was better stocked but prohibited access to the general public.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, Dima’s family struggled to survive. His father, who worked at a crystal factory, was often not paid for months. The factory’s owner would give him crystal in lieu of money and tell him to sell it at the market, Dima says.

But with time came more opportunity and Dima no longer felt he had to become a sailor to fulfil his dream of leaving the country. Instead, he studied linguistics at university in Kyiv focusing on speaking foreign languages like English and French, which he believed was his ticket out. He did an internship in the United Kingdom before returning to Ukraine and landing a job at a foreign embassy, which he is not authorised to name, where he has spent the last 18 years.

Dima still technically works at the embassy, and says the job has allowed him to fulfil his boyhood dream of travelling the world. He’s been to parts of Africa, the United States and Europe for work and family vacations. “[I] used to be happy with my life,” he sighs, “before [the war] started.”

The war has been traumatic for people across the country. Travelling to several front-line cities in March, Al Jazeera spoke to Ukrainians displaced from their homes and who watched relatives die trying to flee Russian air raids.

In the southern town of Mykolaiv, which has been bombarded by nearly daily air raids, the morgue was overflowing with bodies and had to leave some outside for relatives to retrieve because there was no space inside, said Mykola Chechmil who works at the morgue.

A man in front of a bombed building in Ukraine
A man stands in front of a neighbourhood in Bila Tserkva that was hit by air raids in early March [Sam Mednick/Al Jazeera]

Most people told Al Jazeera that while they weren’t surprised by Russia’s invasion, they were shocked at the scale and scope of the violence. Some said they thought it would only last a few days and be confined to the east, where conflict has been continuing since Russian-backed separatists began fighting in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

‘One room with 150 men’

When the first missiles struck Ukraine on February 24, Dima was at a hospital in Kyiv caring for his father-in-law who had a stroke a few days prior. “I was thinking, “OK, what do we do? What do we do?’” he says.

Most of the doctors and nurses had left to check on their families and he did not want to leave his father-in-law alone. So he moved him to his own house and then drove his son and parents to a safe location.

Deciding to fight was not a personal dilemma for Dima. The challenge was getting a unit to accept him because most were full, giving preference to people with past military experience, he says.

“I was kind of upset, very upset, because, you know, I wanted to help my country.” He had to call in a few favours and was finally able to join a unit in Kyiv.

Once he signed up, what scared him most was telling his wife. He first eased her into the idea by saying he’d be home from the base every night, but after arriving he called to tell her he wasn’t allowed to leave. Dima tries to speak to his wife and son twice a day. They both support his decision, he says; his son even told him he wished he were 18 so he could also join the fight.

When Dima was allocated a unit, overnight, he went from living in a two-bedroom flat with his family, to sharing a space with 150 men. “I’m not used to sleeping in one room with 150 men and waking up all together, going to brush our teeth, have breakfast, lunch and dinner at a certain time … Lots of things were, of course, unfamiliar for me, you know. Like I have to ask permission every time I go out, I have to ask permission if I can talk to someone,” he says.

Military barracks in Ukraine
Makeshift barracks on the outskirts of the centre of the capital, Kyiv for a group of Territorial Defence fighters (not Dima’s unit) [Sam Mednick/Al Jazeera]

Dima’s unit sleeps in bunk beds in the army barracks, waking every morning at 6:30am and eating breakfast together before being given the day’s agenda. Each day of training consists of learning a different skill – from clearing buildings, to shooting, to patrolling, to manning checkpoints and basic survival skills. The training is intense, but not too hard, he says.

In the evenings, Dima works at headquarters, creating lists of new military arrivals to ensure there’s enough food and equipment and to have a record of who is where, since troops are constantly moving and being deployed across the country.

Dima is good at taking orders, and says he trusts and fully relies on what his trainers teach him, even if many of them are half his age.

In the weeks since joining, he has learned how to assemble and disassemble a gun, approach buildings taken by the enemy, and apply first aid. But not everything is easy to absorb, he shares. For example, he was taught that if someone is shot at while helping a wounded soldier, they should use the injured person as a human shield.

“See how bad it sounds?” he says. “I hope that I will not have to be in a situation where I have to cover myself with a wounded battle buddy, but if it happens, I’ll be ready,” he adds matter of factly. He has also been taking advice from military friends abroad, such as counting the number of shots when firing a gun to maintain his concentration.

Since the start of the invasion, the entire country has rallied together in a war-time effort some conflict analysts said has not been seen anywhere since World War II.

In the town of Bila Tserkva, less than 100km (62 miles) south of the capital and one of the last gateways from which to send humanitarian and military assistance to Kyiv, a metal factory that once made parts for farming equipment and barbeques, is churning out armoured vests, anti-tank barriers and metal pieces for tourniquets – equipment to stop severe bleeding – free of charge.

Military armour
Military armour at a steel factory in Bila Tserkva. The factory used to make furniture and parts for tractors but now makes equipment for the war [Sam Mednick/Al Jazeera]

Across town, volunteer fighters and civilians flow in and out of the Territorial Defence headquarters, sorting donations of clothes, packaging medical kits and feeding exhausted newly trained soldiers.

“There’s two ways [to deal with the war] one way is just to sit and wait, the other is to fight,” says Mykola Surovskyi, a 37-year-old asparagus and wheat farmer turned fighter, who has only ever shot a gun with friends. He says he’s working on improving his aim during shooting practice before being deployed.

Volunteers scurry in and out of the kitchen at the volunteer headquarters preparing dinner for him and the other fighters. Seated on a chair after a long day of training, Surovskyi says he felt more at ease once he sent his seven-month-old son, seven-year-old daughter and wife to the country’s west where the situation is calmer.

‘I fear that I will not be back from a fight’

Active soldiers in Ukraine’s armed forces say they have limited time to train inexperienced fighters – sometimes up to 300 people a day, according to Andriy Reznik, a 41-year-old veteran soldier and trainer.

While many people want to fight, Reznik says not everyone will be allowed to continue past the training. “You can see in people’s eyes who’s ready” and the ones who are not are given other volunteer tasks, he adds.

Civilians across the country have already been doing anything they can to contribute to the war effort. Those who cannot fight are bringing soldiers food, constructing and delivering armour and coordinating the transfer of medicine and clothes to remote and inaccessible areas. Yet many civilians-turned-soldiers on the front lines tell Al Jazeera they lack equipment such as vests and helmets and say that without more Western help it will be hard to maintain the fight.

In different locations, several civilian fighters with the Territorial Defence Force told Al Jazeera there is a heavy infiltration of Russian spies, or “saboteurs” as they are called, who write messages using invisible ink on walls or attach beacons to strategic objects that transmit signals to missiles as to their location. However, this could not be independently verified.

Alleged Russian spies who have been caught usually tell the Ukrainian soldiers they did not understand what was being fought for. In a video taken by one soldier in Odesa allegedly of a captured Russian spy and seen by Al Jazeera, the Russian repents to the camera saying, “they’re [Russians] not bombing military infrastructure but civilian ones”.

Some soldiers say at times they have used the Russian infiltration to their advantage. One unit in Odesa allegedly staved off Russian ships from the Black Sea by slowly and deliberately planting Molotov cocktails along the shore over several days, in order to give the spies time to inform troops in the approaching ship of what was happening, Andrey Vagapov, chief of one of the Territorial Defence units in Odesa told Al Jazeera. After being informed that the shore was lined with explosives, the officers on board the ship refused to come, he said.

Man holding a gun
A civilian fighter with Ukraine’s Territorial Defence Forces poses with his gun [Sam Mednick/Al Jazeera]

As Russian ground troops struggle to advance, the Ukrainians are preparing for an increase in artillery fire, which is already moving closer to Kyiv in order to attack the city, said Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukraine Forum at Chatham House, a UK-based think-tank.

“The fact that Ukraine still controls parts of its sky and uses anti-aircraft weapons quite successfully means Russians may deploy more missiles to hit targets with more collateral damage to civilians and civilian infrastructure.” But even if Russia bombards the city from the outskirts, the Territorial Defence, together with the Ukrainian army, will make it really difficult for them to establish ground control over the city, she added.

“Territorial [Defence] troops will be the bane of Russia …” a former US military intelligence official who did not want to be named out of fear for his safety, told Al Jazeera. “Molotov cocktails are a powerful weapon against a tank’s air vents. [But] the Ukrainians need actual physical humans to fight by their sides [and] Ukraine needs more troops.”

In Kyiv, Dima and his unit are stepping up. When Al Jazeera spoke with him in mid-March, Dima had approximately one week left of training before being deployed.

Eager to go to the front lines, when he finishes training his unit he will be sent to clear areas taken back from Russian forces, man checkpoints in and around Kyiv or patrol the city looking for suspicious people.

He is both anxious and looking forward to what lies ahead. What worries him most is what it could do to his family if he doesn’t return.

“I fear that I will not be back from a fight and it will be hard for my family,” he says, his eyes welling up with tears. “That’s my only fear. I’m not scared to be killed. I just don’t want my family to go through this awful loss.”

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