KIEV — "War has been the best experience of my life."
Thousands of volunteers help the federal army of the Ukraine to fight against Russia, among them Olexander. He was severely wounded while serving on the front line, but he would go back in an instant.
No one forced the civilian Olexander Martynenko and his partner Krystyna to join the Ukrainian Army in eastern Ukraine. He just wanted to defend his country against Russian mercenaries and separatist rebels — just like thousands of his fellow countrymen, who formed volunteer battalions a year ago.
Both Martynenko and his partner Krystyna are of mixed Russian-Ukrainian parentage, but they feel very much Ukrainian. Especially these days.
Their story is that of a slow radicalization. Martynenko attended a technology institute and avoided mandatory military service, which wasn't too difficult during the 1990s. He later founded two companies that both fell victim to the consequences of corrupt former President Viktor Yanukovych's reign. Because he was unwilling to pay bribes, he was driven out of business and forced to sell.
That was in the fall of 2013 and Martynenko had to take stock. "We thought we could build up our businesses, but we realized that we had to rebuild the state instead," he says. "Otherwise, the state would just simply take those businesses away from us. So I decided to go into politics."
Martynenko joined the nationalist party Svoboda, meaning "Freedom." Then-President Yanukovych fled to Russia in early 2014. Even though the Svoboda party's didn't win in the subsequent presidential elections, the revolutionary cause was still close to Martynenko's heart. And it was now threatened by Russian mercenaries and separatists who were on the loose in eastern Ukraine. A day after the presidential elections, Martynenko joined the Donbass volunteer battalion.
"It goes easier on your nerves to actually be there rather than sitting in front of a TV and watching the war unfold," he explains.
North of 6 feet tall, Martynenko underwent training for a few weeks and was then sent to the front line.
Waging war isn't difficult, he says. "All you need are a functioning intellect, a good physical constitution and the ability to follow orders." He never felt afraid. "Everything is either black or white. You are either friend or foe. That's it. And the human being becomes as transparent as a crystal. You cannot hide. And you soon find out what kind of human being you are."
DPR soldiers in in Donetsk in May — Photo: Andrew Butko/GFDL
The reality of war
But doesn't war brutalize people? "Those who had a font of brutality within them will reveal it there," he answers. "And those who were good human beings will continue to be so. Truth and reality only reveal themselves in war, such as mutual help and lifelong friendships. All these things are so blurry and faded in a civilian's life."
Two weeks later, Martynenko was wounded. Projectile splinters buried themselves in his leg. "It didn't even really hurt that much," he recalls. "It felt as if I had been stung by bees." When the splinters hit his leg, he ducked, and that saved his life because the subsequent shot only gave him a superficial head wound.
"War always involves a good bit of luck," he says. "It is nearly as if God has a joystick for me, controlling me, sending me right, sending me left." Martynenko was sent to the hospital, but he wants the splinters to remain in his leg. "To get them removed you would have to open up my entire leg, so they'll stay."
Soon thereafter, Martynenko was back in Kiev in the apartment he shares with Krystyna. "The most difficult thing about war is the time period afterwards," he says. "You seem unable to find a mutual language to communicate with your surroundings. I have seen a lot of suicides. And I drank a lot at first."
Fellow soldiers who are now dead visit Martynenko in his dreams. But he seems equable and calm nowadays and never raises his voice. That is partly Krystyna's doing. The 24-year-old was supporting the army by transporting donated goods, which is how they got to know each other. They have been together for six months now.
So are children in the offing? "Of course we'll have children. "So many people died," Martynenko says. The couple agree, however, that starting a family will have to wait until after the war is over.
"I am undergoing medical tests at the moment, and I am hoping that I will soon be fit again for active duty," Martynenko says. "This is a holy war, a fight for our independence. Its victims will unite our country. They are going to be the heroes tomorrow. It is an honor for every man to die in war, but not everyone is given that honor."
Krystyna remains silent at these words.