Green fields stretch out under an endless sky. The hill slopes gently down until it meets a copse of oak trees in full bloom; Picturesque clouds and a subtle breeze complete the idyllic countryside setting.
Then, a series of booms, as incoming artillery hits a hill a few miles away, a sudden reminder that this spring is unlike any Ukraine has seen in decades.
This particular hill is on the border between Ukraine’s Kharkiv and Donetsk oblasts, or administrative regions, in the eastern region of Donbass. Twenty kilometers to the north is the town of Izyum, seized by Russian forces in early April and now spearheading the Muscovite offensive in this area.
Most of those on the Ukrainian front line are regular army troops, but paramilitary and volunteer battalions are also active. This particular estate is manned by one of them: a detachment from the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), a group whose origins date back to the interwar period and whose members allied with the Germany against the Soviets in World War II.
The OUN unit near Izyum is small, about 70 fighters or so. They divide their time between two positions: a second line of defense on the hill, with supplies and dormitories, and the “zero position”, a set of trenches several kilometers in front which faces the direct assaults of Russian troops.
From the factory to the front
Vova Myshensky, 30, was a worker in a bread factory when the war broke out. As soon as he did, he and his two brothers, Nazar and Evgeny, looked for a unit to join in order to help defend their country.
They quickly found the OUN. The three of them fought in Borodyanka, a town northwest of kyiv that saw some of the heaviest fighting in the first month of the war. After Russian troops withdrew from northern Ukraine, the brothers were redeployed to the Izyum front.
“Even though it’s the second row, we’re taking a lot of shots here,” Myshensky said.
He pointed to two holes near his bedroom.
“These are Uragan rockets,” he said of the Russian artillery responsible for the damage. “We’re lucky they didn’t explode. The ground was too soft and they just buried themselves.”
Even closer was the source of an explosion that ripped a hole in an abandoned warehouse on the nearby hill.
“That one was a [Russian] reservoir,” Myshensky said. “There was an assault here last week, and [the Russians] arrived within a mile or two.”
Trading legal briefs for guns
The OUN volunteers here are an eclectic mix. Some of them chose call signs based on their pre-war career, such as Shakhtar, which means “miner” in Ukrainian.
Others stayed true to their own name.
Oksana Krasnova, a 26-year-old lawyer from the western city of Ternopil, and her husband gave up their careers at a kyiv law firm to pick up guns.
“I mostly work as a sniper these days,” she said, brandishing a long-range rifle. “We’ve been on this front for a little over a month now, rotating between here and the zero position.”
Her husband, Stas, 35, has just returned from a three-day rotation on the front line.
“It’s non-stop action there,” he said. “The shooting, the shelling happens 24 hours a day. You are so exhausted that you even manage to sleep a few hours at night.”
He shows some videos of the fight on his phone. In one of them, lasting only two minutes, the hiss of almost 10 mortar shells is heard near his position. The crackle of small arms fire flying just above his head is audible as he ducks into the trench.
“At least three times a week they launch assaults,” Stas said of Moscow’s relentless attempt to advance. “They use everything: tanks, infantry, even white phosphorus. This time Russian soldiers tried to storm our positions three times.”
Earlier in the invasion, Ukrainian officials alleged that the Russians were using white phosphorus, an incendiary chemical that has legitimate military uses as a light source or battlefield cover, but can cause serious burns. . CBC has not independently verified the claim or those of the OUN fighters.
After what he described as a hellish 72 hours on the front row, Stas was relishing a break from the relative safety of the second row.
“Now that I’m back here, I sleep like a baby,” Stas said.
“Like a bear,” Oksana said laughing and planting a kiss on his cheek.
Their dormitories are spartan: a small brick building with rows of wooden planks leaning on bricks. Generators power cooking appliances and a few lamps. Some older soldiers sit around a boiling kettle, brewing tea.
A controversial story
The OUN was the largest organization of Ukrainian nationalists during World War II. During the Soviet era, it fractured into various factions in exile before emerging again in an independent Ukraine.
During World War II, the group fought for Ukrainian independence under its controversial but revered leader, Stepan Bandera, allying with anyone who served its nationalist goals.
“People from the OUN and its affiliated military unit, the Ukrainian Provisional Army, were certainly involved in the massacres of Jews and Poles during World War II,” said Michael Colborne, researcher and author of a book on far-right groups in Ukraine. . “[That includes] from the pogroms that killed tens of thousands of Jews in 1941 to the massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia in 1943-44. »
The modern OUN is unlikely, however, to have many ties to its wartime predecessor, he said.
“I would say that the current military unit using its name is in no way directly related and instead uses the name to establish a connection with Ukrainian nationalists of the past,” Colborne said. “Furthermore, while it is clear that there are and have been nationalist and even far-right elements within this unit, to call them ‘Nazis’ or something like that is an overstatement. .”
The OUN volunteers CBC spoke to in Izyum seemed to have little interest in details of the group’s past. Most joined because it was an easier way to get involved in Ukraine’s defense than joining the army.
Like many Ukrainian nationalist groups, OUN uses a black and red flag, several of which trailed around the Izyum outpost.
The color contrast with the Ukrainian flag, which is bright blue and yellow, is intentional and symbolic, Oksana says.
“[The national flag] is good for peacetime,” she said. “Our flag, in the colors of blood and death, is for war.
She and Stas have been through a lot together: they both took part in the Maidan revolution in 2014, the uprising that toppled the pro-Russian government of Ukraine. They were each injured, Oksana by rubber bullets and Stas by a stun grenade.
Stas, from Crimea, which was annexed by Russia following the uprising, has even more reason to fight against Moscow’s bid to take over Ukraine further.
“I lost my hometown that year,” he said of his native Simferopol. “Now they want the rest.”
Outside the bunker, an artillery duel is brewing.
A salvo of howitzer bullets leaves a few kilometers away: the equipment of the OUN. Shortly after the response comes from the other side, the incoming Russian fire was felt in a change in atmospheric pressure even as far as the fighters’ bunker.
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Each side hunts the other.
“As soon as [our artillery] fires, the guys pack up the guns and move, before [the Russians] can fight back,” Oksana said.
“But the Russian drones are looking for us. Last week we saw one following our guys, one of our Gvozdikas [a self-propelled howitzer]. A few minutes later, Russian shells nearly hit him. They barely survived.”
“War is work”
This game of cat and mouse has come to define the fight here in the second line. Oksana, for her part, is eager to go on the offensive.
“Oh, I hope so,” she said when asked about the possibility of attacking the Russian lines. “But right now our job is just to hold them back.”
Recent reports have suggested that Moscow has massed additional forces in Izyum for a further push. If Russian troops advance here, they may push south, threatening to cut off the cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk – and the Donbass region as a whole – from the rest of Ukraine.
Oksana looks ready. She said the morale of her fellow fighters was “perfect”.
“War is work,” she said. “And you have to do your job well.”
For Myshensky, the former bakery worker, it’s about fighting now so the next generation doesn’t have to.
“If it wasn’t me fighting today, it would be him tomorrow,” he said, showing a photo of his three-year-old son.
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