LVIV, Ukraine—Indifference was what Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines found most painful, and indifference is what provokes their parents, struggling for their rights at home, to mount angry protests.
On a recent afternoon, a group of mothers and fathers blocked three streets around the regional administration building in Lviv, in a part of the country known for its fierce nationalism. They protested against the continuation of the ATO, or the Anti Terrorist Operation, as the war is known in Ukraine. A ceasefire was in effect, but the Ukrainian army was still fighting with pro-Russian separatist forces in the east.
A caravan of trams stuck in the middle of the medieval city waited in line for the protest to end. Pedestrians passed, paying no heed to the groups of relatives who held up signs that screamed for help to save the lives of soldiers in the east. Around the corner, flocks of tourists enjoyed the last warm rays of sun, the savoring hot chocolates and coffees on verandas under colorful autumn trees.
No officials came out to talk to the mothers who were terrified they’d never see their sons again. “The government’s priority is to win their elections, and ours is to get our boys home alive,” one of the protesting mothers complained to reporters. And those parliamentary elections, due on Sunday, seem oddly disconnected from the war, or at least from the people who are fighting it.
Thousands of Ukrainian families have suffered from a conflict that pumped young and healthy soldiers to the front lines in the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. The results of a parliamentary investigation published Monday raised even more outrage—the officials blamed a former defense minister, Valery Geletei, and Chief of the General Staff and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Victor Muzhenko, for the tragedy of the August battle outside of Ilovaisk, where Russian soldiers and pro-Russian separatists killed and wounded about 1,000 Ukrainian troops.
Last Monday Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko saw dozens of Ukrainian National Guard troops marching toward his office in Kiev to demand demobilization. The soldiers refused to go back to their barracks, even under a threat of prosecution.
But full demobilization was out of the question, as Poroshenko made clear in one of his recent interviews given to the local press. “What do you want me to do, to declare demobilization during military actions? No! To let the army go? To leave the country without defense? No, this is never going to happen,” said Poroshenko, leaving no shadow of a doubt.
But Poroshenko is asking and answering the wrong questions. Parents protesting in western Ukraine are not arguing that the country should be left defenseless against the spreading separatist war. All they asked for was respect for the soldiers’ rights.
One of the fathers, Ostap, claimed that his son, after spending over 90 days in the combat zone, had a legal right to take leave. Maria, a gray-haired woman with strong but weary features, said that her son, a bartender, was drafted last July to serve in the 3rd Lviv Volunteer Battalion together with about 500 other local men. “My 23 year-old son Andrei did not want to volunteer,” she said. “He was drafted against his will and now there is no way out of Anti Terror Operation for him. He is not even in the regular army, so if he is killed the government can wash its hands of him and bury him like a dog in some godforsaken place like Ilovaisk.”
Victoria Sibir and Irina Orzhinskaya, two young volunteers from Odessa, tell The Daily Beast that now, during the official ceasefire period, the country “tended to forget about the soldiers still dying under Russian missiles in the east.” So the two young women traveled to the combat zone to photograph and videotape Ukrainian soldiers and also deliver clothes, dishes, food, and other items necessary for the often poorly dressed units.
People told the two young people they were “crazy” to travel to the combat zones. As Victoria was buying pots and tea cups Monday, she told the middle-age shop assistants she was purchasing them for the ATO.
“What is ATO?” the assistant asked. She clearly did not have much interest in the acronym. When someone explained, she sighed: “I wish that all that would be over soon.” So do soldiers’ families all across Ukraine.