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“People like Professor Stanislav Kulchytsky help us defend the independence of Ukraine”

Commander of the “journalistic platoon” Viktor Ozhohin on the ceasefire, life in the trenches, and those who support our soldiers
22 October, 18:08

The so-called “journalistic platoon” is back in Dnipropetrovsk, having been rotated home after a month spent in the anti-terrorist operation (ATO) area. This is the name of a National Guard unit led by journalist Viktor Ozhohin, who served as a top manager of the Dnipropetrovsk Regional State Broadcasting Company for years. He volunteered for the army in late summer 2014 to go and free the Donbas, the region where he had spent his childhood and youthful years. His feat of civic virtue was duly appreciated by his colleagues and fellow alumni, Dnipropetrovsk and Kyiv journalists who took patronage over this platoon of National Guardsmen. They have helped the soldiers with uniforms and footwear as well as taken part in providing them with other necessities. Den covered the platoon’s story before, and our readers and regular contributors took a real interest in it: let us recall that Professor Stanislav Kulchytsky donated to the unit 10,000 dollars he had received in Washington, DC in 2011 for his work on the Holodomor (see The Day’s No. 61, October 9).

We discussed with platoon commander Ozhohin the situation in the ATO area, the mood in the ranks, and the frontline routine.


What experiences have you brought back from the Eastern front?

“Having spent a month at a training camp near Dnipropetrovsk, our unit was sent to the ATO area between Mariupol and Novoazovsk. Our battalion had to defend a four-kilometer long square, and we spent all 26 days in the trenches and dugouts. We were on combat duty, patrolled the area, and manned outposts, as befits an army unit that performs combat mission in protection of the nation’s borders. We had a hard time, I will admit at once. As soon as the second or third day of our deployment, we were hit by artillery and mortar fire and Grad rockets. They hit our positions squarely, and it so happened that we lost all our possessions. A direct hit from a tank shell destroyed a dug-in metal railcar, where we kept our belongings and medicines while we built our dugouts and furnished our housing. There was a canister of gasoline in the railcar as well, and it all went on fire. Unfortunately, nothing was saved. Therefore, we were left in what we had on our persons in the trenches where we were stationed. However, the help of volunteers allowed us to get new uniforms and furnish our housing. We made a dugout, built bunks and installed a few iron stoves – thank God, we had enough fuelwood. Employees of Mariupol enterprises Illich plant and Azovstal helped us as well, covering the dugouts with metal. We then reinforced them with bags of earth and logs, so making our shelters ready for any bombing. We were bombed constantly, almost daily. Probably only six days were quiet.”

And they call it a ceasefire?

“When it was announced, I myself was surprised. I called my friends and asked them to post on my Facebook page ‘What a truce is it, if we are getting hit with aimed shots and the whole line of defense is tense?’ At the same time, they were shelling all the localities near Mariupol and the outskirts of the city itself. Drones constantly overflew our positions, determining the location of troops, artillery, tanks, and infantry. Aimed shellings followed overflights. We never met enemy soldiers face-to-face, but we always felt their presence. We conducted reconnaissance, set up outposts, because we might be attacked at any moment. Fortunately, we did not have to engage in a gunfight with the enemy, although we felt full brunt of artillery fire. Thank God, all men of our unit returned home, as many of us rotated back as came in. We just had a well-selected line of defense. Our neighbors were less fortunate, with four people killed, both to the left and to the right of our position. In addition, three men were gravely wounded.”


Why are they firing in violation of the agreement?

“I thought about it. Our troops answer their fire, but very rarely, and only when we know exact positions of Grad rocket launchers or mortars which had fired on us. However, I neither saw nor heard a Ukrainian army unit opening fire first in my time at the front. I am surprised to hear the news that our army is allegedly shooting at peaceful people, at built-up areas. I can definitely say that it is untrue. What happens on the enemy’s side, we can only guess. Our opponents were on the one hand a so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR)’s unit, and on the other, the Caucasus battalion. We were told that the latter was a Chechen formation. At night, of course, we had to engage in preventative firing at woodland, as forest belts flanked our position on both sides. When a reconnaissance team is going in or an outpost has a changing of the guard, we first comb the forest belt with machine gun or assault rifle fire, and only then take our positions. The whole day went this way. Our men did their duty in turns. I will say that they did it with honor. All showed discipline, fortitude, and patriotism. No one left his position under artillery fire. We remained there, and even if it was quite unbearable, everyone stayed in place. Overall, it was ordinary military service, a tour of combat duty, as opposed to guarding communications and depots. Our platoon had two heat imagers and two night binoculars. Of course, this is not enough for night combat, but some units had even less. Compared to others, we were in a better position, thanks to our fellow journalists from Dnipropetrovsk and Kyiv and my fellow alumni who helped to buy this equipment.”


What is the army’s view of the ceasefire in general?

“Honestly, I do not understand how anyone can negotiate with the DNR and the LNR’s ‘governments,’ because they began to fight among themselves after the announcement of the cessation of hostilities. We heard shell bursts and gunshots from the territory occupied by the Russian army and the DNR forces. That is, they cannot even come to an internal agreement. I think Luhansk and Donetsk regions need peace, since most people who live there are simply unable to bear it anymore, as they live totally exhausted, constantly on edge. It is difficult not only psychologically, but materially as well, because there is no water, no vitally important utilities working there, even as winter is coming. I am not even talking about shortages of food, which are present there as well. We all know how hard people have it there, even though they are likely to blame for it as well to an extent, as I am inclined to think.”

 Is our army ready for winter?

“Ukraine experienced a few days of sweeping gusts of wind, rainy weather, and sharply colder temperatures in late September. We went through two or three very hard days, but then timely got cloak tents and boots, and we went on to serve in the trenches, knee-deep in the mud. The army supplies came first, and then volunteers brought up sleeping bags, warm clothes, sweaters, socks, gloves, and ski hats, which helped us to serve well. During the day, temperatures up to 25 degrees Celsius were reached at times, and at night the temperature fell sharply to almost zero. Of course, it is hard to spend a night in the dank trenches with an assault rifle or machine gun. However, we are all alive and well back home. We will go on combat missions and will serve in the army as long as needed. Nobody is going to throw his weapons away and return home without completing the main task. Since I lived and studied in Luhansk, it is my hometown, so I would like to come to this city and help my countrypeople. I have many friends and classmates there. In addition, my father was buried there, he was a World War II veteran, First Lieutenant Ivan Ozhohin. I am a first lieutenant now as well and would like to come to my father’s grave with the platoon and salute it as a sign that we have liberated the city and all the Donbas.”


 How were you received in Dnipropetrovsk?

“We went back on the same vehicles that brought us into the warzone a month ago. They had all been hit through and through with shell fragments and stopped working as soon as we left Mariupol, as they had oil lines and radiators punctured. We were then towed back with hard grip. We had a fantastic homecoming in Dnipropetrovsk, but I was the only local in my platoon, so my wife and little daughter as well as my fellow journalists were the ones to meet us, as they are our patrons. I asked the men of the platoon how would they take to it being called the ‘journalistic platoon.’ They agreed because they understand how much the journalists have done to provide us with food, warm clothes, and uniforms. The journalists have held another fundraising drive recently. Professor Kulchytsky, a regular contributor to Den, gave to the volunteers his 10,000-dollar award, which he won for researching the Holodomor. He donated it to our military. We are very grateful to him and to Den! It is my opinion that it is thanks to such patriots as Professor Kulchytsky that we will be able to help defend the independence of our nation, Ukraine. These are not bombastic words, but an exact description of our doings today.”

 Are you following events in Ukraine?

“It is very difficult to do while serving in the ATO area. I switched my phone on from time to time, but long Internet sessions were off-limits. Therefore, I read some most important news and related them to my men. Staff officers reported what was happening in the country at times, but overall, we did not know anything. We communicated with our families through SMS or short calls, up to 50 seconds, saying that we were alive and well, still loved them, and hoped to come back soon. Lest the enemy spot the phone, we had to remove SIM cards and batteries after a call. Otherwise, we would have gotten shelled by artillery, because Russian direction finders were working in the area. Of course, we know that Ukraine is preparing for a parliamentary election. We discussed it in the platoon, but the sad mood prevailed in this regard. They see the same MPs who are flickering from one campaign to another, but the men all want change, new people, young and educated, who studied abroad, at Harvard or Oxford. The soldiers believe that such people should be given the way, allowed to come to the parliament and work to make our country better. I would like to thank once again all colleagues, everyone who helped us and believed in us. Good luck to all, and we will not let you down!”

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