Volunteer Valery Chobotar (Gatylo): “I WANT TO HELP TO CREATE A NEW UKRAINIAN ARMY!”
Text and photo: Vika Yasynska
Translator: Lesya Mitkevych
I always cared about my sworn brothers and still do. It’s normal, there is no reason to be proud of it. I had a huge conflict with the guys who came back from the airport and wanted to go back there again. I didn’t let them go. At the time, they did not but I knew that if they go, they would never return, their minds in the “battle,” they are not able of thinking clearly. Many of them couldn’t forgive me that decision for a long time. And only now are they beginning to understand why I did it. It was a group of only four; the rest of men were wounded, two were killed. I am still in touch with all of them.
I was born in Bukovina, but has been living in Ternopil. I am an honorary coach of Ukraine in martial arts. I am head of the Regional Federation of Martial Arts and an International Judge, and often travel around the world to judge competitions. Before the war, I had owned a sports club for at least 10 years. In 1996 I joined “Tryzub”, the organization named after Stepan Bandera. I believe it shapes people as individuals. Though I am not an active member of “Tryzub” now, it serves as a roadmap for my life.
It felt shameful not to enlist because I am a n adult who served in the army. I had people in my life I deeply cared about, such as my girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife. Many of my friends were fighting, and some of my students died. And that’s why I felt natural shame and it motivated me to act.
I treat events in the east as an artificially planted cancer. If it won’t be stopped people I care about will suffer and I have many such people. They live everywhere, in Kyiv and western Ukraine. And geographically Ukraine is one body of land, so no matter where the problem is, the consequences are felt by everyone. One of the main motivations for me was a fear for the people I knew. Patriotic duty was on the last place, simply because I was brought up in the patriotic environment.
I chose “Pravy Sector” for very simple reasons. I trusted some people and they were part of this organization. They had good understanding and clear vision of what is going on in the armed forces. “PS” is not my type of organization and I am very critical about many things that happen there. Many of my views differ from PS’s, especially when it comes to politics. But I don’t know any organization that currently exists in Ukraine that do better than PS. The DUK branch is the dearest to me, and people who are part of it are now my sworn brothers. To win this war, I need allies, and PS is one of these allies. So far, I haven’t seen any other alternatives. I immediately was placed in the fifth battalion. I had good organizational skills and had no problem communicating with men of all ages, so shortly thereafter, I was assigned to form a second squadron, which was the reserve at a time. Now it is the second squadron of the fifth battalion.
In early September we went to Pisky, and for a long time we were actively engaged in defense there. The army lacked people on the frontline, so we’ve agreed to fill the void. We were learning to use weapons while fighting. Some were prepared better than the others: unfortunately, most of the guys we have are still self-taught. Once we’ve received a brand new RPG-7 grenade launcher and I had to learn how to operate it right before the attack. It was funny and scary at the same time. And it is no secret that many people were wounded during the exercise. It applies not only to volunteers but also to the entire army. The only difference between professional army and us was motivation. I mean, while all of us wanted to protect our country and its people, folks in the regular army often were forced to fight.
The first attack killed one of the guys on our team and I have witnessed it. I had some kind of a mental block – my mind perceived everything in slow motion. And at the same time it was very weird: after sending dead bodies away, we automatically sat down to eat. Our hands were covered in blood, but we didn’t even have a place to wash them. We had to use shovels to gather fragments of bodies ripped out by grenades because we had nothing else to use.
I am an extremely lucky son of a bitch; and very careful too. I’ve immediately understood that this war doesn’t need heroes and our main task now is to learn how to fight. Our future efficiency and victory completely depend on how much we learn now, because now is only the beginning of the war. I constantly fought with the guys to cool their heads, because I had arrived to war from the funeral and did not want to attend other ones in the future.
A lot of people died due carelessness, too proud or simply stupid. Yes, they are still my heroes because they went to fight. But most of them died stupidly, and, though we can’t blame them, it should be addressed.
When someone dies you feel horrible heartache. Even before I went to fight, I was shattered by the death of my student Orest Kwach. In September, I was at the funeral of another of my student Roman Ilyashenko who died near Ilovaisk. He was enlisted in the army. My sworn brother from “Aydar” Andrew Jurkiewicz died as well. These are guys from my sports club and people I was close to. Now all of them are honored posthumously. So I was well aware that losses could be minimized only through training and discipline. But the majority of guys were not ready to learn. All of them wanted to fight and destroy the enemy. As a coach I know that in order to become a world champion you need to practice hard for a very long time, and to win takes a lot of time, sweat and blood, not in battles, but in training.
I have my own opinion about the war: it was hard to walk around somebody’s village, to see other people’s homes and destroyed lives. In the fall ,I ate tomatoes in someone’s garden (because I love them) and silently apologized and thanked the people who planted, but couldn’t harvest them. Chances are they will never live in their homes again. It was hard to see books in people’s homes. There were a lot of Ukrainian books I grew up with. Once I took the book from the collapsed building, read it and brought it back. I understood that it will probably burn or rot, but I could not just take it from somebody’s house, although, it is no secret that a lot of things were looted out in Pisky. Thanks to our joined position with combat we were able to execute several hits on robbers. That is why we were able to organize a squadron of great honest people. For me it was a tragedy to discover that some Ukrainians are looters, because it is impossible to defeat the evil being evil yourself. And it makes no sense to lose your life for nothing. In fact, it is very sad.
One of the brightest memories for me is not about fighting but about going to the library under the fire to get some books. There was a huge library in Pisky and I had a dream to evacuate it and save books. Unfortunately, I was able to take with me only a few books, some of Lina Kostenko, 6 volumes of “Life of Animals” and several other books about nature. Not fulfilling my dream was my biggest defeat in that village.
I always cared about my sworn brothers and still do. It’s normal, there is no reason to be proud of it. I had a huge conflict with the guys who came back from the airport and wanted to go back there again. I didn’t let them go. They did not understand me at that time, but I knew that if they go, they would never return, their minds in the “battle” mode, they were not able of thinking clearly. Many of them couldn’t forgive me my decision for a long time. And only now they are beginning to understand why I did it. It was a group of only four; the rest of men were wounded, two were killed. I am still in touch with all of them. One of them, Gennady Doshchenko, died last week. He was a rock strong warrior. Only after his death, one of the guys came up to me and said, “You know, just after Doshchenko’s death I’ve understood why you did not let us go back to the airport.”
Another painful memory I have is about a group of scouts leaving for their mission. At that moment I just felt that they wouldn’t come back. They were captured. Two of them are still there, since October. One of the guys was put in the car full of bombs and sent back to us to blow our checkpoint. Russians didn’t realize that he was a sapper and was able to unhook explosives. I do not know what to call it, but I often look at people and knew that they will die. I could feel it in their behaviors. And it is a horrible feeling that makes you feel empty and powerless because you can’t change anything.
The hardest things about the war are the war itself and your presence in it. War amplifies all psychological issues you may have, it distorts perception of the reality. It’s hard to shoot a man, but those people fighting on the other side that winter were my enemies. You can say that all of them are sociopaths, assholes, morons, but I think many among them just lost their faith. Guys and I were fighting for our country, but they were fighting for their land that nobody cared about for a long time. My enemies and I have different political and religious views, but I think it would be easier for me to find common language with them than with the majority of our cynical military leaders. Because for the leaders on both sides we are only numbers, figures on the statistics: so many killed, so many will be killed…
As our trainer Ditte Marcher once said during the course of psychological rehabilitation “Brother in Arms”: “The soldiers don’t want to fight because they know what the war is, and politicians and oligarchs are the most eager to fight, because they don’t fight themselves.”
I started to respect the other side as warriors. Now I realize that their way of thinking is partially our fault. We did nothing for that region for all these years. I know it because I traveled to Donetsk many times. And we can’t say that this region is a tank and people there are not humans. I do not like to criticize the government and am only responsible for myself, but during the war I‘ve discovered one of the commandments for myself: do not judge, and you will not be judged. We all are good at speaking for others, but it is much easier for me personally to tell about what I did. That’s why I do not take on the burden of others’ undoing. I do not want to bear the burden of Petro Poroshenko or Dmytro Yarosh. I chose my own path and it is quite difficult for me as it is.
Now I have a great internal struggle. I do not want to fight with weapons, but at the same time I want to help to create a new Ukrainian army. I do not believe in our army, and I don’t mean our boys, I mean the army’s leadership. They are Soviet people; they are insincere and that won’t change.
Everyone today talks about the system, and I do not want to be trite but it’s fair. It is all about unchanged system. My aim is to create a counterweight to this system despite of all political attempts to prevent volunteers from moving ahead. The old system can’t be demolished without having a replacement ready to go, but it can be changed through creating a better alternative.
Our guys are Cossacks. I think of volunteer fighters as an integral part of Ukrainian history and traditions. This is the special type of people, a certain quality of men with a special view of the world. These are men that women sang songs about in the past and will do it again in the future. You are not ashamed of them or of being next to them, they are cool people, levelheaded. Friendship, support and sacrifice among them are enormous. “I just love our tramps”, my commander says about his fighters and I am proud to be with them. I would like for volunteers to receive a legitimate status in our country. I believe it can be done, but to make it happen we need high-quality human resources, well-trained and motivated people. We are still active, but unfortunately there are only few of us left nowadays; the propaganda, together with efforts to discredit volunteer fighters affects us all and me personally. The majority of volunteers are sincere and honest people. When person knows he/she can die, there is no faking. Let’s not forget that many volunteers enlisted into the armed forces, but felt disrespected. It is very humiliating for the people who volunteered to defend their country to be asked to prove they actually fought for it.
I do not consider myself a hero, though I spent a long time at the forefront. Frankly, I was scared during shootings. I’ve even experienced an animal fear when “Grad” hit the house we were hiding in. And only later I’ve realized how horrible it was not to have enough people on the rotation, those guys set the record for staying at the forefront. These are people who may never return. Each additional hour there is another torn piece of their lives, because war changes a person physically and psychologically; we can’t even imagine to what extent. There were those who have committed suicides, those who lost their mind. Everyone keeps silent about it, but I feel ashamed to be silent. My closest friend deals with a huge problem with his wife. She had a nervous breakdown worrying about him all the time. I also watch my wife and her mother. Her sister is also enlisted. It is hard to have two people in a family on the frontline.
I believe in Ukraine and in those people who are worth living for, who need to be pulled out of the war alive and should be helped to get on their feet after the war. Ukraine needs those people.
I do not like when people say “goodbye” and wish us to come back alive. I think they should wish to “come back with a victory” and I know that we will win. Although I am sure that this is not even the beginning of real terror, I also believe that the ending of it still will be positive.
Unfortunately, we are very dependent on the politics, but I think those politicians soon will kill themselves. Because what they do now is a political suicide. Our task for now is to be prepared as much as we can. As Dmytro Yarosh says: “We do not know what Russia will do, we do not know what the rest of the world will do for us, but we must be ready for it.”