ZAYTSEVE, Ukraine -- If one had any doubts that the recently liberated village of Zaytseve played a special role in this war, the reminder would come upon arrival to the village, from a group of angry Georgian partisans operating there alongside the Ukrainian army.
The group tries to keep its existence secret. As one member told Kyiv Post reporters: “No one knows we exist.”
Refusing to specify the number of members in the group or what exactly their activities were, the man said only that the group works to track down Russian-separatist forces and their collaborators and prevent them from carrying out any operations in the town.
When pressed for more information, the man shouted angrily in Georgian and walked away.
Zaytseve finds itself in a precarious position: After two-thirds of it was liberated from separatists more than two months ago, many residents still have relatives fighting on the side of Russian-separatist forces on the other side of the dividing line, just two kilometers away in Russian-occupied Horlivka, a Donetsk Oblast city with more than 250,000 residents before the war.
A Ukrainian soldier from the 34th mechanized infantry battalion who identified himself by his nom de guerre, Zmei, or Snake, described the town as a hotbed of “special operations” involving the Security Service of Ukraine – none of which he could talk about.
The need for secrecy soon became clear, however.
“It’s Russians standing right across that field,” said Sergei Lipsky, commander of the 34th brigade. “I can tell the difference between some random separatists and trained Russian officers. These guys are Russians,” he said.
Zaytseve still bears the marks of its occupation, he said, noting that the local convenience store still gets it bread from occupied territory.
“Up until recently, they used rubles,” he said. “But we’ve been trying to get rid of that.”
The 34th brigade managed to reclaim two-thirds of the territory, or about 30 square kilometers. And since that time, they say they have managed to fend off a series of attacks.
“But none of our guys have ever received any awards or recognition for it, even though our unit did this single-handedly,” he said.
Lipitsky said: “No officials have even bothered to come here, not even regional officials, no one. We are basically in charge. The locals turn to us. They have no one else to turn to.”
Sure enough, an elderly man soon approached Lipitsky and his fellow soldiers to inquire about when more produce would be brought to the village.
“Who is in charge here?” the old man, who identified himself as Mykola, asked.
“What do you need?” Lipitsky asked.
“I just want to know when we can get more humanitarian aid,” Mykola asked.
“That’s not humanitarian aid, that’s just food we’ve been giving you,” Lipitsky answered, assuring Mykola that he’d take care of it soon.
With about 400 residents in Zaytseve, Lipitsky said some of them were sure to have ties to the separatists. But he seemed certain that the separatists would never be able to reclaim the territory.
“They shell us and think we’re retreating, but we’re actually advancing,” he said, noting that his unit would never back down.
Although the last four days had been quiet, he said, shelling was still a regular occurrence. On July 31, shelling by separatists destroyed a building housing the brigade’s weapons – leaving some soldiers without proper weapons, and many without uniforms.
“We have 52 guys who need new weapons now,” he said, adding that he was still waiting for his bosses in Kyiv to send new equipment.
Other soldiers stationed in Zaytseve echoed the eternal complaint of Ukrainian soldiers in this war: that central command would not allow them to return fire, turning them into sitting ducks.
“The whole problem is the ceasefire,” said Ivan, a member of the brigade who declined to provide his surname. He said the Minsk agreements reached in February had only served in Russia’s interests and paralyzed Ukraine’s military, which was already at a disadvantage because of outdated and lacking equipment, he said.
“If you don’t feed your own army, you’re just feeding the army of your enemy,” he said.
Twenty-six-year-old Roman Kulesha agreed.
“The war will end when they stop ordering us to stay put and hold fire,” he said.
Kulesha, nom de guerre Coyote, wears a coyote tail tied to his belt. But it’s not a good luck charm. “I wear this because I know it will make it easier for them to identify my body,” he said, listing all of the friends he’s seen killed so far in the war.
Kulesha, who has been fighting in the conflict since May 2014, had no illusions about the realities of war.
“Guys come in here and think if they have certain equipment or certain good luck charms, they’ll survive. But it’s all just chance. You get hit and you die, and that’s it. You probably won’t feel anything anyway,” he said.
Staff writer Allison Quinn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org