The counter-offensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) and liberation of the Kharkivska region marked an important milestone in the course of the war. The Ukrainian defenders arrived for people who, for over six months, struggled in the imprisonment of something so alien and terrifying – occupation, death, and propaganda. 

The soldiers of the Skala battalion (Skala literally means rock) were one of the first divisions to come to Izium. On the day of liberation, all of the town was euphoric with the Ukrainian spirit of freedom: People finally felt the torture of occupation was over – and the enemy was on the rocks.

Since the start of full-scale invasion, Skala was constantly defending, holding the line or verifying coordinates for effective operations in east Ukraine. The Skala mainly does aerial reconnaissance, reconnaissance, and stormtroopers. They’ve also taken a step further and launched a new initiative – a drone school where they teach other divisions to thoroughly check data for more effective advancement on the field and preventing manpower losses.

On September 11, 2022, buildings in Izium were finally sanctified by Ukrainian flags. Heroes of the AFU, and Skala in particular, were communicating with people, shouting “Slava Ukraini!” and celebrating the moment with the local community. It was a rebirth of Izium that very few locals had dreamt of and the images of those moments are not to be forgotten by the citizens. The Kyiv Post looks closer at those snapshots to share the unique features of the liberators of Izium and make their voices louder.

Iurii Skala (Rock)

The experienced military commander and leader of Skala, Iurii Skala has people management skills which make things work smoothly within the unit. When the horrible events of Ilovaisk were happening in 2014, he got a call to join the forces and he immediately got to the task. In Debaltseve in 2015, he demonstrated his potential in strategy and management.

Skala has worked in both antiterror and joint forces operations. In 2017, he started serving in one of the operational commands where he experiened interacting with the heads of different structural divisions.

Skala knew about the importance of acting quickly, even before February 24 came. On Feb 23, he and his unit were in Kharkiv, ready for the attack. Thanks to their work, a lot of major Russian divisions were prevented from entering Kharkiv.

Skala firmly believes the knowledge he got on his way to commander of the Skala battalion was crucial to help him in managing individuals and their skills productively:

When a full scale invasion started in 2022, I already had a lot of experience organizing people and communicating effectively – in terms of engineers, sappers, artillery, logistics, and many other divisions. They knew about my work and trusted me, so if I knew there was a target or something to check on certain coordinates, they would work on the task with utmost dedication.

Being in charge of such a responsive operation is never easy, but respect from people, and colleagues inspired Skala:

I love what I do. Because I see the result and efficiency. Many soldiers in other divisions call us their talismans, while their commanders say that when Skala comes they feel calmer and more confident. This is the most wonderful reward for me as a leader of the unit. 

Having expertise in organizing, Skala sees his soldiers as unique individuals and brothers, and makes sure everyone is given enough support and attention:

The biggest value for me is people and their happiness. I always make sure that each soldier is provided with an adequate salary for their high-risk job. They have families to feed. And if we lose a soldier, it is an awful wound for our battalion, the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and the whole country. Yes, the Ukrainian army has fewer losses compared with one of the enemies. But every single one of them is devastating for us and me personally.   

Mykyta Indus’ (Hindu)

Mykyta Indus began in territorial defense and Pravyi Sector where he wasn’t certain he could help as much as he wanted to. So, in April 2022, Indus joined Skala unit because it protects Ukraine right at the battle-front:

Being here is just want I needed. Skala (unit) specializes in reconnaissance. So we are fighting not just by using the weapon, but through shrewdness and sharpness of our mind. Being successful at war is not about the number of people in the unit or violence but helping the best you can by doing something you are good at. Any army can be taken down by the quality of the work done. I have a lot of friends who fight for free since protecting our motherland is a priority. I think we are winning thanks to people who give everything they can to move us closer to the day of the victory. And you can already see the result. Kharkivska region is liberated

When the conflict with Russian began in 2014, Indus was serving by contract and didn’t feel ready to join, but in 2022, Indus was all in to do the best he can for our country:

I am a universal soldier, I am not married and don´t have kids, and worrying about family can be a serious problem. But if you ask me about the hardest thing for me, it is seeing the lack of humanity. I am referring to those on the other side killing civilians. When we as soldiers do our job is one thing, but when a lot of civilian people get hurt, it is unspeakable.

Indus says they are always looking for improvements within the unit. For example, to reach a certain goal in an illegal way is to be prevented at all costs:

Good conquers evil. Not evil conquers evil, he says.

Before the war Indus dedicated himself to sports and opened an internet store just before the invasion started in 2022. February 24 marked the start of a big change and some crucial personal transformations as well:

My views changed, just like my life. Meeting new people is rewarding for me. Learning something new, honing, or getting extra skills. I am happy to be surrounded by people who are here because of the idea. When death is this close, you get to see what is more important – life itself, and often being happy is about some small things which people often forget about. We must enjoy every moment and grow all the time as a person and a citizen. I mean, look at some people who just sit on their couch, watch TV and observe their country invade a sovereign state like Ukraine. They still get kicked out in the end

Even while at war, Indus looks on the bright side and tries to find something to bring inspiration:

We are fighting to see people’s smiles. Yes, Ukraine is going through some dark times. But it’s my strong belief that war changes people, and in our case, this is definitely going to be for the better. Unity, independence, and sincerity never come easy. The Soviet times did a lot of harm in terms of eliminating national identity, language, and understanding of history. We need to revive it and remember our ancestors. We shouldn´t interact with the Russians, only civilized people. The truth is with us. All the Gods are with us – Jesus, Buddha, Allah, Shiva, Neptune, Perun. I mean what were the invaders thinking when they risked messing with us?

Olexiy Gagarin

Automaidan activist Olexiy Gagarin started helping the Ukrainian army back in 2014 as a volunteer, using personal donations and those he could collect through a network of connections. Later, when the full-scale invasion started in February 2022, he realized he needed to be even more proactive:

I am the kind of person who just can’t stand aside. So I could either become a volunteer or a soldier. But being a volunteer was not enough. My father is a retired colonel, so both he and my mother know about the horrors of the war. I am trying not to worry my parents too much so I avoid mentioning all the risks I am exposed to. 

For the first few months Gagarin was not officially a part of the forces but brought vehicles for the soldiers to the battle-front. He would bring back and fix the broken cars. He wanted to help more, so when his friend from Euromaidan times, Olexandr Tesla,  mentioned Skala battalion to him, Gagarin didn’t think twice. At that time, Tesla was a part of the battalion and explained more about its specialization in reconnaissance:

We do a lot of reconnaissance and provide accurate data for the artillery. I am happy to make my contribution to this effective task solution.  

On the September 17th, during one of the tasks, Skala lost heroes – Victor Brytanets and Ivan Sadyst. It was a devastating loss for the battalion, and personally for Gagarin:

Even within a short period, we became close. We share so much in common. There are no right ways to describe this pain or perfect words of support to say to their families. Losing friends is definitely the hardest for me in this war. Maybe, for some people, a lot of work is the toughest thing. I am used to being snowed under with tasks. But when your friend is gone, there is nothing to fill that void.

Volodia Med’

Volodia Med joined the army in 2014, and he hoped the battle with Russia would be over in 2021 for all of Ukraine – then 2022 came. On Feb 24, 2022, he was sent to the 92nd Brigade which was under artillery attack that day. Later, in Dnipro, Med got an offer to join Skala. On the very first day, he was evacuating the wounded or even whole families in the areas of shelling.

Med considers the level of trust and rapport Skala has within a community a crucial factor for success:

If there is no friendly, solid team – there is no battalion in the first place. If there is friendship, there is a lot of support in every single task. How can you expect someone to risk his/her life for a person they barely know or don´t care about?

During hardship, Med tries to focus on the tasks more and remember who and what we all are fighting for in Ukraine:

Losing friends is hard, so hard. But we know why we got together here – to protect our motherland, our independence. We miss our kids a lot. We are here because of the kids, to provide a great future for them, and, of course, we are here for our families and relatives – for our children to live in a free country, and know that their parents never gave up or stepped back to provide a great future for them and all the generations to come.

Bohdan Metr (Meter)

 Bohdan Metr didn’t know much about Skala before coming here. The unit was recommended also to him by his colleague and friend, Olexandr Tesla. Still a student, and the youngest in the battalion, Metr definitely stands out – he jokes his nickname is Metr because he is two meters tall. Bohdan’s eagerness for task completion is something that makes him a valuable team member. Metr adds he just couldn´t help but join the army:

I just can’t go against my conscience. I can’t be somewhere there, far away, when other guys are fighting here, at the frontline. I simply want to bring the moment of getting back to normal closer. 

Having joined, Metr never regretted his choice because he feels he belongs here:

We are like a community. Everyone does something he/she is good at. Each of us has a set of responsibilities to help the team. 

The hardest part is that when I am here I think about just going home and being in the warm, clean bed, or just hanging out with friends, but then, I get home and feel that I can’t wait to come back to Skala and see everyone and do all the unfinished tasks. 

Vitaliy Liutyi (Furious)

Vitaliy Liutyi comes from Torez, Donetsk region, which has been under Russian occupation since 2014.

Back in his hometown, Liutyi was involved in a fight started with a military man. It resulted in Liutyi being wounded in his leg and breaking his arm while the military man died from two stabs to his collar bone. Even now Liutyi is wanted by the police in the so-called Donetsk National Republic.

Relatives helped Liutyi secretly to get to the border with the Kharkivska region, where he got medical help at the hospital in Kharkiv, and later moved to Dnipro. A month later, he joined the army and served in Chernihiv and Kryvyi Rih until 2018. When the full-scale war started, Liutyi chose to return, and chose the Skala unit because of common values:

Skala is always at the battlefront. Regardless of the losses or injuries we have. We only want to take the offensive and move forward. No stepping back. We are fighting for life at any cost. 

Liutyi adds that other batallion members share the same vision on interactions within the unit:

Each of us is here consciously. People realize that maybe not everyone is coming back. We are like a fraternity, and we solve problems together. And I think it is the only way to win this war. We have an enemy to fight, so having disputes is something we never do. 

Right after we talked, Liutyi was headed to a mop-up operation on the left bank of Oskil. Despite all the hardship he has been through, his spirit is never shaken:

We fight, keep pushing. Our morale is high. We need to bring peace and get back home to our families. We have obligations as brothers, sons, and fathers. There is no time to miss or cry. We have one task – to win and kick the occupants out of our country.

Olexandr Cherep (Skull)

Cherep was a volunteer in the first few months after February 24. He would bring needed supplies for Ukrainian defenders, but then had to leave. However, Olexandr wanted to know what was happening on the battle-front and to assist. So once, when he was delivering drones and walkie-talkies, he got an offer to join Skala. Cherep’s tasks in the unit are different: now he mostly helps the battalion by being a perfect chef. Yet, if at any time there is a mop-up operation or something with reconnaissance, Olexandr is all in:

I don’t see anything hard here. It is a war and we need to win it. Each of us does his/her task to make it possible. I treat it as a job I must do. When this task is over, I will get to another one.

Ievhen Hvist (Tail)

When the full-scale Russian invasion started in February 2022, Ievhen Hvist had half a year before the end of his contract, which he then chose to extend. He was serving in a mechanical unit and there was a request for soldiers of his expertise in Skala. After Hvist talked with Cdr Skala, who saw a lot of potential in him, he decided to stay in the unit.  Hvist adds it is so much easier to fight and keep moving forward thanks to the group’s spirit:

Our communication is based on mutual understanding and friendship, which doesn’t eliminate discipline and certain norms like a commander and subordinates. We have been through so many hardships. We became brothers. 

At the same time, some things are really painful to witness:

It is so hard to lose friends at war, and also observe that this is not just a war between two armies, but between the Russian army and Ukrainian civilians. The Russian Federation is fighting with the whole nation and there is a reason for that. We live better than they do. We have freedom of speech. We are a free nation. We have our plans which we realize step by step. They have none of these.

These are very few of the voices of the Skala battalion. Each individual comes here for a reason and does an important contribution to make sure that the invincible rock of their friendship, courage and brotherhood puts the enemy between a rock and a hard place.

 

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