Ukraine

In Ukraine, Sworn Enemies With So Much In Common

Parallel portraits in the making of a civil war: one man is fighting for Kiev, the other is a Russian separatist.

Ukraine forces near Sloviansk in April 2014
Ukraine forces near Sloviansk in April 2014
Emmanuel Grynszpan

DONETSK — Bouchouï fights for Ukraine’s unity and against the Russian invader. Faria, instead, is a separatist, and stands against fascism and international mercenaries. They’ve both enrolled voluntarily in a conflict that personally affects them. Each is convinced that he is defending their homeland.

These two enemies in this peculiar war have so much in common, offering a parallel portrait of a country that has all too quickly slid into a virtual civil war.

Both men are former business executives, married with children, now immersed in combat, on opposite sides, Ukrainian citizens killing Ukrainians.

To ensure their loved ones’ security, they won’t disclose their identities. Their soldiers know them as Bouchouï (meaning “quick-tempered”) and Faria (an imaginary Russian character), their military pseudonyms.

Bouchouï, 45, stands tall and slim, with a seemingly calm disposition that doesn't match his combat name. He smiles easily and talks freely, giving a detailed account of his military life under the eyes of his 30 soldiers perched on armored vehicles. The scene takes place in the heart of Sloviansk, a pro-Russian bastion taken back by Ukrainian forces on July 7. “Don’t be fooled by appearances. My men know my tolerance limit. Once it’s crossed, I’m unstoppable,” he says, prompting some chuckles from soldiers in his unit.

“What bothers me the most is that I’m being called a fascist. It’s beyond me. I’ve done my military service during the time of the USSR, with Chechens, Kyrgyz, and Russians. We were all like brothers. Now, I’m only defending my country against a foreign invasion.”

Bouchouï knows that many of the locals here in eastern Ukraine are against him. “They’re being manipulated by Russian TV.” He stresses the fact that his enemies are professional Russian soldiers. “Those we see during daytime are unprepared locals. At night, our heavy losses are inflicted by highly-trained soldiers.”

Bouchouï has his own thoughts about the ins and outs of the conflict: “Russia needs to send men to a military theater of operations so that they’re trained for combat. Donbas is ideal; a near territory, with a geostrategic interest. It’s perfect for the Russian army.”

Enemies everywhere

Fighting on the opposite side is 51-year-old Faria, a small, podgy, red-headed man with sharp gestures. He says that he must fight against an array of enemies: “Ukrainian fascists, oligarchs, the U.S., and all the mercenaries they send, negroes and Polish.”

He’s in charge of a small artillery unity that fought for weeks in Sloviansk prior to withdrawing to Donetsk. That’s where he’s established himself, in mine #421. “I lost six men when a mortar shell hit us. They were killed on the spot but I’ve miraculously made it out alive,” he says, kissing an Orthodox cross wrapped around his neck. “God spared me because he has important plans for me," he says repeating the gesture.

Impulsive by nature, he explains loudly that he is “infuriated by the Ukrainian state which has been stealing from us for its 24 years of existence.”

The owner of a small road transport company, he bitterly regrets the collapse of the USSR. “Nowadays communists are being spit on, but back then we had everything: social welfare, health insurance and free education.”

Faria says he had no other choice but to sell his trucks because of corruption. His wish now is for Donbas to join Russia. “Donbas has always been Russian," he insists in spite of history. “I have total trust in our chief Igor Strelkov leader of the separatist armed forces. We will prevail for God is on our side!”

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