John Zenkov, the AFU military tells about the hell of war, the apocalypse of the Kyiv region, the horrors of Donbas, the Russian-speaking people in the Ukrainian army, contact battles with the invaders, the consequences of shell shocks and the genocide of Russians in an exclusive interview with Cyprus Daily News.
— What did you do before the big war in Ukraine started?
I was a music video director, producer, made shows, movies, videos. Worked with artists, including Russian ones.
— Could you name them?
— I worked closely with Loboda, she is our artist, but then she was in Russia. I made a couple jobs for Olga Buzova. Here I worked with our «tops», worked as a producer. Just before the big war signed a three-year contract with the winner of the «X-factor,» Misha in order to sing, perform, record songs, shoot videos … We have recorded one track, but February 24th came and that’s all. And I went to fight. And he went with me.
-How did you end up in the war? Have you been called up?
— Not. I was one of those people who did not believe that the war would begin. Despite the news, the expectation of an invasion, I still told everyone to «relax», I thought it was a fake. And when the invasion began on the 24th and the troops entered our territory, I had the opportunity to leave, but I did not even think about whether to flee or fight, I immediately decided to fight. I have a wife and a small child, so I put them in the car and said «Save yourselves!». I called my singer, saying «We stop cooperation for a while, because I’m going to fight.» And he answered me, «So I will go too.» That’s all. On February 25 we were already in the Territorial Defence Forces (TRO).
— TRO is a the Territorial Defence Forces?
— Yes. In fact, the whole of Kyiv went to defence. Everyone was given weapons. Me, Misha and my best friend Igor have signed up for one of the TRO.
-Why did you not hesitate?
-«I don’t understand how anyone can doubt it. They came to me with the war. The war has begun. This is my home, my wife, my daughter, my Homeland. Usually, I am not belligerent, but everything was clear here: my Homeland was attacked, it must be defended.
One moment, when there was the ATO, I, as a native of Kyiv, did not have the feeling that this was a direct war. I love my country, all the regions of Ukraine, but still, somehow there was a feeling that it was still somewhere far away (and that was my mistake). And now everything is here: the war has knocked on my window. I went to protect my Land.
-What is «your land»? What would a Russian takeover of Ukraine mean? Change of power? Maybe it was not worth risking your life and your family, and to leave?
— My country. My Homeland. My house. I live here, I work here. This is where my wife lives. This is where my daughter walks the streets. And when the Russian army approached, and the fighting began near Kyiv, it became obvious that this was a seizure.
It’s like they came to your house, faced a loaded gun, and you have two options: give in to the criminal or get a weapon, if of course you have time. I managed to make it.
I realized that if they enter Kyiv, then there will be nothing here. War would destroy everything. And a lot of terrible things will happen to my city, to my family, to my friends and to my neighbors.
Initially, I was not going to go to the eastern part of Ukraine. I originally defended Kyiv. My city, which I love, where I was born, grew up and work.
And someone came and decided to arrange a complete outrage, to start a war here. I went to defend my city, where my family was happy. Family is the most important thing. But when I was in Irpin and Bucha… I saw what happened there… That which is not forgiven! It was there that anger and a desire to go to the Donbas has already appeared.
— You were in Irpin and Bucha, can you describe what you saw there?
— Yes, our unit worked in Bucha and Irpin. And when I went to Irpin … To be honest … I saw «movie» there. As a director, I was stunned by what I saw, it was like a picture from a scary movie about the war. Half of the buildings are missing, bridges are destroyed, cars are left, corpses are everywhere… it can be seen they have been lying there for several days. It’s like a scene from an Apocalypse movie. Somewhere there are shellings. I just didn’t believe it.
The first impression is shock. Then we saw how dozens of corpses were taken out by cars. The corpses of people: adults and children. Women who were evacuated, who were raped. It’s all inadequate and scary. How to describe all this? This is hell.
— So did you change your bohemian life for hell?
— Yes. Life was. Life was happy and successful, and in one moment — just a «click» — and everything changed.
The second day, the third day of adaptation, and you are not the man you was. Views and feelings were changed. I understood that now I am at war. Now my task is to learn how to fight. Because what I did before is no longer relevant. You need to protect your family and your home from the one who came with the war. Yes, I had offers to shoot what is happening, documentaries about the war, I’m a director, but I had a complete feeling that no, you need to take up arms. I am a healthy man, athletic build, who used to participate in football skirmishes, which means that I should not stay away and make music about the war, for example, I should be at the front.
Would you forgive yourself for another choice?
— Yes. I am a person who always chooses to be active. And in this situation, be active means to become a military man.
— Are you Russian-speaking in everyday life? Do you speak Russian?
— Yes. I had worked for a long time with Navka as a co-producer, she is Ukrainian-speaking, and we had conversations on the subject of language. I am fluent in Ukrainian, I know it, but I think in Russian. And when I got to the front, everyone generally didn’t care what language someone speaks. The matter is who you think you are and who you are.
— Are there many Russian speakers among the military of the Ukrainian army?
— Half of them.
— Does somebody hurt them or injury?
— Of course, not. There is no question at all. We can all discuss different problems, situations, argue about something within our country. But when there is a threat to life and this threat is from an external enemy, there is no room for discussion.
— Where did you be dislocated after Bucha and Irpin?
— I can’t talk about all the places where we were, but our unit worked in 6 different places. After Irpin and Bucha, I began to train, because I was already in the AFU. We trained for a month with a Navy SEALs, the British… The last stop was Donbas. A place of complete encirclement. The furthest and hottest point.
— Are you on vacation now?
— Now I am undergoing a military medical commission in hospital after being injured. I have three contusions, loss of vision in right eye, hearing loss in right ear. Perhaps, they say, hearing rehabilitation will be successful, but it is impossible to restore the sight. And now I have been treated a concussion, because the number of explosions that happened in 6 days of the battle, can’t even count them, and don’t know exactly what the consequences are. You can’t control your balance, have poor orientation, a concussion, visual blurring in addition…Concussions in a word.
They thought that the crystalline lens had ruptured, but there were problems with the nerve endings. Maybe there are doctors who treat it, but it’s a long story, and I have no time to do it.
I want another. I will undergo the commission, and understand if I can continue to fight, or if I am unfit.
— Do you want to go back and continue fighting?
-There are two points on which a wish to comment.
The first is that it is already more difficult for me here than there. A lot of adrenaline, aggression that needs to be thrown out. I’m used to it. I lived for 4 months in a constant war mode. And after the hottest point, it’s hard to be here.
The second point is that the war is not over. All Ukrainians will fight. You can’t be out of the war. We’re done, will be others.
I am already practicing the left eye shooting. I try. It turns out it’s possible. I think. You need to hear, of course, and see well. But I think that it is possible to adapt to these wadas («shortcomings» in Ukrainian, — ed.). Of course, this will not be all the 100 % as previously, but still.
And those headaches. They are so strong and so abruptly happen. It’s such a pain… Before, my head just hurt for an hour or two, but now it’s a sharp pain, as if a knife had been inserted. How to deal with pain there, I don’t know yet.
I am a conscript, as the commander tells me, as they decide, so let it be. Although, if they remove me, I don’t know what to do next.
— Have you seen the «orcs», been in close combat with them?
— Yes, the closest contact is 3 meters. They came to us in the trenches. For 6 days they «covered» us with shelling, mortars, tanks, armored personnel carriers, everything, ironed us, and then an assault brigade went, they came to us in the trenches. Just heavy fire down the line. Healthy men of about forty, with painted faces, most likely mercenaries. Here we clashed with them in battle.
— That is, they were not conscripts, not contract soldiers?
— Assaultmen. They look different, even ours.
— How do the «orcs» fight? Do they have the same motivation as you, or do they have different goals?
— The ones we clashed with, assaultmen, are professionals who make such actions just because they already want to kill. This things happen.
-Did you start to like it at some point?
— Yes. I think that those who have already gone very deep into this lake, I don’t know how many years they fought, they can no longer live without it, it’s probably like a drug, they can no longer live without it. These are the people of war. That’s how they were. They fight hard. We didn’t even have HIMERS back then. When we were there, in terms of technology, it was 1 to 10. When they advanced, they hit us with everything they could: helicopters, planes, tanks, and mortars. This is how they fight. Powerful enough.
We all were miraculously saved. We were taken into the ring, we have tried to breakout. And one of our people died. In a parallel brigade — as many as 12 people.
When you kill an «orc», adrenaline appears and you are in the heat, strength, understanding that you can. Then you fight with even greater dedication.
And we had an incredible commander, he motivated us very much «You are cool! This is our land! Glory to Ukraine!,» he is handsome.
We held the flank, and hell rushed, and we decided how long we would stand: as long as we could or to the end. And we decided that to the end. And as a result, we fought back, laid them down and recaptured the left trench.
The right trench was already buried, and they went to it.
Four hours of fighting and we won. We are on OUR OWN land. We defended it. This is a strong motivation. They don’t have that. They understand at least in their mind that they are the aggressors, and they are in a foreign land, and they are wrong.
In our platoon, all are very successful people, businessmen, family members, protect their lives, their relatives, their land. OURS.
But the air there is certainly charged … 8 years … There is horror. I thought that there was hell in Bucha, but there … It’s even worse there. Counter-strike, the constant feeling of roulette: will you survive or not.
— Do you think it will last a long time?
— I think it won’t be over soon … Even with Western weapons, all this has already turned into a protracted story. There is always a war going on. Not like in the ATO, they attack there, they attack here, now it rattles all the time, non-stop. Our commander, who has been serving in the ATO since 2014, he said that in 6 days we had seen everything that they in 8 years.
The resistance is so strong that the fight is on equal. Despite the fact that they are technically prevail.
It takes a lot more resources to fight them off than to defend them. I hope very much that a peace treaty will be signed before the New Year. Because every war ends with a peace treaty.
— A treaty on any terms? Would you agree to give up part of the territories of Ukraine for the sake of a peace treaty? If such a political decision is made?
— Not. Moreover, Zelenskyy has already managed to organize us the way when this is impossible. We are lucky to have him. It was lucky that he was such a man «with balls«, such a principled person, and that he delivered an ultimatum «we are either this or not.»
But honestly, after everything happened with me, I want to kill all Russians. I no longer feel sorry for anyone. There were moments, such tough situations, after which I looked and thought «I want to kill you all! And peaceful too! Then, however, get easier. I wanted to destroy everyone in hard times. I say this as a military man, but politics is the art of associating.
Zelenskyy set the situation so fundamentally, he is handsome. This agreement must be reached. To return to February 24 borders, and then return all by means of war. It is unlikely that there will be any compromises on their or our part.
— Do you think it is possible to negotiate with the Russians? They always break agreements.
— Yes. When are strong.
— While they are weak, they comply with agreements, but then violate again? Is there any reason to negotiate?
— While they are weak, yes it is. We just need a break. We need to stock up on weapons. Now this is happening on an emergency basis. We studied on a tight schedule. Even I — only a month. It’s good that there was an ATO experience. I believe that we need a pause so that we can accumulate strength, prepare, build structures, because there are many nuances now. Many people die because of mistakes. Because we learn to fight on the go. Therefore, we need to recapture what is captured, go to the border, and then act after a pause. Although I understand that this option is unlikely.
I try to look at the situation more broadly, we are losing people. The best people. People who were very useful in civilian life for the country: successful programmers, economists, surgeons, engineers, general directors… The cream of the nation is fighting there. Those who raised the economy here. Strong character, beautiful, smart, courageous men and women. What could happen in a year? Degeneration… Only those who have their tails between their legs will remain. And when the war is over, who will form the nation, who will build the country? This is what scares me personally.
That is if I try to think like a politician. And if I think like a military man, then of course, I would never sign this petition for a referendum, under no circumstances.
I can only analyze, but when I follow my emotions, I want to beat them to the end.
And here’s another moment.
We were in the Donetsk or Lugansk region, I don’t remember exactly. I buy cigarettes, and the saleswoman throws cigarettes at me and says, «Why the hell did you come here?». I can’t believe it. Three out of four say so. Only one will say «well done, boys!?» All who were Ukrainians have already left. Only separatists remained. I was surprised. I think: «How? What is your motivation then?» We take risks here, lose our brothers, collect bullets with our body, and they say to you: «Why the hell did you come?»
— But what to do with these people?
— Nothing. They are not Ukrainians. Let them go to their home — to Russia.
— How did you feel about Russians before the war?
— Fine. I had many friends, cooperation, I often traveled to Russia for work. Fine.
— I hate them. Just hate. Moreover, when the war began, I called up my colleagues — directors. And one of my good friends asks:»Why are you bombing yourself?», I say:»You know me well, you know that I am a normal person, and I can tell you what I do and what I don’t do. You are shooting at us.» And she told me:»No, you are mistaken. I know the truth, you are shooting at your own.»
And I realized that this is a nation of zombie, unfortunately. There are people who grew up on propaganda, they don’t even have the ability to think, to think freely.
We Ukrainians are used to the fact that we think freely. If someone closes our mouth, we start arguing. It’s not for them.
And this is an imperial story. Probably, there are such people in general.
In my mind, I never considered them brothers. They are different. They have different values, rules, laws.
Even when I came to Moscow I saw the difference. The city is dynamic, but somehow gray, and in our country it is colorovyi («colored» Ukrainian, — ed.), with flowers. The difference was felt.
But there was hope that there were normal people, who would watch world news. Turn on your VPN, see what you are doing, you bastard! Even if you are afraid to go out into the square, as we did, then at least know the truth, understand, be honest with yourself! But no! They even have intellectuals, this elite, directors, artists, even their brains are so encoded that they cannot compare facts and understand reality.
When I realized all this .. Well, damn it, these people cannot be changed.
-Do you think that the entire Russian people are responsible for the war in Ukraine?
— Those who make decisions are definitely responsible. All theirs rotten stuff — all for the funeral. And the people… What to do with a dog that has rabies? You can’t treat her anymore. For Disposal, unfortunately.
-Did you take prisoners?
— No, I am not. Our unit does not take prisoners. This was stipulated from the very beginning. We do not surrender and do not take prisoners.
Do you want to tell them something?
— Yes. Russians, Russians, you are in a deep shit. What you have done doesn’t forgive. I can say from the whole APU, we will never forget what you have done. And the war will end, we will kill your warriors, and then we will come and kill all your people. This is a blood revenge. Because what these idiots did here … And what did our commander say at the same time? When we stacked them in batches. The commander said, “Just let’s not cut off their ears or torture them. We protect our home, but we are not barbarians. Killed him and everything. We are not animals! Kill, but don’t torture. Not animals, but people! We were supposed to kill the enemy, not to torture a person. And there, on the other side, there is beasts, just beasts with impunity for what they do. They obviously were not taught what the punishment for lawlessness and barbarism is, but we will teach.
Now the genocide of the Ukrainian people is being recognized, and so, I think that this all will end with the genocide of the Russian people.
— Glory to Ukraine!
— Glory to the Heroes!
Boris Demash specially for Cyprus Daily News