We arranged a phone interview with Oleh Syvash, a member of the European Party of Ukraine. We could not determine the date and time in advance, because his unit is located near Bakhmut. When we finally got a connection and the opportunity to talk, Oleh dialed me, put the phone on speakerphone, and we talked to him. He is in a dugout. His fellow soldier from Konotop, a senior combat medic and his namesake, Oleh Ryabchenko, joins the conversation. I hear nothing but their voices, they tell me they hear the sounds of massive shelling. I start with my traditional question.
– How did you find out about the outbreak of the great war?
– On February 24, I was at work in Boryspil, Kyiv region. I woke up in the morning because of the sounds of explosions. My first thought was, what’s going on? And then a security guard came running and shouted – the war had started. Without hesitation, we packed our things, called the director of the company where we worked and said that we were urgently going home to Sumy region. At 10 am we were already in Konotop. We got there very quickly because there were no cars in the direction of Sumy. When we were already there, my friend, the head of Buryn community, Ladukha Viktor, called me and said that the military needed help. My friend and I promptly found everything they asked for and went to the Sumy highway, helped with the equipment and reloaded the shells. When we returned to Konotop, we went straight to the military enlistment office. We were all put on buses, about 150 of us, and taken to a military unit. In the evening, we were released to our homes until further notice.
– Did you receive weapons?
– No, they didn’t give us weapons. Although I had a carbine with me. I did not get home, I went to visit my friend. And somewhere after 23.00 on February 24, we saw Russian military vehicles driving down the avenue of our city. The Russians reached our town quickly, as you can see. Konotop is only 80 kilometers from the Ukrainian-Russian border. They were heading towards Tulushka to continue to Chernihiv region. Immediately my wife called me and warned me not to go home, because there were already battles in our area. The guys were defending themselves.
– Which guys were defending themselves?
– Our border guards. The first battle was in Zahrebella, the second – in the area of Vorontsov.
– How long did the occupiers stay in Konotop?
– The Russians rarely came to the town itself. But they surrounded Konotop and kept it in a ring. They set up checkpoints. It was almost impossible to leave towards Sumy or Chernihiv. If someone dared, the enemies stopped them at the checkpoints, searched their cars, stripped them, and looked for patriotic tattoos. The city was surrounded for more than a month.
– It was problematic. Especially with fuel. But we found a way to escort trucks with fuel into the city. Volunteers came at their own risk. It was dangerous because there were many cases when the occupiers killed people and burned cars.
– Was the territorial defense ready to defend Konotop if the troops decided to enter it?
– We were ready. The enemy had their own checkpoints, and we had ours. There was a gray zone of one kilometer between us. We were preparing for any scenario. We had already been issued weapons at that time. We were preparing molotov cocktails. We would have stood to the end.
– Why did the enemy not dare to come in?
– There was one attempt, when the so-called commandant of Konotop, a Russian who was supposed to replace the Ukrainian authorities in case of full occupation, came to Konotop. But people were not afraid, they came out and clearly stated their position: we will not be under occupation, we will fight to the last. Maybe this scared them away at that time.
– When did you join the military?
– On March 7, we all got together, came to the military registration and enlistment office, and we were accepted for service. And on March 21 or 24, I don’t remember the exact date, we swore allegiance to the people of Ukraine and became soldiers of territorial defense.
– The Sumy territorial defense is legendary.
– But we are not Sumy, we are Konotop.
– But you are from Sumy region! So, you are legendary here.
– We are not legendary; we are just like everyone else. Our party members are all in business. Anton Korotkyi is in the military. Serhiy Sobora works at the railroad. At the beginning, my unit was subordinated to the 58th separate motorized infantry brigade named after Ivan Vyhovsky. Since February 9, 2023, my separate battalion of the Armed Forces has been located near Bakhmut.
– Tell me, did you have any preparation for Bakhmut? Did you have any tactical training? Did you have fire training?
– Oleh Ryabchenko joins the conversation: We can say that we were not prepared. A couple of times we were taken out for shooting, where the guys could shoot 15 rounds each. The only thing we had a full training in was tactical medicine. Because we did it on our own.
– So, you organized among yourselves and taught each other what you knew?
– Yes, that’s right.
– Oleh Syvash: The main thing is human lives. And there is only one way to save them – a good, adequate commander who understands the value of human life.
– Are your brothers from Konotop also with you near Bakhmut?
– Oleh Syvash: Yes, they are.
– Who were they in civilian life?
– Oleh Ryabchenko: We don’t have many military men. There are a few border guards. They became our department commanders. But most of them are civilians. I was actually engaged in the sewing business before the full-scale war. We even have pensioners here, people of simple working professions.
– What was the hardest thing about this year?
– Oleh Ryabchenko: We all came as volunteers. We are not afraid of life and military difficulties, because we all came consciously, and we are all very motivated. We were ready for any difficulties.
– Oleh Syvash: The hardest thing happened to us here in Bakhmut – one of our comrades was killed and one was wounded. These guys were directly from our company. It is very hard.
– Oleh Ryabchenko: It so happened that Oleh and I evacuated our wounded from the battlefield. Our combat medic gave him first aid, and then we took him for treatment. And when we were on the way, we were informed on the radio that our combat medic had a myocardial infarction. We had to quickly return and save the life of our combat medic. We even managed to bring him alive to the medical company. Unfortunately, he did not survive. It is very painful to lose people with whom you have lived side by side for a year.
– My condolences to you. Tell me, how is your everyday life organized?
– Oleh Ryabchenko: We independently distributed responsibilities among ourselves to create comfortable conditions for the soldiers of our company. Our senior officer provides us with food by hook or by crook. Only our company can boast of hot lunches, not dry rations. We make sure the guys have a chance to dry off in the dugouts. Sometimes the conditions are difficult, people are on combat duty for several days and freeze. When they have a day to rest, we do our best to warm them up, dry them, feed them and provide them with a break.
– Oleh Syvash: All the people here are good; we take care of each other. We joke around and find time for humor to keep morale up. We do everything we can to keep our spirits up.
– I can’t imagine what it’s like for you there. All the videos and photos from Bakhmut look scary. And you, being there, are still making jokes.
– Oleh Ryabchenko: We are each other’s support. Also, personal qualities of people play a big role. There are people who keep the whole team on a wave of optimism. In addition, we do not deprive anyone of respect and attention. We monitor if someone is withdrawing, and we do everything we can to excite and support them.
– You are also a psychologist?
– Oleh Ryabchenko: Each of us is a psychologist here. We have people of all ages here – 50, 25, and 30. And we all have to find common ground. The older ones try to support the younger ones in a parental way, to encourage them. We have a healthy atmosphere in the team, and this has a positive effect on the general condition.
– Oleh Syvash: Just so you understand, we are talking to you now, and we are being heavily shelled.
– Can you distinguish the sounds of shells? The sounds of war?
– Oleh Syvash: Yes, we can distinguish everything. We can hear a tank, artillery, everything.
– Do you have any breaks between shelling?
– Oleh Syvash: We are under fire around the clock. The intensity varies, but it is never quiet here. We are already used to it.
– Do you manage to sleep in such an environment?
– Oleh Ryabchenko: There are guys who do not sleep well. Sometimes I give them sedatives to help them sleep. There are those who can pass out for a couple of hours. We try to use every free hour to rest, because there are not so many of them. Besides, we don’t know what the next one will bring.
– Oleh Syvash: You can’t imagine how lucky am I. Oleh supports me here with injections. Without him, it would be hard for me.
– Oleh Ryabchenko: How can I not treat him? I know what kind of pain Oleh is suffering, but he will never show it. Whenever you ask him “How are you?”, he always answers “Thank God, everything is fine”. Today he even brought back a trophy!
– And what’s in it?
– Oleh Ryabchenko: Something that will help us in the fight against the enemy.
– I can say on behalf of all of us that we are keeping our fingers crossed for you and worrying about you.
– Oleh Ryabchenko: We thank you, we feel it.
– Oleh Syvash: We understand why we are here – we are protecting our women and our dear Ukraine.
– We thank you very much. I ask all our party members about the happiest moment of this year. What was yours?
– Oleh Syvash: The best moments are when you wake up and see your friends. And if they smile back at you, then I’m happy. When I call home and hear the voices of my family and friends, when I hear your voice, I am also happy. The main thing is our families, our people, our Ukrainian women.
– Oleh Syvash: When we all come together, then victory has come. We realize that it will not happen quickly. The Russians will not retreat. Unless Putin dies, and this will accelerate the “disarmament” of the Russians.
– Oleh Ryabchenko: I am confident that the victory of the Armed Forces of Ukraine will be bright, and the whole world will witness it. The victory will be based on the patriotism of our military, on their fierce desire to defend themselves. Military strategists have to determine how this will be realized, but we will definitely win back all our land. Thanks to the support of the world, thanks to the personal qualities and skills of Ukrainians. Because we are Cossacks in spirit and blood, we can do it.
– What do you dream of doing first of all after the victory?
– Oleh Ryabchenko: I dream of hugging my family. On February 7, my granddaughter was born, she was brought to Konotop on February 9, and on that day we marched to Bakhmut. I really want to see my granddaughter.
– How old are you? You sound very young!
– Oleh Ryabchenko: I am 54. Age depends on the strength of the spirit. We are all of Cossack descent. Here we forget about all our hurts, we try to be on a par with the young. Somewhere we have to be an example for them, somewhere we have to support them. We pass on all our life experience to our guys.
– Oleh, let me ask you finally if your Ukrainian House – Konotop Family is still working?
– Oleh Syvash: Yes, it works. Andriy Larionov is currently in charge of all the issues there. The Ukrainian House provides legal assistance to the military. We provide children with gifts and events for the holidays whenever possible, and support children’s artistic groups. Our young artists need a stage, despite the war. They are children!
– I agree with you. I send you my biggest hugs. Please get in touch whenever possible. Thank you so much. Keep up the good work!
The conversation was conducted by Yulia Pidkurganna