On patrol with Dnepr-1, Volnovacha Frontline, Ukraine
We approach the last Ukrainian checkpoint at the buffer zone in Volnovacha, eastern Ukraine. A nervous soldier from the National Guard asks for our permits.
“Where are we going?" replies our driver. "It’s not for you to ask. Do you not see out number plates? Dnepr-1.”
The guard hesitates and mumbles: “You can pass.”
This is met by a chuckle from Convoy, our driver’s nom de guerre: “Of course we can pass.”
In the car is the diversionary ‘Tesla’ group from the Dnepr-1 Battalion, a special police detachment which has already earned a fierce reputation in combat.
The commander, who goes by the name of Desant, shows us the only thing he received from the government, a 1967-made AK-47.
“We bought everything ourselves, including this van; we even pay for the petrol ourselves,“ says Desant.
The Tesla unit operates behind enemy lines, and can already boast a number of successful missions under its belt.
“We go out to silence the artillery,” smiles Mario, one of the Tesla men. The unit consists of people from many regions and nationalities, including soldiers from Donetsk and an entire Crimean platoon.
As we roll into the buffer zone, Goritz adjusts his rifle in the back while Desant becomes silent, scanning the hedges in front, and Convoy accelerates the creaking Volkswagen Transporter van. The village of Novotroits’ke, which is inside the buffer zone, changes hands during the day.
On 15 March, the Ukrainian army only regained control of it after 3pm. The number of destroyed buildings has created animosity among the locals - who are hostile to the Ukrainian army. "They say, 'if you weren’t here, we would still have our homes,' to which the Ukrainian army answers, 'if you didn’t have your referendum, we’d all be at home with our wives and kids,' " replies Desant in reference to the referendum held for the independence of Donbass in 2014.
Ukrainian forces in Volnovaha indicate that they have pulled back all of their heavy weapons from the area in accordance with the Minsk Agreement. However, incoming artillery fire can be heard as close as few kilometres from the Tesla base.
According to Ukrainian army reports, the rebels were firing 120mm shells, which were outlawed by the Minsk Agreement. “We took everything back. If they come with tanks, they’ll go straight through,” says Desant.
Away from the frontline, a whole other war exists – the information war. As it stands, all Ukrainian channels are cut off in areas controlled by separatists, and Russian channels have been off the air in the Ukraine.
One of the Tesla men spent two days watching only Russian channels, including Novorossiya TV, the rebels' propaganda channel. “‘In the end,' he says to the guys, 'maybe we are fighting a wrong war,' ” Desant recalls the solider saying. “After a second’s pause, we all burst out laughing.”