On February 23 Ukraine celebrates the Defender's Day. Thanks God since the announcement of independence Ukrainian army has not had to defend our territory from foreign aggression. However, Ukrainian peacemakers work in various missions from Kosovo to Congo. To learn about the life of our soldiers in hot spots ForUm had an interview with Iliya Yegorov, acting head of the department for military cooperation and peacemaking operations of Land Forces of Ukraine.

- What peacemaking operations did you take part in?

- I participated in operations in Iraq, twice: from September 2004 until May 2005 with the Ukrainian peacemaking contingent in Iraq and from July 2009 until December 2010 with Ukrainian peacemaking personnel of NATO training mission. Those were two different operations: "Iraqi Freedom" and "New Dawn".

- What motivated you to take part in those missions?

- I have shoulder marks since I was 15, since Suvorov Military School. All this time I have been learning and teaching others to attain combat tasks. Participation in peacemaking operations enables to put your skills and knowledge into practice. There is also financial motivation - apart from military salary, every peacemaker receives additional allowances in foreign currency.

How did your family react to this?

- An officer chooses his profession only once, thus, ideally, the wife must realize that the military man has certain purposes. At any time he can go on a mission in a place where people shoot.

- But there are militaries, who do not go on missions...

- I don't understand these people. I don't understand why they chose this profession.

- How does the selection of soldiers for a mission go?

- The selection process is exhaustive and multilevel. There are special criteria, including physical and psychological, which are higher than usual criteria for military service. There are special commissions, which qualify candidates. Moreover, both main and reserve candidates take part in the training. Those who show better results go on mission.

- Are there many applicants for peacemaking missions?

- Yes, there are many volunteers, and knowledge of English, health conditions and professional training play an important role in the selection process. Knowledge of English is especially important for those who want to serve with peacemaking personnel in multinational environment.

- What were the most impressive moments of your mission?

- In 2004 I went to the zone of responsibility for the first time. Those running children... Armored vehicles drive through the city and children run next to them asking for water and food. Our soldiers always brought water with them to give to those children.  I was also impressed by Arab culture. Once I was controlling the line of duty at the block post "Hamada Bridge" and saw a boy, 10-11 years old, grazing sheep. The chief of the block post spoke Arab and we went to talk to the boy. Having seen the militaries the boy startled but did not run. It turned out he was the son of the sheikh of the nearby village. When we asked him with a surprise why he was grazing sheep, the boy rebelled and proudly announced he was not grazing sheep, his sisters were, while he was looking after them. (The sisters were older).

- Did you feel cultural differences?

- Of course I did. In the canteen, for example, servants always informed our allies-Arabs about dishes containing pork. When there was the praying time, even some generals were taking praying carpets. The most faithful even had bruises on their foreheads after praying.

- Were you afraid going to Iraq?

- When I was preparing for the mission, I knew what might happen. Moreover, during the training we were getting reports from the zone. In 2004, there were up to 60 terrorist acts every week, in 2009 - 30-40. In 2005, for example, a suicide-bomber exploded during the lunch. There were 80 dead and more than a hundred of wounded. I knew where I was going and I was ready. In August of 2009, near the Ministry of labor and the Finance Ministry in the center of Baghdad, there was an explosion of a gas-tank stuffed with explosives. At that moment, our group was working in the Interior Ministry of Iraq, very near to the place of attack. When it happens so close, it is scary.

- How do you overcome such psychological stress?

- American soldiers, for example, have recovery leave every half a year, but such holidays are not provided for Ukrainian soldiers. I served for 17 month in a hot spot without any vacation.  Off duty we were going to the pool, reading books, watching movies. The most effective anti-stress measure was talking to families through Skype.

In 2004-2005, when I served with the contingent, we were using American call office to call our families through international telephone service. But with NATO mission everyone had access to Internet and we talked to families by Skype. When there are two thousand kilometers between you and your family, the worries, even small one, turn you grey.

- What was the attitude of local population?

- Good. I felt it myself, and guys serving in Kosovo, Liberia, Congo and other missions also said that the attitude was good.

- Have you ever regretted your decision to go?

- No. this is our job. What is the point to join the army if you cannot attain a task?

- What did you miss most?

- My family, of course. Apart from that, I missed Ukrainian food - salo (salted pork, bacon), herring, rye bread. When there was rotation and newcomers were bringing "Ukrainian specialty" it was a true holiday.

- Did you need time to reconvert after coming home? Or the war remains with you forever?

- Of course, I needed time. Sometime after my return from Iraq, I was going in an intercity bus and saw a man giving a box to the driver (a parcel). The first thought that came to my mind was like, why did not he check what was inside!

Sometimes I dream about Iraq, but with the passage of time feelings are dulled.

After the mission with Ukrainian contingent, we even thought of some funny memo for peacemakers going home: "After a diner do not put dishes in the garbage, but in a dishwasher. If an officer stops you when you are driving and says "200", it is not a password, but the amount of fine. When you drive up to a store, do not cover your car with barbed wire." We have many similar jokes....

- Do you plan to go on other missions?

- If I were offered I would agree. I have a lot to give and teach, especially in training missions, aimed for training local forces in postwar countries.

Tetyana Hryhoriyeva, photos from personal archive of Iliya Yegorov


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