Video | A day with the Ukrainian civilians who make up the territorial defense units | Videos

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When Russian President Vladimir Putin declared war on Ukraine on the night of February 24, the Territorial Defense Units (UDT) posted the following announcement on their Facebook page: “Ukraine has entered full defense mode. Anyone who is ready and able to hold a weapon can join the Territorial Defense Units in their region.” The UDTs had been formed before the war broke out. For months, civilians from all over the country formed militias that, although they are protected by the regular army, are organized autonomously. But only with the war did they acquire the dimension they have. Although their number is secret, it is estimated that they are made up of millions of men and thousands of women. What a priori was their weakness – being made up of civilians without military training, by anyone “capable of holding a weapon” – has proven to be their greatest virtue. In the video that accompanies this news item, we see how Mariano, the father of a family with a medical condition that would prevent him from being part of the regular army, performs surveillance tasks at the entrance to his town, integrated into the local UDT. The neighbors have been here since the second day of the invasion organizing checkpoints. Although the war has not fully arrived – the closest bombardment was tens of kilometers away and the closest front is 500 kilometers away – the tension and the militarization of the streets is total. All the roads in the West are controlled by the militias. This allows the army and the most prepared UDT – those formed by veterans of the Donbas war – to concentrate on the front.

In a small city near the town where Mariano patrols, another UDT receives El País on the condition that we do not reveal their location or their identities. Paradoxically, militiamen who are on the front line fighting are more easily photographed. In the rear, there is distrust of any detail that could help the enemy in the event of a decision to extend the war to the West as well. Another of the UDT’s strengths is that they have managed to involve a very significant part of the population. Although the majority of the militiamen are men, hundreds of thousands of women participate every day in logistical tasks. They weave camouflage nets that are used at checkpoints, they cook for those who stand guard, they transport all kinds of materials between one post and another. Teenagers also collaborate. Young men who have not yet reached military age manage a small place where tactical material is stored that they are going to send to the front. They are one more link in a military structure whose head is the mayor. The young people speak with admiration of the town’s soldiers killed in combat. Some were only a couple of years older than them.

In addition to the national flag, there is a symbol present in the kids’ premises, the barricade on the main street and the checkpoint where Mariano stands guard. It is the red and black flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (EIU), an armed organization founded in World War II. Roman S. is the mayor of the town where Mariano lives. In the small town hall, an austere wooden house with just two rooms, there are not only several red and black flags but also the portraits of Stepán Bandera and Román Shujévych, leaders of the EIU. Roman assures that, although the Soviet propaganda brands Bandera and Shujévych as Nazi collaborators, they were only nationalists who fought for the independence of Ukraine. In the interview with El País he also affirms that Bandera died in a Soviet concentration camp. It is not true, he died in Munich (Germany) in 1959, poisoned by the KGB. It is also not true that he did not collaborate with Nazi Germany. His active participation in the holocaust and mass murder of the Polish population is widely documented. Ukrainian nationalism claims Shujvych and Bandera as national leaders. The posthumous appointment of Hero of Ukraine and subsequent annulment is just one of many episodes in the controversy of a country that has not made peace with its past. The confrontation with Russia – since 2014 in Donbas and Crimea, and now throughout the country – has been used by nationalists to cut the debate short. Now that the priority of the entire Ukrainian people, beyond ideologies, is to resist the invasion, the use of symbols that, for a large part of the population, continue to be controversial has been trivialized and extended.

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