It Could Happen Here: 5 Ways Civil War Changes Modern Life
We've got no shortage of political strife in the USA. But for all the antagonism inherent in our democracy, we all agree to put up with the Other Guys when they win power. The only alternative to that would be some sort of civil war, and that kind of thing could never happen here. The people of Ukraine thought the same thing two years ago. And then, while they were busy getting degrees, raising families, and starting careers, a civil war snuck up and slapped their lives right in the dick. We sent a writer to Ukraine to speak with soldiers and civilians across the country. They told us ...
"It's Like A Bad Dream"
Ukraine's civil war started after a months-long protest unseated the president. People in Western Ukraine were generally happy with this development. But over in the East, where the president enjoyed more support, people were less happy. Within a matter of weeks a huge chunk of Eastern Ukraine, centered around the city of Donetsk, declared itself a new country: "Novorussia." President Yanukovych was ousted on Feb. 22. Our source Anna lived in the city of Donetsk. On March 1, barely a week later, this happened:
"A group of ... aggressive people got out on the streets of Donetsk, and some seemed to be local, others had accents that seemed to ID them as Russian. They seemed to be from Russian cities like Rostov. They came out and put out Russian flags; they took down Ukrainian flags. They surrounded the district council building, and they stormed the building. ... [They] wanted to make this man Pavel Gubarev mayor. People were shouting 'Russiya!' and started taking down Ukrainian flags."
Apparently, no one told them governments don't run on Capture the Flag rules.
Our source knew plenty of people who wound up supporting the separatist cause, including the guy who pulled their national flag down from the council building. A month or two before, these people had all just been her fellow citizens. In less time than it takes to earn an Introduction to Psychology credit, their political differences had made the leap from amiable disagreements to people dying in the streets.
"There was a meeting of some pro-Ukrainian people, a demonstration on the 13th of March in the central square. A big fight broke out, because at one point ... a young boy was severely cut. The kid died of the stab wound."
People were jump-kick angry before; what do you think happened after?
That just looks like a normal picture of a civic disturbance. Something that could've come from Occupy Wall Street or the protests in Ferguson. But in this case, it was the first battle of a civil war. In less than two months, the situation in Ukraine escalated to armies in the field and artillery pounding neighborhoods. None of the dozens of people we spoke with across three cities expressed anything but disbelief about this. The most common sentence we heard was:
"It's like a bad dream."
"I Volunteered So That My Sons Wouldn't Have To Fight"
Vicious civil warfare tends to put a strain on the military. Lincoln's first major decision when the capital-C Civil War started was to draft 75,000 men into the army on 90-day terms. Ukraine did something similar: Anyone who wanted to be in the army was allowed in the army. They just had to buy their own gear and show up for a week of training. Since the barrier to military entry had been reduced to "wear camouflage," the capital city of Kiev filled with men enlisting via fashion choices.
Everyone here is wearing their proper uniform, including the car.
We arrived, by accident, on Ukraine's Independence Day. A good half of the men out on the street were in some form of uniform. Some of them were young, fit, wearing new uniforms with official-looking insignia. Others were potbellied middle-aged men wearing pieces of various uniforms and, generally, drinking (in their defense, we've literally never been sober on July 4th).
And when you're fighting for freedom, technically every day's Independence Day.
Our first assumption is that these young, fit, disciplined-looking men (and women!) were clearly the sort of regular army soldiers actually doing the fighting. The random creepy uncles wearing digicam trousers and sandals had just joined some volunteer battalion so they could get laid. The first soldiers we saw at a checkpoint on our way to the front seemed to back this up. They had nice uniforms, full body armor, and weapons all over their bodies. Our interpreter pointed out that they might've actually been cops. Apparently, there's not much of a line between the two in a warzone.
And then we actually got near the front, and most of the soldiers were those middle-aged potbellied dudes. They manned checkpoints and guarded vital targets and patrolled the streets. We met one group of partisan volunteers at a destroyed bridge.
A literal bridge to nowhere.
They were close enough to the rebels that we couldn't use GPS -- it didn't know where their checkpoints were. The colonel in charge of the city of Avdiivka was a full-bellied man in mismatched camo pants and a very tight camouflage T-shirt. Remember this guy, from earlier?
If not, you've been drinking more than him.
He was actually perfectly lucid and basically sober: This was his one beer after duty. He wouldn't even let me buy him a second. No explanation for the lack of undershirt, though. That's on him.
On the train back to Kiev, we met a middle-aged sniper being rotated away from the front lines after more than a year. He gave an answer that was common among these older volunteer warriors.
"I volunteered so that my sons wouldn't have to fight."
He'd give those kids the shirt off his back.
We wound up sharing a couple beers and a whiskey-filled glass pig with him. Then he took his shirt off and showed us that kick-ass belt buckle. He was pretty rad.
"I Still Work There"
If you live in the suburbs, imagine the city nearest to you seceded from the United States. Suddenly Houston is a battleground, but, shit, you still need to go there -- you might even work there. That doesn't change just because some fools with cannons happen to be blasting the shit out of the Jamba Juice.
We spoke with one woman in Konstantinivka who worked in Donetsk, heart of the rebel movement and also a 20-minute drive away. She commuted across the front line every day to work. Further, her office happened to be near Donetsk airport, site of one of the war's most vicious battles. She was wounded in the arm by rocket shrapnel while working her day job -- as a freaking accountant.
Her day started in the black and ended in her red.
She still works there. She spends around $20 a week (a lot more money than it sounds in Eastern Ukraine) on travel. Meanwhile, separatist civilians who live over in Donetsk would cross over on a regular basis to use the ATMs. Trucks full of enemy soldiers rolled by while civilians stood in line to grab their week's cash and then sneak back across the border.
Warzones don't tend to take debit cards.
"They Said They Wanted To Talk, But From The Beginning They Were Abusive"
During the Civil War, the Lincoln administration arrested at least 14,401 civilians: one person out of every 1,563 in the country. Again, this pattern is repeated in Ukraine. Anna, our source from earlier, was arrested once her hometown became the separatist capital. Her crime was flying a Ukrainian flag ... and by "flying" we mean pinning it up on her bedroom wall. Rebel officials told her that the flag was "forbidden."
Anna explained that a "snitch" had visited their apartment with her roommate. He saw inside her room, noticed the flag, and reported it to the new authorities, who came to her house:
"They said they wanted to talk, but from the beginning they were abusive."
She was in jail for six days. Eventually they started to torture her: She showed us lacerations on her hands and arms where she said they'd cut her.
Over a flag. On a wall.
Another source, who drove us through the military checkpoints and up to Avdiivka, reported being arrested as well, but by the Ukrainian government. The rebels briefly took over his home city. It was retaken in a month, and as a self-defense measure some of the men who'd collaborated with the brief rebel government turned him in as a sympathizer to allay suspicion from themselves.
This happened to him three times.
"When They Smoke, They Are Still Afraid, But They Can Function. With Alcohol They Cannot Function"
A good half of the soldiers we passed at the checkpoints were on their phones or actively using their phones as an ersatz boombox to allay the boredom of waiting at checkpoints. Ukraine's cell data network covers the areas involved in the fighting, which means soldiers are still free to text, check their email, and send selfies from the battleground. That last one is kind of a major problem.
See, most modern cameras include GPS data in the image files they make. Early in the war one Russian soldier posted a selfie on Instagram that led to the first objective confirmation that Russian soldiers were fighting in Ukraine:
The second was a "Guess the country?" meme.
When we were near the front, the Ukrainian military had forbidden pictures of their checkpoints and defenses, out of fear that separatist artillery would use the geodata to target bombardments. We were expressly forbidden from taking pictures of any of the emplacements as a result.
Alcohol and drugs are a big distraction, too: Remember that sniper from earlier, the one we met on the train? After drinking a glass pig filled with whiskey with him ...
And this little piggy got a DUI on the way home.
... he gave us a thumb drive with all of his war pictures and music (a lot of 3 Doors Down, to be honest). It included pictures of him with his gigantic, terrifying rifle:
Which absolutely stopped any chance of us calling him out on the 3 Doors Down thing.
But also this:
We asked him what the fuck was going on here, and he explained that the bottle set up there was a crude field bong they'd crafted to smoke marijuana with. He would only say that the weed came from "volunteers." He added:
"I've seen young guys old enough to be my sons, scared ... and when they smoke, they are still afraid, but they can function. With alcohol they cannot function."
In other words: If you can't stop your volunteer militia from getting fucked up in the field, better they be stoned than drunk. If there's only one message you ever take away from a Cracked article, make it that one.
For more insider perspectives, check out 6 Insane Things You Learn Overthrowing Your Own Government and 5 Survival Lessons From Inside A Real-World Dystopia.
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