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A front-line mystery: Was he scouting for firewood, or for Russia?

Seesaw battles, offensives and retreats often yield dozens of captives who are ferried off to headquarters for interrogation
A Ukrainian police officer in Lyman after it was recaptured from the Russians.
A Ukrainian police officer in Lyman after it was recaptured from the Russians.

The white speedboat pulled close to the riverbank in eastern Ukraine and disgorged a half-dozen Ukrainian soldiers carrying their rifles, their packs and the look of exhaustion that comes from days on the front under relentless shelling.

But the last two men aboard the pleasure craft-turned-troop transport awkwardly hoisted a different kind of cargo ashore: a prisoner clad in a Russian camouflage parka with a dish towel fixed around his head using clear packing tape, applied by his captors so that he could not identify the location.

His name was Aleksandr, he was 69 years old and he insisted that he had done nothing wrong. The Ukrainians weren’t buying it.

Ukrainian and Russian forces have captured thousands of prisoners since Russia attacked in February.

Seesaw battles, offensives and retreats often yield dozens of captives who are ferried off to headquarters for interrogation. And with both militaries often in uniform, identifying combatants is far easier than it was during the murky counterinsurgency conflicts of the past two decades in places such as Iraq or Afghanistan.

But when Aleksandr was captured outside the eastern city of Lyman last week, he was thinly dressed, without the customary armband denoting his allegiance — usually red or white for Russia and blue or yellow for Ukraine. To keep him warm, the Ukrainian soldiers gave him a Russian parka they had lying around in their trench.

“He came out of the forest and went to our positions,” said Serhiy, one of the Ukrainian soldiers who had found Aleksandr, recounting the capture to a pair of reporters from The New York Times visiting their position near the front line.

Very little on the battlefield can be ascertained with much conviction: where the enemy will strike next, what lies around the bend of a river, whether the next step in an overgrown field will land safely or detonate a deadly mine. The exchange between Ukrainian soldiers and Aleksandr that unfolded over the next roughly 15 minutes provided a snapshot of the confusion and ambiguity that defines life on the front line — what has long been known as the fog of war.

Lyman, a strategically important rail hub, sits on the northeastern bank of the Siversky Donets river amid a mesh of fields and forests. The Russians captured it in May, but over the weekend Ukraine’s forces retook the city as part of a stunning offensive that is pushing back Russia in the east. Lyman could serve as an important foothold in future Ukrainian advances.

Retaking Russian strongholds means also taking Russian prisoners.

Mostly they are soldiers to be held by the Ukrainians, and possibly traded for their own comrades. But there are also civilians suspected of collaborating with the Russians — as the Ukrainian soldiers thought when they apprehended Aleksandr last week.

The Ukrainians were convinced he was a scout for the Russian troops nearby and was trying to find their positions and report them back to the enemy. “He’s the recon, he was looking around!” Serhiy exclaimed.

“What ‘look around’? I was going for firewood,” Aleksandr protested, standing next to Serhiy, blindfolded and expressing annoyance at the accusations. The only part of his face visible under the coloured stripes of the towel was a weathered chin and gray beard stubble.

“How do I know whose positions are where?” Aleksandr asked meekly.

A soldier standing nearby scolded their prisoner: “Who are you telling tales here?” And he scoffed at Aleksandr’s excuse for being in the area. “Firewood!” he snorted.

Fighting in forests, as the Ukrainian troops were when they captured Aleksandr last Monday, is gut-wrenching. Lines of sight are obstructed by foliage, sounds are amplified and overanalysed. Low-lying vegetation provides ample concealment for ambushes — so discovery, especially by the better-armed Russians, would make artillery quick to follow.

“He came out from 12 o’clock,” Serhiy added, meaning directly in front of his position. “From where no one is supposed to be at all, and no peaceful people.” In keeping with Ukrainian military precautions, Serhiy provided only his first name.

“Why were you helping them?” another soldier asked. “Wh ... who did I help, I don’t get it?” Aleksandr said.

Artillery fire thudded in the distance and returning soldiers secured their speedboat to the muddy bank.

Aleksandr’s hands were unbound, but he held them behind his back. Serhiy adjusted his weight, holding his rifle nonchalantly, reminding his captive from time to time to keep his arms where he could see them.

The atmosphere between the troops and their captive was mostly non-threatening, but over the course of the war Ukrainian and Russian forces have been accused of torturing and killing prisoners — although accusations against Moscow’s forces have far outweighed those against Ukraine’s.

Aleksandr said he had served in the Soviet army in 1971, and had not served in the separatist military of the Donetsk People’s Republic, which has been fighting Ukrainian government forces in a simmering war since 2014. Donetsk is one of four regions in Ukraine that President Vladimir Putin said he was annexing on Friday, a claim that was widely denounced as illegitimate in the West.

Some Ukrainian soldiers close by chuckled at Aleksandr’s denials, although others bristled, convinced that he was working for the enemy. The separatist militias heavily rely on conscripts, many of them older men. But a man nearing 70 would be a stretch for even the most desperate recruiter.

“I am living in Zeleniy now,” explained Aleksandr. “In Lyman, well ... I have a dacha, a garden there. I am cultivating a garden there.”

“Potatoes. He was digging potatoes. Bulbas! Bulbas!” Serhiy joked, using the Ukrainian word for the vegetable.

The veracity of Aleksandr’s explanations could not be confirmed. In his pocket were Russian rubles (which he said were used at the local market) and a one-time pass for him to transit from Lyman to the separatist-controlled city of Ilovaisk. -- New York Times

Natalia Yermak

The writer works for the NYT

Thomas Gibbons-Neff

The writer is the Kabul bureau chief at NYT

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