war crimes in Ukraine

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Survey in military unit А 1915

Oleksandr Stepanenko, Chortkiv
The anonymous survey presents some cheering findings, as does the cooperation the local group encountered, however the level of ignorance about Ukraine’s international commitments is disturbing

The Chortkiv centre of the bulletin “Prava ludyny”, within the framework of the Campaign against torture and cruel treatment in Ukraine has carried out second anonymous survey in the army. The first attempt to ascertain the attitude of servicemen to the problem of illegal violence was undertaken in 2003 in military aviation unit A 4079. This unit has since been disbanded as part of reduction in  the Armed Forces. Abandoned hangars, ruined buildings, kilometres of concrete strips of the Chortkiv military airdrome stand as eloquent testimony to the absurdity of the old militarization. All suddenly became “redundant” to state departments, however continued to provide good plunder for the crafty of all levels and types.

However that is not our subject here. A 1915 is at present not facing reductions or disbanding, at least in as much as one can predict the regime’s actions. Informal communication with many servicemen enables us to conclude that army life in this unit is not without problems, but such problems are no more all-encompassing than, for example, in healthcare or education, not to mention law enforcement bodies.  The majority of officers therefore value their work and try to fulfil its requirements. The move towards a contracted service system is continuing with more than half the junior staff of Unit A 1915 on contract.

20 special “officer’” questionnaires were processed. About half of our respondents confirmed that they had encountered torture and other forms of cruel treatment in the Armed Forces. Approximately the same number had personally experienced cruel treatment during their service and regarded such treatment an important problem in the army. However in their experience most cases of cruel treatment had been discovered and the culprits punished. The following were given as main causes of illegal violence in the Armed Forces: a low level of psychological, intellectual and physical preparation before the army service, “historical tradition” of violence in army, little awareness of justice and legal culture, as well as impunity for acts of violence. The question: “Why, in your opinion, are cases of cruel treatment not disclosed and punished?” generated such answers: “reluctance of the commander who finds out about the offence to try to launch a criminal case because, as a result, he will be punished too”; “army law enforcement bodies do not analyze the essence of the problem, but only establish facts”, “the main principle of their activities is punishment, but not protection of rights of servicemen”, “unwillingness of the victim to “sneak”, and the pathological logic “I am beaten, and I will beat””.

The forms also asked how well servicemen knew the norms of domestic and international law on torture and other forms of cruel treatment. Here the general situation was as follows: the overwhelming majority of officers believed that they knew the norms of the Criminal Code of Ukraine. Yet, as to the international norms, which are now part of domestic law, for example, the norms of the UNO Convention against Torture, the opposite was unfortunately true. Incidentally, it is not difficult to see in the unit that most of the information on the stands containing extracts from normative legal acts concern offences committed by servicemen, but not their rights. Thus, I believe it would be advisable to provide reminders in this material of the basic legal terms of the UNO Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment of 10 December 1984. The term “torture” means “any act, by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed of is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person…” The terms “inhuman and degrading treatment” is rather vague in the juridical sense. The European Commission on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights give the following definition: “Inhuman treatment or punishment is treatment that intentionally inflicts serious moral or physical suffering and cannot be justified in this situation. Degrading treatment or punishment is treatment that flagrantly humiliates a person in the presence of other people and makes him act against his will or conscience.

We obtained 29 filled questionnaires out of 50 distributed among soldiers. Incidentally, Major S. Cherniak a deputy commander on humanitarian issues told us that anonymous surveys had already been conducted among the soldiers of this unit. A generalized portrait of servicemen from unit A 1915, based on processing the questionnaires, suggests that they are from a rural area or small town, have specialized secondary education, worked before the army and intend to return to work after demobilization. They normally joined the army in order to obtain a profession which will be of use in their future life, and to check their ability to survive under any conditions.

I would like to point out that the most comforting result of the poll was that to the question “Does “didivshchyna” [bullying or worse of conscripts by officers and other senior staff] exist in your unit?” 28 of our respondents answered “No” and only one wrote: “Didivshchyna in our unit takes the form of moral and physical support”. So, in spite of all fragmentariness of information obtained from the questionnaires, one can say that the moral and psychological climate in unit A 1915 is absolutely normal.

The respondents were asked to give a rating from 1 to 5 of the conditions of life and service in the unit. The highest marks were given to “workmates” and “quality of food”, the lowest, mostly “threes” and “fours”, and even “twos” – to living conditions in barracks. The marks for quality of medical care and fairness of commanders spanned the whole range. Soldiers did not complain of any deterioration in health due to army service or of  harmful work conditions, such as contact with toxic substances, although in December 2005 there was a case when soldiers did not obtain winter footwear in time, and many of them caught colds. Furthermore, according to the sanitary instructor of the unit P. Hluhovskiy, medical provisions are extremely inadequate. In fact the first aid kit of the medical centre demonstrated that clearly enough without further commentary. Modern methods of treatment of, for instance, respiratory viral illnesses are beyond wildest dreams. To the question “Who would you turn to for help if problems arose during your service?” the majority of soldiers answered “to workmates”, another part – “to commanders”, only several persons – “to parents” or “to older soldiers I know”, with nobody mentioning psychologists or priests. We asked whether staff lists of the unit allowed for the post of practicing psychologist. The answer appeared to be negative in the sense  in which psychologists work in the armies of West-European countries, that is as a specialist working on contract.. To a certain extent, the functions of a psychologist are fulfilled by the deputy commander in charge of humanitarian questions. However, when we asked how often soldiers turn to him, Major Cherniak answered frankly: “Not too often”. And the main reason is that psychological distance still exists between him and soldiers, who do not see him as an older colleague, but as a commander.

In going through the questionnaire, it was impossible not to notice the all too frequent mention of the practice of “punishment through work” for any infringements of discipline. Specific examples suggest that this work is, in most cases, not military at all (loading, digging, etc.), and sometimes – clearly useless. Almost every young man, who has returned from the army, confirms the existence of such practice since a soldier is seen first of all as a free and impersonalized workforce. Of course, it is impossible to do without day-to-day chores in the army, but is it possible to master a military specialty during one year of service, if such assignments occupy the lion’s share of time? How one can talk of a responsible attitude to military duty, if such “work punishments” are regularly imposed in an openly offensive and degrading fashion? How, for example, can one describe “scooping shit from a water closet using a bucket with holes”? By the way, this method of “work therapy” is mentioned in almost half of the questionnaires!

To the question “Who have you been in conflict with during your service?”, the majority mentioned Sergeant-Major F. Then the grievances, complaints about rudeness and unfairness of the ensign, as well as undisguised anger, poured out like from Pandora’s box. 

I will quote several statements: “the main problem in our unit is Sergeant-Major F.”, “the Sergeant-Major is intolerable”, “the Sergeant-Major doesn’t need a reason, he can find fault out of nowhere”, “he insults soldiers with bad language”, “he is unfair”, “if somebody hasn’t done something, he punishes soldiers who’ve got nothing to do with it “, “he and other sergeants deny me my dignity”, “the first days were unbearable because of the Sergeant-Major; now I also think about him badly – he is a strange man”, “he said that he would torment us”, “the master sergeant picks on everyone”, “we’re sick of the Sergeant-Major!!” and so on.

After doing the survey, participants in the Campaign against torture and cruel treatment in Ukraine had several meetings and talks with colonel V. Maksimchuk, the commander of the unit, and Major S. Cherniak a deputy commander on humanitarian issues. Unfortunately, we could not meet with the Sergeant Major himself. We visited soldiers’ barracks, rooms for study, mess-room and the medical unit. I can confirm that we found everything clear and in order everywhere, as far as this was possible with old buildings dating back to the times of Emperor Franz Joseph. Commanders pointed out the work in this sphere of the Sergeant Major F. It is obvious that he prioritizes order, and this is, maybe, good. Yet, it would be better to keep order without demonstrative abasement of his subordinates. “The main thing is that he never lifts his hand against soldiers. And he stays with them from morning to evening. So, maybe, soldiers get tired with this care, and he – with their resistance. Besides, some rudeness is always present in a men’s collective”. This is the opinion of the commanders. Well, let us suppose that it is true. As well as the opinion that it is impossible to create the atmosphere absolutely without conflicts in the army. After all, conflicts are natural in a dynamic human group, if, of course, they are resolved correctly..

We also heard the opinion that serving in the Ukrainian army is now very easy. Indeed our boys are not sent either against Mojahadin bullets or to liquidate a nuclear disaster. Under such conditions cases of loss of health or death of servicemen are absolutely inadmissible. For example, three years ago Ternopil dweller Taras Kholodynskiy tragically died in unit A 0666. We must be insistent in seeking an answer to why such things happen

One can dispute whether the changes in our society are positive or negative, yet they are clearly taking place. . At the same time, it seems that not everybody in the army and not always have managed adapt to these changes. Our enforcement bodies are still probably living  Stalin’s time. Not only the walls of Austrian barracks live until now, the methods of drilling and subjugation of soldiers, applied in Soviet times, are also too tenacious. One must understand that the methods, which were useful in the Soviet Union, are not efficient now. However, new methods, which will conform to the modern vision of perspectives of development of the army, are not created yet for some reason. I do not pretend to indisputability of my estimations, but I think that the main idea is that a modern and efficient army is an army based on individuals, from a soldier to a general, with conscious attitude to their rights and responsibility. Yet, if a soldier is treated as anonymous cheap labour, who has to carry out unskilled work.  anything goes in relation to him:: bad language, threats, public and sophisticated humiliations… Maybe I am not right, but it seems to me that only a bad soldier can be trained by such methods: broken-down, embittered, withdrawn and irresponsible. What would be the value of such soldier in case of real military conflict?

We have already said that the opinion dominates among the officers of unit A 1915 that one of the causes of illegal violence in the army is a low level of preparation of youth to military service. According to this viewpoint, “didivshchyna” among soldiers of the so-called “Vasiunin’s syndrome”, which is characterized by physical weakness, intellectual and spiritual backwardness. Certainly, there are some grounds for such statements, but I am not sure that they are indisputable. Some servicemen of unit A 1915 even have legal  education.  The majority of them answered our questions more or less completely, and nobody wrote that he considered himself to be not ready for service because of his physical condition. Almost all boys rated themselves as 5, or at least 4, as soldiers. . It is interesting that to the question “What do you lack in the army?” most soldiers answered “fairness” or “will”, but not “Mamma’s dinners” and not even “sweetheart”. . So, do the results of the questionnaire demonstrate an infantile attitude to army service? Probably not. They are normal boys, not without trust in people, benevolence and dignity. Maybe, this dignity is not always expressed adequately. This is the fault of our society, which is not too attentive and solicitous. As to the question about own moral preparedness to army service, there a positive answer was given only by 20 servicemen. Why? Most of them chose the answer “army discipline is not a problem for me, but other demands are made of me along army regulations”. So, the question is not made clear, what is the reason of conflicts, illegal violence and humiliation of human dignity in our army: the “syndrome of an underdeveloped soldier”, despotic and unrestrained senior staff or more general and objective factors?

The last item of soldiers’ questionnaire was the proposition to write a letter of advice to an imaginary son. They wrote the following: “Army service is a good thing, there you improve your health and obtain knowledge, which you will need in civic life. So, in my opinion, everyone must serve and serve honestly”; “I will tell how I served, in order to keep him from disappointment in the first days of service. Service in the Armed Forces of Ukraine is an interesting thing. Here you perceive yourself…”; “Sonny! When your father was going to the army, we hoped to find pleasure in the service, but instead got a heap of problems. However, these problems hurt and helm me find real friends. .I obtained from the army much more than expected”.

We want to thank the boys for their frankness (and I am almost sure that they were frank), for their friendliness, absence of spite and ability to reserve individuality even in sombre barracks. We are also grateful to the Commandment of the unit for his cooperation. They agreed that we would repeat the questioning in six months. So, we wish to believe that during these months the situation will improve, at least in the style of work of Sergeant Majour F.

P.S. Looking through the soldiers’ answers, I found one more complaint against the Sergeant Major/  “the underwear given by him always has holes, and later he wants to see the underwear undamaged”. These words about ripped material, evoked the impression of "déjà vu". I have seen something like that before. Really, the letter by Taras Kholodynskiy from notorious unit A 0666 to his mother contained similar lines: “At night somebody stole my trousers, shirt and boots, replaced my T-shirt with one that’s ripped.  Only my cap, jacket and belt remained, the Sergeant Major came brought me my  jacket and  clothes, which I had to mend for many hours, boots also are falling to pieces… Besides, he demands money for that. Mama, I must give him UH by 10 May. I know that you have no money either, and I do not want to ask, but conditions make me to do that…” Most probably, Taras did not have time to receive the money order with these ill-starred 40 UH. On 21 May 2003 he died after falling from roof of a barrack. The circumstances under which this happened, were not ascertained. The version of conflict with the ensign because of this “debt” was not considered by investigating officers of military prosecutor’s office. The guilty of the enigmatic death of the boy were not found. I want to believe that proper conclusions will be drawn from this tragedy…

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