The sun has already risen. Slowly, instructor Gold – with his close-cropped red spiky hair and taut upper body – crosses the grounds, moving towards a group of tents. He blows his whistle. “Pidjom!” He shouts. “Get up!”
Shuffling and buzzing sounds erupt immediately. Tents are zipped open. The sleepy faces of eight-year-old children pop out. Lanky adolescents with bags under their eyes scramble to look for their shoes, amid shoving and curses. After brushing their teeth, the first training session awaits: a long-distance run with intermittent sets of 10 push-ups.
Azov is a Ukrainian volunteer battalion fighting pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine. For a second consecutive summer, it is organizing children’s camps as well, like this one in woodlands near the capital of Kiev. Fifty children between the ages of eight and 16 are being forged into elite patriots within 12 days.
After breakfast the children assemble at the flagpole. They are dressed in camouflage gear. On an order from Gold they remove their caps. They hold their fists to their chests and repeat his words after him, with loud roars. “Ukraine, holy mother of heroes, come into my heart. May my soul be revived by you and enlightened with your glory. You, holy of holies, are my life and my happiness.”
The camp flag is then raised: the blue and yellow of Ukraine with the image of a soldier.
At around lunchtime, Kalashnikovs are brought out. Tarkan, from Kiev, a lean 13-year-old girl, only needs 36 seconds to complete its maintenance. “Remove the magazine and cocking lever, release the gas cylinder. Then you put it back together again. Be careful: never aim the barrel at a person. Unless you know for sure that you want to shoot.”
In the late afternoon, as the summer sun descends, the children do a positional play. Using wooden rifles and airsoft weapons – the small plastic pellets that only hurt slightly – the children simulate combat situations: they have to communicate with each other, choose a position, make a quarter-turn and fire. “Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam,” they shout.
All the instructors have combat experience with the Azov battalion. Gold fought near Donetsk, where he is said to have saved the life of one of the children’s uncles. Bear was a marksman, Borja a medic. Gold, at 27, is the oldest instructor; the rest are in their early 20’s.
“The instructors show us what war is,” says Tarkan. “We get medical lessons. They teach us how to survive in a forest or in a desert. This way we experience what it’s like to be a soldier.”
Many of the children, like her, are the sons and daughters of Azov fighters. They are clearly not from the underclass. They are well-dressed, well-mannered and, above all, curious.
Nine-year-old Smolny, studious with glasses, comes from the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv and has looked forward to the camp for a year. “My father is with Azov and I am now in the Azov camp. My dream has come true.”
The rigorous training is effective. “I’ll never be able to do that, I thought, when I first saw the obstacle run,” says Smolny. “We have to walk across a balance beam while being shot at by marksmen and then we have to cross a minefield. I thought I would fall and that everybody would start booing me. But if I have self-confidence, I can do it without any help from the instructors.”
As dusk falls, the sound of another prayer is heard: “Burn all weakness from my heart, so I will not feel fear or doubt. Make my spirit strong.”
Then the flag is lowered. Around the campfire, songs are sung. The most popular song ends with the chorus: “Death to the Russians.”
The Azov battalion is feared by the Russians but popular with many Ukrainians. The volunteer battalions do the war’s dirty work. Azov is proud of its part in the battle of Shyrokyne, a resort on the Sea of Azov where conflict erupted in February 2015. The Russia-backed rebels were prevented from conquering the “land bridge” from Russia to Crimea – the peninsula annexed by the Russian army in March 2014.
At the moment, the fighters are taking a break at their base – a resort on the Sea of Azov, close to the city of Mariupol in the most southwestern part of Ukraine. The ceasefire is a key part of the Minsk Protocol, agreed to last year. Although the warring parties don’t respect its terms, the Azov fighters have no choice but to train hard at a gym by the sea. Tall men with boxers’ battered noses and six-pack abs train there with bars and weights.
“The only wounds I treat at the moment are injuries as a result of training,” says Mama, the battalion’s doctor. “Some men have drunk too much cold water.”
Mama, 30, chose to join this “elite force” two years ago, as the Azov fighters describe their battalion. “It is our objective to drive the enemy out of our country. We want to fight and be equipped in accordance with European and Nato standards,” says Mama.
She was a doctor at the battle of Shyrokyne. “Many fighters were only 16 or 18 years old. I felt as if I could have been their mother,” she says, explaining her nickname. She smiles as she thinks about their childlike bravado. “After a mortar attack they swore to go back to the battlefield as soon as I had pulled the splinters out of their bodies. They boasted about how many shells they had fired in the direction of the enemy.”
But young as they were, many died. February 2015 sticks in Mama’s mind, not just for Valentine’s Day but for the largest numbers of people wounded and killed in the fighting – as many as 72.
“Shyrokyne was the outpost from hell. I was asleep on my feet and after three days, all of us were sick.” She tells how she tried to get a wounded soldier to a hospital but didn’t have enough tourniquets to stem the flow of blood. Cossack, as he was known by his nickname, bled to death on the journey there. “He was barely 20 years old,” she says.
The young fighters grow up fast. “A significant number of them were still students,” says Mama. “After five days of shelling, I looked into their eyes. They seemed to have aged 10 years.”
Tarkan says: “War is terrifying, because everybody suffers. The enemy too.”
Her mother organizes the funerals of Azov fighters killed. “War is bloodshed,” says Smolny. “And those that die become heroes.”
The children rub sleep from their eyes. During the night they had an “alarm”, at 3am. In the pitch blackness, the sound of explosions startled them out of their sleep. They left their tents and defined their position in the midst of murky smoke bombs. They had to suppress their panic, above all.
Nevertheless, this camp is not for preparing children for war, claims instructor Gold. “We give nationalistic and patriotic schooling. That includes bringing people here from the eastern front to talk about what happens there. The children should know what’s going on in Ukraine.”
“None of us really considers going to war,” says Tarkan. “After camp, I’m not going to pick up a weapon and shoot people.”
Despite the extreme lyrics in some songs, the children express tolerance towards the Russians.
“Russians are people too,” says Tarkan. “Some support Ukraine, others don’t. Those who don’t are people who believe everything that is said on television.”
Smolny says: “There are traitors in Ukraine as well. They work for our opponents.”
The children say they are willing to die for their country. “Yes, I can imagine that”, says Smolny. “It is an honour to be deserving of it.”
Tarkan says: “The national interest outweighs our own interest. If we give our lives for Ukraine, the next generation will enjoy peace and a better existence.”
Michiel Driebergen is a freelance correspondent from the Netherlands, based in Krakow, Poland.