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Interview: Ukrainian 'Cyborg' Describes Nine Days Defending Donetsk Airport

Twenty-two-year-old Serhiy Halyan during his tour of duty at Donetsk airport (Photo by Sergii Loiko)
Twenty-two-year-old Serhiy Halyan during his tour of duty at Donetsk airport (Photo by Sergii Loiko)

In eastern Ukraine, some of the fiercest fighting has taken place at the Donetsk airport, where Ukrainian troops and rebel fighters continue to exchange fire despite reducing the building to rubble. RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service speaks to a "cyborg," as the airport's Ukrainian defenders have come to be known.

For weeks, Ukrainian soldiers have struggled to maintain their sole foothold on the war-torn outskirts of Donetsk -- the city's newly modernized airport. The area has seen some of the fiercest fighting between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government troops known admiringly as "cyborgs." Daria Buniakina of RFE/RL's Ukraine Service caught up with one such cyborg -- 22-year-old Cherkassy native Serhiy Halyan -- who survived a surreal nine days at the airport and whose father is a Russian army colonel.

RFE/RL: What was it like at the airport?

Serhiy Halyan: Words can't convey what's going on at the Donetsk airport. It's a totally different world. I wasn't battle-hardened when I arrived. And then I saw how they were shooting at you with every kind of weapon: grenade launchers, machine guns, mortars, missiles. The most frightening thing was probably being fired at by a tank. It was also really frightening just being taken to the airport in a tank, because the road was completely surrounded by snipers.

There were two buildings under our control, and when I got to the new terminal, the first floor was ours, the second was ours, and the third was the separatists'. I was just in complete shock when I got there and saw what was going on. The enemy was above us, they were below us in the basement, and their snipers were surrounding the building.

In terms of morale, it's very difficult to realize that there's nowhere to retreat. God forbid you got into a really tough situation, because you wouldn't be able to get out of there. If you stepped out of the building, a sniper would get you immediately. Everyone understands that you need to hang in there until the last bullet is fired. You get used to the shelling, to things flying over your head. They become ordinary.

RFE/RL: How did you get used to it?

Halyan: We do our jobs, we carry out orders. One of the guys we were replacing gave us some good advice about how not to go crazy. He said don't just sit there -- you've got to keep living your life. Make some tea, go figure something out, check the ammunition. You need to live with it. Otherwise, if you just sit there turning things over in your head, the fear is going to take control of you, and things won't end well. So we tried to contribute to that kind of atmosphere. We held our positions, fulfilled our duties, and supported each other.

RFE/RL: Were there any parts of the Donetsk airport left where it was possible to hide from fire?

Halyan: When they're firing tank shells, you simply lie on the floor as flat as you can because there's no real cover, only drywall around you. We were in what was the airport's customs department, where there were conveyors that moved luggage. These conveyors are metal constructions that go up to your waist. So you could hide behind those. That was the one thing that could save you -- these three millimeters of metal running along the conveyor. So we lie down, we sleep, we work, and we take our breaks all behind that space. They can open fire at any moment and cause a lot of damage. So you needed to be on your toes constantly and know that the lives of your comrades depend on you. And your life depends on them.

'Cyborg' Tells Of Donetsk Airport Battles
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RFE/RL: Why do you think the defenders are called cyborgs?

Halyan: Early in my training, before I realized that I would end up at the airport, we really worried about the guys there. We were watching a TV report about them, and it was then I first heard the term "cyborgs." By the time I was there, I figured out that for nine days straight I was running on pure adrenalin. I probably ate once every 24 hours. And not because of the fighting, just because I didn't want to. I would eat once and drink tea with lots of sugar. Everything there is adrenalized. I lost six kilos in nine days. And you're not really sleeping. After nine days, your body is just completely worn out. But the whole time you're thinking clearly, you're fighting, you're hauling boxes of ammunition. That's when I understood what they meant by cyborgs.

RFE/RL: Did you see people die?

Halyan: Yes, during those nine days I did. Before that, perhaps, God protected me from such situations. I spent a lot of time in the convoys, but that was all calm. Now I understand that life, as they say, is cheap. It's a really frightening thing. An ordinary person doesn't understand that. I didn't understand it myself. It's like you grow up, finish school, go to university, find work. You have children, build a house, earn a pension. And in reality, a person's life is nothing. Especially when people have machine guns and there's no law behind what they're doing. They do whatever they want. If they don't like someone, then it's simpler to just get rid of the problem -- and then the person's not there anymore. It's really terrible.

RFE/RL: Who was worried about you back in Cherkasy?

Halyan: My university professors. My friends worried a lot. My mother didn't know. She thought that I was in Zhytomyr the whole time. I said that we were just being mobilized, that we were sitting in our units. Then when I was going to the airport I said that I was going for training and that I wouldn't be able to talk to her for a while because I wouldn't have a phone but that everything was fine. And then literally with three days to go until my break, she recognized me in a photograph. The ["Los Angeles Times"] correspondent Sergei Loiko came and photographed us. And she saw his photo of me at the airport. Of course my mother was shocked. But thank God they suddenly gave us leave after those three days. And I arrived home with a big bouquet. "Mama, I'm alive, I'm in one piece, and I'm here."

RFE/RL: Loiko's story about the defenders of the Donetsk airport was on the front page.

Halyan: Yes, I talked to him. I'm also interested in journalism, so I got a chance to ask him about this difficult profession. And he interviewed me: He was interested in the fact that my father lives in Russia and serves in the Russian armed forces.

RFE/RL: Is your father fighting against Ukraine right now?

Halyan: No, he's not fighting, he's at his base. It's one of the crazy, ridiculous things about this. So many people have relatives over there. It's painful that people are so susceptible to propaganda. You should get your news from other sources and judge the information fully.

RFE/RL: Are you and your father in touch?

Halyan: Yes, our communication is on the level where he's concerned about me, he knows where I am and asks how I am -- am I healthy, I'm not sick? But we don't speak about the conflict.

RFE/RL: Do you feel like you and your father are fighting on opposite sides?

Halyan: In fact, yes. Unofficially. But I think that if my father ever received a deployment order, he would never agree to this "vacation," as they call it.

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