Playing Soldiers, Ukraine

We had spent the morning delivering food to several small villages near the frontline in south-eastern Ukraine. There were not many people left in the settlements, just a few older residents going about their lives as the incoming Russian artillery rumbled, boomed and rattled their windows.

Returning home through undulating cropping country, we came to the outskirts of one of the larger regional towns. Ukrainian soldiers were reinforcing their trenches and bunkers by the side of the road, preparing for a possible Russian advance.

We slowed down as we passed a group of soldiers posted at an intersection. A patrol walked line-abreast down the side road, with the blokes on the wings peering into the ramshackle buildings and overgrown yards that lined the muddy track.

The road descended gradually towards town, and driving on I noticed a soldier up ahead, standing in the driveway of a house. He looked a little on the short side, and was wearing a dark red jacket, across which was slung a standard issue assault rifle. I wondered if he was an older fellow, perhaps part of a local militia or Territorial Defense unit (civilian volunteers, similar to the Army Reserve in Australia). His red jacket looked a little out of place with his army pants and equipment.

The bloke in the red jacket acknowledged the passers-by, including a truck load of soldiers who waved cheerfully. As we got closer, I realised it wasn’t an old man at all. It was a boy. And what I had assumed was a rifle was, in fact, a replica made of wood. The young fellow raised a hand to us, his face covered by a ‘neck gaiter’ pulled up over his nose (a part of the Ukrainian uniform used by the troops to stay both warm and and incognito). We waved and smiled back at the young sentry.

When I was in primary school, my best mate Ruari and I would spend weekends playing soldiers, our imaginations transporting us back to World War II. In the backyard of his suburban home, we would crawl through the jungles of New Guinea, and fight street battles in the cities of Europe. Sitting on the roof of his garage, we would bring down enemy aircraft with our spud guns and cap pistols. By the time Dad came to pick me up in the late afternoon, we had returned from the battlefields, tired but victorious, having vanquished the Axis forces. Our heroes were the men (we were boys, after all) who fought in the Second World War all those years ago, far from Australia in Europe and North Africa, and closer to home in the Pacific.

I thought about those times as we left the boy ‘soldier’ behind, on duty outside his house. His heroes are not the men in the old World War-era newsreel films, or the fearless central characters of hair-raising adventure stories from the ’40s. His heroes are more likely to be his older brothers, his father and his uncles. Or maybe his older sisters, his Mum and his aunties, who may have joined the many women who stand in uniform to defend Ukraine. That kid’s war isn’t in a distant past, on the other side of the world, or on the other side of a continent. His war is about 20 kilometres away. He doesn’t need to imagine there are enemies in his back yard.

Maybe nowadays some people would describe our primary school-aged weekend wargames as evidence of emerging ‘toxic masculinity’. Well, I never went on to kill anyone, and I’m pretty sure Ruari never did either. Considering he is a doctor now, I imagine he has actually saved a lot of lives.

Ukrainians have been fighting Russian occupation since 2014, with the 2022 invasion only the latest violation of their sovereignty. Having already suffered through eight years of conflict, will the war end before the young bloke in the red jacket swaps his wooden rifle for a lethal weapon, and his front yard for the frontline?

I have intentionally excluded the names of locations, towns and people in my posts about Ukraine, and not included any photographs. Although this may seem excessively cautious, this is an appropriate time for excessive caution.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like Counting the Cost, Evacuation

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