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VERIDICA SPECIAL: From Mykolaiv to Izium. The war, seen by a Romanian enrolled in the Ukrainian military

Octavian Magas, close to the front line, Ukraine.
©Octavian Magas  |   Octavian Magas, close to the front line, Ukraine.

Octavian Magas has been a part of Ukraine’s regular troops from day one of the war. He is a Romanian ethnic, born in the Chernivtsi region. He taught biology and chemistry at a Romanian-language school, then he headed the Education Department of the Hertsa District Administration. When the war started, he was one of the first residents of Chernivtsi to enroll in the Ukrainian army. Magas and his unit fought in some of the hottest spots in Ukraine, from Mykolaiv in the south, to Izium in Donbas. Magas survived the heavy Russian shelling. This summer he witnessed the joy of the people of Kharkiv as they were being liberated by Ukrainian troops, as well as the hostility of people in Russified areas. Like countless other Ukrainian servicemen, he too had to experience the loss of fellow men-at-arms and friends. In an exclusive interview for Veridica, Octavian Magas recounts what he’s seen and been through in the first eight months of war.

“It was hell on earth […] Every day, there were seven-eight thousand shells launched at us”

VERIDICA: Where were you on the morning on February 24, when Russia attacked Ukraine?

OCTAVIAN MADAS: I was at home, in Buda Mare village, in the Chernivtsi Oblast. When I learned what went down, I quickly woke up my daughter and told her to go to Romania, where she is completing her higher-education studies. I told her war had come and it would be best if she’d leave the country as soon as possible. On the same day, I went to the military enlistment office. They told me to show up next morning for a medical check-up, which I did. I was quickly enrolled in the 80th Chernivtsi assault brigade. On March 2, we were already on our way to Mykolaiv. We spent a couple of days at a local farm, then we went from one city to the next. We slept in schools, farms, all sorts of buildings. We were stationed in the south for a while, just outside a forest. I was part of a group of 17, and we were tasked with digging trenches and raising defensive barricades. We stayed there for a while.

Octavian Magas, in his individual shelter, somewhere in a forest in Ukraine. All photos are copyrighted by Octavian Magas.

VERIDICA: What went through your mind at the time? Did any of you have any idea how long this war was going to last?

OCTAVIAN MADAS: I didn’t give it much thought. In war, it’s best you don’t try to make sense of things. It’s bad for you if you overthink it. Reality is limited, whereas human imagination is limitless. And you don’t know what’s going to happen to you. In our case, we stayed in the forest for a week, then we got transferred to Kropyvnytskyi, a city on the road to Mykolaiv, where our job was to stop the advance of Russian military convoys. We wouldn’t stay long in the same place, they kept moving us between areas on ten-day rotations, depending on the developments on the frontline. Basically, we spent most of March in the Mykolaiv area. I knew the war was going to last. Some servicemen said we would go home after 2-3 months. I told them this was going to be a long war. It’s what I believe today. Still, I’m planning to ask for some leave at the end of February 2023, so I can get back home one year after the invasion started.

VERIDICA: Are you entitled to a set amount of leave or can you take as much as you want?

OCTAVIAN MADAS: You can always take a 10-day leave if someone in your family is sick or for other personal reasons. But I, for one, don’t think these days will help much. A lot of the guys can’t wait to take a 10-day break, and say that taking some time off is important. I don’t see it that way. Home is one thing, but what we do out here creates a different environment. It takes time to readjust to the harsh reality once you get back.

VERIDICA: What happened after you left southern Ukraine?

OCTAVIAN MADAS: From there we got orders to move to the Dnipropetrovsk region. Here I took part in the first offensive towards Kherson. It was a difficult military operation. We sustained losses, but we did succeed in liberating some settlements. I was there in April, and in May we got relocated to the Donetsk area. May and June saw heavy fighting in Donbas. Our brigade destroyed a lot of enemy equipment. Over a thousand Russian troops were killed in the Seversky-Donetsk pass, and some 150 units of equipment were destroyed.

Octavian Magas with a Javelin anti-tank system. 

There were a lot of casualties on our side as well, after our unit got attacked by tanks. Another difficult period was when the Russian army took Lysychansk. We had to withdraw and we barely made it across the Seversky-Donetsk frontline. It was hell on earth until late July, we spent most of our time hiding, living in trenches and bomb shelters. They came at us with everything they got – tanks, shells, missiles, artillery, aircraft. Then, over the coming period, we got stationed farther from the frontline. We got 8 days of quiet. There followed three weeks of fighting, when every day we would see seven-eight thousand shells coming at us from the Donetsk area. After nearly a month of fighting, we got a week’s worth of R&R in the Kramatorsk area. The next phase of the war was much brighter – the counteroffensive in Kharkiv, which I was a direct part of.

“You feel sorry about fallen comrades, but the worst is losing people close to you, people you’ve known”

VERIDICA: Is there anything that got etched in your mind from back then?

OCTAVIAN MADAS: The counteroffensive was supposed to start sooner, but we were told to wait for a few days. At first, we were supposed to liberate only northern Izium, but we managed to push back the Russians from the entire region and its surroundings. At first, it all sounded terrific, I couldn’t believe we had managed to pull that off. I’m happy we did. The offensive was carried out by a number of brigades and battalions in pincer attacks. Only a very small area of Kharkiv is still under Russian occupation.

VERIDICA: How does a soldier react to losing a brother-in-arms?

OCTAVIAN MADAS: It’s very hard. You feel sorry about every fallen comrade, but the worst is losing people close to you, people you’ve known. The first to die was my friend. We were on the same car driving from Chernivtsi to Mykolaiv. He was from Hotin, he had fought in the Luhansk region during the period of anti-terrorist operations in Donbas. We would often talk on the phone. The last time we saw each other was in Dnipropetrovsk, where we grabbed coffee and chatted. Learning about his death took a heavy toll on me.

Then there’s this kid from Nepolokivtsi, in the Chernivtsi Oblast, he was like a son to me. Unfortunately, he recently got killed. We met at a gas station. I couldn’t stop crying when I learned about him. He was educated, smart. I recently attended a funeral here, in eastern Ukraine. It was a soldier whose coffin was transported from Zaporizhzhia. He had fought in eastern Ukraine, trying to liberate his native region. Ten army representatives attended the service. We carried the coffin from his home to the cemetery. I didn’t know him, but at any rate it’s hard when you think this was a man who still had a life ahead of him. 10 people from my military unit are already gone. They won’t be returning home. But we have to continue to fight. They will stay with us as heroes.

I often think about them, and I would like to visit the graves of every serviceman who was killed in this war, every person I’ve known. To lay flowers on each grave, for not being able to lay them to rest myself. I wasn’t there for them, I was on the other side of the country.

VERIDICA: Is the war a black hole for regular troops, or does it have the occasional moment of peace, of rest? Can you unplug from fighting on the frontline?

OCTAVIAN MADAS: I don’t see why not. After all, we’re all human beings, we all want to live. Whenever we get some meat, we would grill kabobs. Some of us are really good at cooking, they make sour soups, potato mash, etc. We chat, joke around, some play cards, others chess, we sing, but only when there’s time. When we don’t get any time off, none of that is happening: we either advance or we withdraw. We support each other.

Octavian Magas. In the background, a colleague is cooking over a log fire.

VERIDICA: How would you describe the morale of the Ukrainian army?

OCTAVIAN MADAS: I can’t speak for the entire army. But the war’s been hard on our unit. Some said they wanted to go home, that they’re tired of fighting, but when we entered Borova, as part of the Kharkiv counteroffensive, we could see the people were happy to see us, they had been waiting for us. People greeted us with a smile on their face, they were standing outside their homes shouting “Salva Ukraini!” All the main bridges had been destroyed, which is why we had to go around, going through every village and meeting the locals. We were surrounded by children, women and elderly, they were all grateful we had come. That’s when everything changed. The guys felt what we were doing was important.

I look back now at every city we’ve liberated. Here, life is going back to normal, one day at a time. I was in Izium the day it was liberated, and I returned a month later. It was a completely different place: telecom services, the Internet, the power, they were all back up. People looked livelier and less sad. Some brought us food, others asked if we needed anything else. Talking to these people who wanted to be free has lifted our spirits.

Octavian Magas and two of his comrades, at the entrance to Izium. 

VERIDICA: You are referring to Kharkiv, but was it the same in Donetsk?

OCTAVIAN MADAS: Unfortunately, things were different over there. The locals would look at us cross-eyed, for reasons I can’t explain. For instance, there are two neighborly villages, one in Donetsk, the other in Kharkiv. Those in Donetsk met us with hostility. There were some who asked us why we were here. And yet just a few kilometers away, the locals in the neighborly region had a different attitude towards us.

VERIDICA: And how do you explain that? Could it be war fatigue setting in after 8 long years of fighting in Donbas?

OCTAVIAN MADAS: I don’t know, I’ve been asking myself that too. At times, I feel that the residents of Donetsk might be infected with something! They live in neighbor villages, but still they have different worldviews. I get the distinct feeling that Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine have been infected with some ideological bug. It’s a sort of pandemic that helps spread the war further. I can’t wrap my mind around it, it’s just something I can’t explain. For instance, we would notice how filthy people’s homes were in Donetsk, the administrative buildings too. People were so indifferent towards their native village, towards their homes. They had turned every building, including their homes, into a pigsty. It was a complete lack of culture, some dangerous post-Soviet nonsense.

“If we manage to have peace without defeating Russia, then the next war will come, possibly a much bigger one”

VERIDICA: Multiple Russian propaganda narratives state that the Russian army is here to protect these people against the Ukrainian army. But what does the Kremlin truly want?

OCTAVIAN MADAS: To destroy Ukraine. Russia wants to wipe this country off the face of the earth, it wants the Ukrainian people gone. And once he turns everything into a huge pile of dust, Putin wants to use this wasteland as a bridgehead to invade the rest of Europe. All the Kremlin is keen about are Russian speakers, the Russian culture, Russian people, children or cities. This is all but propaganda, it exists only on television. Russian leaders are looking for false excuses to plunder, loot and kill. This evil must be stopped as quickly as possible.

VERIDICA: What exactly is your job in the Ukrainian army, provided you are not sworn to secrecy?

OCTAVIAN MADAS: I am deputy commander, and I particularly oversee psychological support for the unit. But other than what my job requires me to do, I also take care of weapon supplies, provisions and the link between the army and the medical service. In brief, I do everything that is required of me on the frontline and in the military. All it takes.

Octavian Magas, behind the wheel of a truck, close to the frontline.

VERIDICA: How much does the Ukrainian army rely on patriotic sentiment? How would you describe Ukrainian resistance so far?

OCTAVIAN MADAS: Most Ukrainians know what they fight for: they fight to protect their homeland against the foreign invader. Moreover, they cannot stand the Russian occupiers who invaded their homes with their guns. Ukrainian servicemen know very well what they are fighting for, unlike their Russian peers. All the invaders do is plunder, kill, destroy and rape. The Ukrainian army is far from ideal, yet our values, namely the fight for freedom, for our land and our families, is what drives us. Still, the morale and psychological state of mind is much better on our end compared to the Russians.

VERIDICA: And what do the troops expect? What do servicemen want to achieve at individual level?

OCTAVIAN MADAS: To liberate all of our territories. Every soldier wants this war to be over, but no one wants to see the war end at any cost. If we don’t win this war, then after a while a new war will come, possibly much bigger. We must take back all our territories, including Crimea, and then reconsolidate the state, our defenses and our collective mindset. Ukrainians need a new leadership at the end of this war, as well as fewer populists holding the power reins. It’s true what they say – you can’t defeat foreign enemies until you’ve dealt with those at home. These are my personal expectations.

VERIDICA: Getting to fight this war day in day out, seeing whole villages and cities razed to the ground by the Russian army, do you truly believe the day will come when these two nations will overcome their hatred for each other?

OCTAVIAN MADAS: Ukrainians will keep hating the Russians for a long time to come. There will be times when relations between the two sides will slightly improve, but only after they’ve paid reparations, once they’ve fully funded the rebuilding of the Ukrainian infrastructure and economy. But, the way I see it, as a soldier fighting on the frontline, the best thing to do is to dig a 20-30-meter-wide and 10-meter-deep trench along the Russian-Ukrainian border and mine it on both sides, and built a 10-meter-high wall, add some barb wire and an electric fence at the top and then I’ll feel good about the future of this country. It sounds like a fantasy, but it’s what I wish for right now!

VERIDICA: What will you do once the war is over?

OCTAVIAN MADAS: I will get some rest and travel a lot more than I did before. I don’t have any long-term plans. Here, on the frontline, people live in the here and now, but we all hope things will brighten up once Ukraine is victorious.

Tags: War in Ukraine
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