A Poet Fighting for Ukraine: Story of Border Guard Roman Balaboiko

Roman Balaboiko from Donetsk oblast never wanted to be a soldier, but he takes up arms for the second time and defends Ukraine.

A few months before the full-scale invasion, he dreamed of his own patriotic project involving the youth of the eastern region, but Russia intervened in his life for the second time.

He has just returned from the front line for a few days of rest: there is fatigue, there is a pain in the eyes, but there is also a mad desire to win. In a conversation with us, Roman admits that he is a creative, peaceful person. A museologist and a poet, not a warrior at all. However, for the second time, he volunteered to go to war to defend his home, because it hurts him the most.

Already during the war in 2015, after a long break in creativity, Roman started writing poems again. He admits that he does not remember the very first poem written during the war. The nature of Eastern Ukraine inspires him, because there is no such beauty, except in Donbas.

Inspiration returns to him even now, when a writer-border guard, for example, is on duty on the front line. This is where you acutely feel the silence and peace of nature, philosophical thoughts come and poems are born.

Roman Balaboiko comes from Luhansk oblast, Krasnodon (now Sorokine), and used to live 16 kilometers from the border with Russia. He says he lost his native home on November 3, 2014, when he was last there. After that, he had to move to Druzhkivka in Donetsk oblast, which became his new home.

«I remember that we came to study at Vasylkiv in 2015, and the next day I wrote the poem. I don’t think that war caused my return to creativity. Because I am not a military person at all, I have never associated myself with the Armed Forces or other military structures. I'm a freaking philologist, a humanitarian, I'm not interested in weapons or technology — although I understand them. And if it weren't for the war, I probably would never have gone to serve in my life. But fate is ill because for the third time I have to go to the army and take up arms,» ​​ Roman says.

For the first time, he completed his military service in 2008, then volunteered in 2015. He recalls that at that time in Luhansk oblast in his hometown there were not many people willing to defend the country, and the local population did not understand what was happening at all.

«As many as three of us men left the city at that time,» Roman recalls. And tells about women who were shaming them for serving.

In 2015, he left due to an excessive sense of justice to fight. And this year, he says, he was motivated by the fact that he would not be able to sit at home thinking that he has at least minimal combat experience, while young guys who don't even have that are going to war.

«Even thinking about it was unacceptable to me. And personally, I had no choice. Actually, I had, but I won't make deals with my conscience. Therefore, it turns out that every six years I defend the country,» Roman Balaboiko says.

On February 24, 2022, he woke up at half past five in the morning because he heard an explosion. It was a rocket that flew over the airfield in Kramatorsk. He jumped out of bed and thought: «That's it, the real war has begun.»

This morning passed by the news, and within a few hours, Roman and his nephew, also a war veteran, went to the Military Commissariat. The nephew went to service on February 24, and Roman went to the border detachment the next day, February 25.

«When I arrived at the unit, in the first days it was such an intensified service. Everyone seemed to be calm, there was no commotion, but everyone was nervous because no one knew what was waiting for us. There were also missile strikes throughout the territory of Ukraine, enemies' equipment breaking through the border. I think everyone was a little confused. But the command was also professional, so in a few days, everything was fine. We are used to the fact that the war is going on and everything is completely different. And when we went on our first mission, we saw with our own eyes how badly the occupiers want our land,» Roman Balaboiko says.

Roman says that during the first combat missions, he tried to support the guys without experience in every possible way. And he adds: that most of them, even inexperienced ones, began to behave like heroes from the first battles.

«You can prepare for fighting ten times, but when the situation actually happens, you act without thinking much. Therefore, in the first days, we helped as much as possible and told the boys what and how to do, and what is better not to do. However, their tasks did not include cleaning up the village or keeping it for several days when the enemy knows about your positions. When you just have to dig in and hold on so that the Russians don't go any further… A small number of people had actual combat experience. But the young guys, who are in their early 20s, showed themselves simply excellently. No one flinched, everyone behaved with dignity, as for people who have been through the hell of combat. When the enemies are not at a range of a machine gun, but only 15−20 meters from you. Unfortunately, not only the occupiers die. The difference is that we destroy them, and our people die. My group had already lost comrades… The hardest thing is to lose them. When not everyone returns,» the border guard quietly summarizes.

Roman recalls that inexperienced guys in battle behaved so bravely that it made them proud: «There was a guy with whom we ended up together 20 meters from the tank. We were leaving the village at that time and tried to shoot everything in order to cause maximum damage to the enemy and equipment. And he revealed himself in battle, although before that he was completely silent! He and I were sitting under the road, in the bushes, and the invaders broke into our territory. They combed the entire square with a machine gun, and it was impossible to raise one's head. And suddenly he grabs a weapon, an anti-tank RPG, and under this flurry of bullets, he shoots at the tank! He miraculously survived, miraculously. It was a very desperate act. And then our group left without losses.»

The military notes that the occupiers shoot from military equipment several times more often than the Ukrainians during the day. The difference is that they are not afraid to crush everything they can. Instead, our troops are trying their best to save both human lives and infrastructure — the Russians have banally more anti-tank missiles, while our artillery saves ammunition.

«The advantage of the Russians is that there are a lot of them at once. Both equipment and people. I don't know what their losses are, but we killed a lot of occupiers. We had a case when the Russians tried to break into the village. And first, the infantry went, and then the armored personnel carrier was already on its way. Behind the people. That's not how it's done, they were simply left to be slaughtered,» Roman Balaboiko says. The veteran says that despite the fact that their own commanders treat the Russian soldiers as subhuman, all Ukrainians understand that they cannot allow them to go further.

«When you understand how much trouble they have already caused, there are no feelings. There is a clear opinion that they must be stopped, because wherever they go, it will be even worse. Compare even how we stood in the same city — there were storefronts, and whole shops, and stalls — everything is in such a condition that you can drive in and continue to trade or live. And as soon as the Russians invaded the settlement, everything was broken, looted, simply destroyed. After them, as from locusts, nothing remains. People don't do that, and some of them are local, from Donetsk oblast. From our region and even our cities,» the border guard says.

Also, he notes that Russians need not only our cities and resources, but also culture, traditions, and art. Because they don't have their own, that's why they are terribly complex about this.

At the end of our conversation, Roman adds: this time, our defenders will finally push the Russian scum out of Ukraine, because the war of 2022 is not at all similar to the previous «scenario».

«I am sure that we will win, because we have no other choice. There are already too many losses, too many victims. What happened in 14−15 was perceived by society as „terrible“. Maybe then we were ready to negotiate, to give up something, to stop these deaths. People were ready to sacrifice something. And now the number of victims, primarily civilians, has reached such a critical point that society has resigned. It is necessary to fight and win. Because if we retreat now, neither past generations, nor future ones, nor our dead brothers, nor thousands of dead civilians will understand us. We just need to kick the Russians out,» Roman Balaboiko says.

Video poem in Ukrainian by Roman Balaboiko, 2021

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