PHOTOGRAPHS BY ALEX MASI | STORY BY MICHIEL DRIEBERGEN
Michiel Driebergen is a freelance correspondent from the Netherlands, based in Krakow, covering Central Europe and Ukraine. He tweets @3Bergen. Alex Masi is an Italian photojournalist focused on women and children's living conditions, health and rights.
BUZOVA, Ukraine — The sun was up by the time Gold, 27, went to wake up his charges, but it hadn't been up for long.
"Pidjom!” shouted Gold, who goes by a nom de guerre, as he blew his whistle at 7:30 a.m. "Get up!”
Bodies began to shuffle under blankets. Tents flaps were unzipped; some revealed the sleepy faces of 8 year olds. From others emerged lanky adolescents with bags under their eyes, cursing and shoving each other as they scrambled to look for their shoes. After a quick bathroom stop, the first training session of the day awaited them: a long-distance run, complete with intermittent sets of pushups.
The Azov Battalion is a Ukrainian nationalist volunteer regiment that has helped in the fight against pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. Its members aren’t just fighters, however — some of them are also parents, whose children, when school isn’t in session, need somewhere to go. The solution? Azov Battalion summer camp.
For the past two consecutive summers, 50 children between the ages of 8 and 16 have gathered in woodlands near Kiev to train to become elite patriots over the course of 12 days. Many, but not all, are the children of Azov fighters. And under the watch of instructors-cum-counselors like Gold — they all go by pseudonyms and have had combat experience — these children learn how to conduct themselves in combat-like scenarios, how to handle and maintain basic weaponry, and how to love Ukraine.
After breakfast, the children dressed in camouflage gear assembled near the camp’s flagpole. At an order from Gold, they removed their caps and held their fists to their chests, repeating after him: "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.” Then the flag was run up the pole: the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine, overlaid with an image of a soldier.
Around lunchtime, the Kalashnikov assault rifles came out. Tarkan, a lean 13-year-old girl from Kiev with long, straight hair who also goes by a nom de guerre, only needed 36 seconds to complete maintenance procedures on her weapon. It’s simple, she later explained: "Remove the magazine and cocking lever; release the gas cylinder. Then you put it back together again.” But she warned, "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 hot summer sun descended, the children engaged in combat role-playing. Using wooden rifles and airsoft weapons with small plastic pellets, the campers simulated combat situations: They had to communicate with each other, choose a position, make quarter turns, and fire. "Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!” they shouted as they went.
When fighting in eastern Ukraine was at its fiercest, in 2014 and 2015, dozens of volunteer battalions fought alongside the Ukrainian army; Azov was one of the most radical. Some observers have called the nationalist battalion "neo-Nazi.” Its symbol — the wolfsangel, or wolf trap — closely resembles an emblem widely used during the Third Reich, and many have claimed its members have neo-Nazi leanings.
The instructors we spoke with at the camp claimed that Azov has nothing to do with neo-Nazism. In fact, we saw one girl punished publicly after counselors found that she had drawn a swastika in her diary during a morning tent cleaning: The entire group assembled to watch her get chastised. The use of the wolf trap is based on the combination of the letters "I” and "N,” the counselors said, for "idea natsia,” or "national idea,” in Ukrainian — and Azov is proudly nationalist. The children themselves said in interviews that they were willing to die for their country — even though, Gold stressed, the camp is not really meant to prepare children for war. "The national interest outweighs our own interest,” said Tarkan, who wants to study mathematics. "If we give our lives for Ukraine, the next generation will enjoy peace and a better existence.”
For the time being, Azov’s fighters are far away from combat, resting at their base, a resort near the eponymous Sea of Azov, not far from the city of Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine. The Minsk agreements, signed first in 2014 and again last year, technically include a cease-fire, though the warring parties have not abided by their terms. But for now Azov members have devoted themselves to training for future combat and to training their children to become devoted patriots.
As dusk fell at the camp, Gold ended the day with another dedication asking for strength in order to stand up for the motherland. The campers repeated after him: "Burn all weakness from my heart so I will not feel fear or doubt. Make my spirit strong.” Then the flag was lowered, and the campfire songs began; the most popular ended with the chorus, "Death to the Russians.”