Ukraine rebels fight boredom of war with tanks and guns
AFP, Wednesday 19 Nov 2014

Bored of war and dreaming of peace, pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine pass the time firing off weapons as months of conflict drag on with no resolution in sight.

A group from the "Sword Battalion" are outside Ilovaisk, east of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, testing a weapon just given to them by the self-proclaimed separatist Donetsk People's Republic.

There is just one problem -- their "new" anti-tank gun actually dates back to World War II.

"We don't know where it came from. Maybe a museum," quips Konstantin Konyushenko, the group's scar-faced leader, eyeing the new gun and its two-metre barrel.

One of his men in military fatigues and red Reebok trainers manoeuvres the gun into position to test it. The young rebel tries to fire. There is a click -- it does not work.

The group, including former miners, an IT worker and a railwayman, have returned for training to the site of a bloody battle for control of Ilovaisk in August between Ukrainian forces and rebels backed by what Kiev says were Russian troops.

The town is now controlled by the rebels.

Perhaps the location, where "many friends" and over 100 Ukrainian soldiers died, is bringing back memories for Konyushenko. "I dream of peace, like everyone," he admits.

Those fighting in eastern Ukraine are nominally governed by a tattered September ceasefire which does not prevent flare-ups between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces in strategic hotspots.

NATO accuses Russia of pouring troops and equipment into Ukraine, which Moscow denies. The West's efforts to work with Russia on a diplomatic resolution to the unrest seem to be going nowhere.

The rebels have also brought with them a tank dating from the 1970s seized from Ukrainian government forces in August.

"Trophy!" is how one young man describes it in a snatched word of English.

"We have repaired it and are fixing up the artillery system," explains Konyushenko, refilling the magazine of his Kalashnikov. "It's the biggest thing we have now."

One of his colleagues standing nearby turns his head, puts his hands on his ears and closes his eyes as the tank fires off several rounds.

The tank has a name, "Yasya", painted in white letters on each side.

"It's my name," explains a young woman in military uniform. "It's my husband who seized it from the Ukrainians."

A few more rounds and then the firing stops. "There is always something which screws up with this thing!" curses a rebel, his finger hovering on the trigger of his gun.

Rather than keeping on playing around with "Yasya", the fighters, cigarettes in mouths, start firing off their Kalashnikovs instead. They take part in this kind of "training" every four days, they say.

One of them cradles his gun like a baby and closes his eyes, saying: "This is my little darling."

The group is living in a brick building two kilometres away. It is as cold inside as out as winter bites ever harder, setting in for months.