“Bringing the war back home”. Who is Val Sord, the man arrested during protests before the Presidential Office?

Editor’s Note

On 20 March 2021, supporters of imprisoned activist Serhiy Sternenko held a peaceful rally before the Office of the President of Ukraine. Protesters demanded Sternenko’s release, the release of all political prisoners in Ukraine, judicial reforms, the rule of law, and the resignation of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. The protests turned violent when some activists began throwing flares into the building; several windows were broken; the façade of the building was smeared with red paint and different slogans. The police was nowhere in sight.

War veteran Vladyslav Stafiychuk was arrested in the early hours of March 21 in front of the Office of the President of Ukraine. He was charged with breaking two windows. Vladyslav is also known by his pen name Vlad Sord, and by his nom de guerre “Zmiy” (Snake), which he adopted in 2014, when he first became a volunteer soldier.

On March 23, the Pechersky District Court of Kyiv imposed a pretrial restraint, i.e. a round-the-clock house arrest while awaiting trial. Vlad Sord is massively supported by civil society, numerous friends and the Ukrainian veteran community.

In September 2019, we published an article about a poetry project for war veterans that included the author Vlad Sord.

While it is unlikely that Zmiy’s biography can ever be used to rationalize any of his actions, there is an alternative model to the traditional court system for combat veterans with PTSD who have been accused of crimes – a specialized veterans’ treatment court that has been operating successfully in the United States. One thing is certain. Zmiy has absolutely no history of being an “anti-police agitator”. It is total nonsense even to accuse him of any disrespect to Ukraine or her national symbols. However, this happened because Zmiy, like thousands of other Ukrainians, had had enough…

Vladyslav Stafiychuk was born in Vynnytsia and lived in Crimea, where he studied law at the Yaroslav Mudry National Law University. He worked several jobs at once in order to support himself. During the Revolution of Dignity, he became very upset by contradictory news stories carried by Crimean media sources and decided to travel to Kyiv to see for himself.

“Here are my first impression of the Maidan. We exit the subway station Maidan Nezalezhnosti, barely able to move forward because of the crowds. We come across several exits that for some unknown reason are half-barricaded. We ask an elderly man who is draped in a flag, ‘Excuse us, but where is the Maidan?’ He laughs and gives us a big hug, stating, ‘The Maidan – it’s everywhere!’ When we finally exit the subway station, we see what he means. The Maidan is everywhere!”

Val Sord

Val Sord (second row, far right)

Vlad joined Pravy Sektor at the Maidan and lived with them on the fifth floor of the Trades Union building. It was there that he met Serhiy Tabala, nom de guerre “Siever”, and the two became good friends. On February 18, their small group fought with and defended the other Maidan activists. Zmiy and Siever were called avengers (“Mesnyky”). Less than a year later, Siever would be killed defending Donetsk Airport, during an attack on the airport control tower. To honour his friend, Zmiy, ever the dreamer and idealist, created an imaginary military unit, complete with a chevron that he and several brothers-in-arms continue wearing – the “Serhiy Tabala Avengers”. Here is Zmiy’s tribute to his friend:

Serhiy Tabala, nom de guerre “Siever”

Serhiy Tabala, nom de guerre “Siever”

“…Your death – is neither metaphysical nor the end of life.

Your death – is neither grief nor just another grave.

Your death – is neither a verse from ‘A flock of birds flies overhead’,

Nor is it ‘Raise the flag, sing the anthem’.

Your death – is like the explosion of a nuclear reactor

That paints the sky entirely grey.

Your death – is a light in dark corners.

Your death has frightened me out of my skin…”

Zmiy’s combat journey in the Donbas began with the Pravy Sektor Volunteer Corps at Savur-Mohyla, and later, at Ilovaisk.

“I believe that entering Ilovaisk was the point of no return, and it was followed by a critical retreat when… I don’t quite know how to put it into words… When you carry the war within you and bring it home,” Zmiy recalls.

At Ilovaisk he suffered some back injuries, and had to learn to walk again. He returned to Pravy Sektor, then joined the ranks of the OUN Battalion at Pisky, where he served together with Wassyl Slipak, nom de guerre “Mif”. Then came the Azov Battalion, the 53rd Brigade where his father also served, and finally the 93rd Brigade, with whom he fought at Shakhta Butivka, perhaps one of the hottest combat positions held by the brigade.

Val Sord

Val Sord (standing, third from left)

This last location became a place of strength for Zmiy. He would spend several years writing about his experiences, including poetry and short stories, which were published as a collection – Bezodnya (Precipice), shortlisted for the BBC News Ukraine Book of the Year in 2019.

Vladyslav’s combat experience included a rotation in Luhansk and a change from the infantry to artillery reconnaissance. Finally, he served in the press office of the brigade, meaning that he was constantly on the front lines. He wrote the hymn for the 93rd Brigade, performed by the group, Tin Sontsia, with the song’s signature line: “The brigade where a man becomes a soldier.” The brigade received the designation “Kholodniy Yar”, “with all the myths and legends that this phenomenon evokes,” as he describes it.

Upon his return to civilian life, Vladyslav established a publishing house together with his wife, the writer Viktoriya Hranetska: chimeraspublisher.com.ua

Today, Vlad Sord is charged with breaking two windows. There will be a court hearing, and then another, and another, and another… He will wait just as he once waited for changes in Ukraine after the Maidan, just as he waited in Ilovaisk and in Shakhta Butivka, when he developed the veterans movement in Vinnytsia after his return, hoping that the veterans, if united, could be heard. He has waited for years, and has never lost control.

The worst part of this incident isn’t that Zmiy is in jail, but that the public is more outraged by some broken glass and painted facades than understanding a veteran’s desire for justice. Indeed, Ukraine’s judicial system has broken the lives of too many men and women. And, in actual fact, it is the courts and judges that have denigrated Ukraine’s national symbols – the Tryzub and the blue-and-yellow flag in courtrooms throughout our country.

Prose poem about the Donbas by Vlad Sord

They all think they were born in the open steppe or else in mineshafts, and they tell me that children are bottomless pits and there’s no end to them. Every day, they take their positions. Every night, they disperse in search of meat, like a pack of famished dogs. Did you not notice how their bodies lack any capacity for tears? When they run out of metal from which to make weapons, they will use these children as guns. When the water to those destinations dries up, they’ll drink blood and sweat.

They have grown up among the black mounds of coal and thick gumbo mud. Now they have a new industrial source for their livelihood, their place of birth and life. Now everything is empty – the border patrol guard towers, the trenches, the garbage pits; the outposts, the underground shelters, the concrete caponier defensive positions; the secrets which no one utters aloud. But I know them. They smell of gasoline and hardtack biscuits, like villages and elementary schools long-since abandoned. And I know their habits, when they awaken in the embrace of their wives, or wives in the embrace of their husbands. The majority have no clue as to who they really are, or what it means to be where they are. They acquiesce to their fate, they pray, they go about their business; they work and eat. They think empty thoughts in empty heads, consumed by their helplessness and their anger at being helpless… They fall asleep again or this time they die, either way a regression.

My wartime friend, look, here is your Donbas, and here is your automatic weapon. Here are your summits, your Rubicon, in flames and maimed by the violence of armoured vehicles. Here you have a field of dreams, filled with those who have been buried after untimely death. It is their reward; they are owed no debt and you no blame.

I present to you, my brothers-in-arms, your abyss, and mine. Here is your Donbas, our precipice…

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