Remembering two peacekeepers – one Kazakh and one Ukrainian

23 июля 2014, 14:16

At times during my journalism career I’ve been amazed to discover that seemingly unrelated stories I’ve done have ended up intertwining.

The most recent example involves two national heroes – one Kazakh and one Ukrainian.

The Kazakh hero is Army Captain Kairat Kudabayev, who was killed while helping to defuse munitions in Iraq on January 9, 2005. He remains the only Kazakh peacekeeper to have died in action.

I did a story about Kudabayev on the fifth anniversary of his death in 2010.

The Ukrainian hero is First Lieutenant Nadiya Savchenko, the country’s first woman military pilot and an early participant in the demonstrations in Kiev that ousted former President Viktor Yanukovich in February of this year. That ouster set off a chain of events that led to the Ukrainian military conflict that is raging today.

I did a story this week about Savchenko, whom Russia is holding in the deaths of two Russian journalists on a Ukrainian battlefield. The case has outraged Ukranians from President Petro Poroshenko on down, who contend that Savchenko was spirited away to Russia against her will to stand trial for murder.

How do the stories of Kudabayev and Savchenko intertwine?

She, too, was a peacekeeper in Iraq. And she came across Kudabayev’s body, and those of seven Ukrainian peacekeepers, shortly after the munitions explosion that took their lives.

In fact, Savchenko is a national hero in Ukraine not only for breaking ground as a pilot and her courage in Kiev’s Maidan protests but also because she was the only Ukrainian woman to serve as a peacekeeper in Iraq.

Some background:

Iraqi police stumbled across a sizable stash of weapons in the city of Al-Suwaira, in the northern part of the country on January 9, 2005.
They were afraid the weapons would go off, so they asked coalition disposal experts to help them. The experts included about 30 Ukrainians and Kazakhs, one of them Kudabayev.

The disposal team put the arms on a flatbed truck for transport to a remote area where they could be detonated.

While the weapons were being transported, they went off. The explosion killed Kudabayev and seven Ukrainians. Four Kazakhs and five Ukrainians were wounded.

Savchenko arrived at the scene a few minutes after the explosion. A memory that will stay with her forever is seeing her dead Ukrainian and Kazakh colleagues, and their wounded comrades.

Both Kazakhstan and Ukraine faced a key decision because of the tragedy: Should they remain committed to peacekeeping operations around the world, which could lead to more tragedies, or should they abandon them?

Three months later, the new Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko, said the country’s 1,600 peacekeepers in Iraq would be gone before January 1 of 2006.

The leaders of the U.S.-led coalition wondered if Kazakhstan would pull its 30 peacekeepers as well. The coalition had been particularly glad to have the Kazakhstan contingent, even though it was small, because it was the only peacekeeping unit from a Muslim country.
After considerable discussion, Kazakhstan’s leaders decide the country’s peacekeepers should stay in Iraq.

Coalition leaders were quick to express their gratitude to Astana.

The Kazakh peacekeepers finally left in 2008, when there was less need for their services.

As it turned out, Yushchenko had a change of heart about pulling Ukrainian peacekeepers right away. They, too, remained in Iraq until 2008.

Savchenko served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005 as a foot soldier and the driver of an armored personnel carrier, not a pilot. It wasn’t until 2009 that she graduated from the Karkov Air Academy, Ukraine’s military-pilot-training institute.

The Kiev native had dreamed since she was 4 years old of becoming a pilot, her mother Mariya said.

But Ukrainian air force officials rejected her application for pilot’s training twice because they didn’t think a woman should be flying combat missions.

The courage she showed in volunteering for duty in Iraq likely played a role in the air force finally agreeing to her becoming a pilot. Altogether, 18 Ukrainians died in the country’s dangerous peacekeeping mission in Iraq.

Savchenko is qualified as both a bomber and helicopter pilot, but she was fighting on the ground near the Ukrainian city of Lugansk when the events that led to her detention in Russia unfolded.

Separatist forces captured her on June 18, and within five days she was in Russia.

Prosecutors in the southwestern Russian city of Voronezh have charged her with murder in the deaths of two Russian combat journalists.

They contend that she gave a mortar crew in the unit she was fighting with the positions of three journalists from the Russian-government-owned Rossiya television network. The shelling killed two of the journalists, Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Volshin.

"Having gained the coordinates of a group of Russian journalists and other civilians near Lugansk, Savchenko passed them on to the combatants," alleged Russia’s National Investigative Committee, an organization equivalent to America’s FBI.

Ukrainians are incensed about the charges against Savchenko, who has denied targeting the journalists, and about how she got to Russia in the first place.

Russia maintains that it arrested her when she slipped across the border posing as a refugee fleeing the fighting in Ukraine – a story that Ukrainians call preposterous.

Ukrainian officials and the Savechenko family contend that Russia ordered the separatists who captured her to hand her over to stand trial in the journalists’ deaths.

“She was kidnapped” in violation of “all international agreements, all rules of international law,” an angry President Petro Poroshenko asserted.

Savchenko’s family has hired the colorful Russian lawyer Mark Feigin to defend her. He was the defense attorney in the celebrated Pussy Riot case in 2012.

A Moscow court convicted three members of the punk-rock band of hooliganism for performing a concert in a Moscow cathedral to protest the Russian Orthodox Church’s close ties with the Russian government.

Feigin gained fame for getting such celebrities as Madonna, Sting, Paul McCartney, Bjork and the Red Hot Chili Peppers to take up Pussy Riot’s cause. The heralded musicians decried the convictions of the Russian band members as an attempt to stifle freedom of expression.

The choice of Feigin as defense attorney is a signal that the Savchenko family plans an international publicity campaign to call attention to the pilot’s plight.

The family says it’s also starting a global “Free Nadiya” campaign to put pressure on Russia to drop the case.

Ukrainians have already started a “Free Our Girl” social-media campaign on Savchenko’s behalf, and Poroshenko is discussing her case with the leaders of other countries, including the United States, Germany and France.

What happens to Savchenko remains to be seen.

Ten years in the military have helped prepare her for adversity, her family says.

One of Mariya Savchenko’s memories of her daughter’s military career is Nadiya not only driving an armored personal carrier, but rolling up her sleeves for the dirty task of repairing it.

“When I asked her why she always had her hands in oil,” her mother said, Nadiya replied that it was part of the job.

“I’ve got to do whatever it takes to protect my country,” she said.

Kazakh leaders who have commemorated the loss of Kairat Kudabayev have talked about the same sense of obligation he felt toward his country.

That sense of obligation led both the captain and the first lieutenant going on a dangerous overseas mission at the same time – a mission that, sadly, only one of them would return from.

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