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Kiwi soldier Dominic Abelen’s death in Ukraine: Inside the firefight

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Off-duty New Zealand soldier Dominic Abelen was killed in Ukraine fighting with foreign troops and has been remembered as a tough professional “warrior” who “died doing what he loved”. Video / NZ Herald

A Ukrainian Armed Forces report goes inside the firefight that killed New Zealand soldier Dominic Abelen. Kiwi photojournalist Tom Mutch reports from the ground.

It was the fog that led Dominic Abelen to his death, and the Russians who pulled the trigger.

The 28-year-old corporal from the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment’s 2/1 Battalion had served in the New Zealand Defence Force for nearly 10 years. But to his apparent dismay, he had never been deployed overseas and when Ukraine put out its call for volunteers with military experiences to join its struggle against the Russian invasion, Abelen answered.

In the dawn light of an August morning, Abelen was the point man leading an assault on a series of Russian-controlled trenches in the depths of the embattled Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

According to a Ukrainian Armed Forces contact report, described to the Herald on Sunday by people familiar with its contents, Abelen and his regiment first scouted the trench line with a drone, but the morning fog prevented them from getting clear visibility of the Russian positions. It turned out they were present in much stronger numbers than the Ukrainians understood.

When they reached the trench line, they were immediately engaged by Russian troops, and after a brief firefight, were ordered to pull back. Abelen laid down covering fire, apparently killing multiple enemy soldiers before he was hit in the leg. He attempted to put on a tourniquet, and another soldier, American Joshua Jones, joined him to attempt to carry him to safety. But a burst of enemy fire killed both instantly.

Abelen, 30, was based in Burnham, and had served with the NZDF for 10 years. Photo / Supplied
Abelen, 30, was based in Burnham, and had served with the NZDF for 10 years. Photo / Supplied

While his regiment attempted to recover Abelen’s body, heavy fire from Russian artillery pelted the ground, making a safe retrieval impossible. When the fog lifted and the soldiers in his unit used a drone to scout the trenches where the men had fallen, the bodies had gone – meaning it is almost certain they are in Russian possession.

This part of the country is riddled with defences and fortifications, built by the Ukrainian Army in its ongoing conflict waged against Russian proxy separatist forces since 2014. They are now bulwarks of defence against the entire might of the Russian Armed Forces- and they have held far longer than most would have thought.

The first time I visited these trenches in May, the situation for the Ukrainian army was grim. A small platoon of Ukrainian soldiers rested in a converted farmhouse, while we could see shells from the endless Russian bombardment landing in the fields in front of us. The rolling green hills and yellow fields with their blooming sunflowers would have been beautiful were it not for the constant smoke rising from artillery fire.

At this stage, the fighting was a meatgrinder and the Ukrainian government said that up to 200 of its soldiers were being killed in action on any day. The Russian army was on a slow and inexorable advance, reducing the cities in front of it to rubble before its troops moved in to “liberate” the ruins. First Mariupol, then Popasna, then Severodonetsk were pounded down by a seemingly infinite amount of artillery shells and rockets.

Just last week I was in Soledar, a town with a population of 10,000 before the war accompanying a group of former soldiers who were evacuating civilians from the frontline under fire.

The air was heavy with the constant thump of artillery. We could see Ukrainian troops taking up defensive positions in smashed-up apartment blocks. Sitting in the burned-out remains of a living room, one soldier was flying a reconnaissance drone as if he was playing a video game. We watched as Russian forces rained cluster bombs and thermal munitions fired from rocket launchers down on what had once been a sleepy provincial mining town. At one point we were spotted and tagged by pro-Russian sympathisers who we believe photographed us and sent our location to the separatists.

We drove away from the area quickly and when we reached a clearing point, the apartment blocks where we had been were being covered in white phosphorus by Russian rocket launchers.

But on this recent visit, the troops were more upbeat. “The situation is very difficult, but our defences in Soledar are holding and will continue to hold,” a spokesperson for Ukraine’s battle-hardened 93rd Mechanised Brigade told me. Over the past few weeks, a Ukrainian counterattack has successfully retaken around 400sq km in Kharkiv, threatening to sever the supply lines Russia relies on to sustain its offensive in the Donbas.

Kiwi journalist Tom Mutch has been covering the Ukraine war on the ground. Photo / Supplied
Kiwi journalist Tom Mutch has been covering the Ukraine war on the ground. Photo / Supplied

None of us can tell how many fellow Kiwis are over here, and the Defence Force either doesn’t know or won’t say. They have been eager to distance themselves from the activities of New Zealanders in the conflict zone.

“The NZDF is unable to make any comment as he was not on active duty at the time,” a spokesperson said in response to questions about the circumstances of Abelen’s death.

But the Government has used the opportunity to plead with New Zealanders not
to continue to travel to Ukraine.

It is a region I’ve spent months in since the Russians invaded the whole of Ukraine in February this year, and I’ve spoken with many soldiers both in the Ukrainian Armed Forces and foreign volunteers that make up the somewhat ill-defined “International Legion”.

Together they paint a picture of a life-or-death struggle that at its most intense resembles the war fought over these same lands between the Nazis and the Soviets in World War II.

Those fighting say it is characterised by the extreme bravery and defiance of the Ukrainian soldiers defending their land- but that it can also be a ramshackle effort, led by commanders of very different experience and skill levels, and soldiers were increasingly thrown into the fray with little training and dwindling supplies. In most cases, soldiers speaking to the press keep themselves anonymous in keeping both with strict Ukrainian security rules and to avoid being punished by their home countries. New Zealand has forbidden active-duty soldiers from fighting in Ukraine, and those who return could be punished by dishonourable discharge or even court-martial and military prison.

“In the beginning, it was a complete s*** show,” said one Canadian soldier who had fought mainly in the Kharkiv region. He described thousands of would-be volunteers turning up in Ukraine and there being no recognisable organisational structure or defined mission parameters.

Many volunteers were completely unsuitable, having no military experience or in some cases being physically or mentally unfit.

“I was originally rejected,” he told me, but after persevering he found a unit that would take him, and spent the best part of three months on the frontline. The best soldiers and those who had served combat tours were often not sent to the front, being seen as more valuable for training regular Ukrainian army troops than fighting on extremely dangerous front lines.

As the war progressed and the Ukrainian defence co-ordination improved, soldiers started finding the places they needed to go.

“There were guys from all over the world- the US, Australia, Argentina, France … Then we found one guy, a Danish commander, who was a great soldier and leader and held our
unit together.”

But when his commander left to return home, the cohesion of the unit fell apart and their local Ukrainian commander could not maintain discipline or morale. Several of his unit have since been killed in action. Most others have left.

“There were so many mistakes in terms of basic training and a large part of why they are winning is because of how much worse the Russians are.

“I remember seeing patrols go through the forests smoking cigarettes and without wearing helmets.”- a terrible dereliction of operational security as it means they could be easily found and targeted by nearby Russian troops. He continues to help the war effort, including with evacuations and humanitarian aid deliveries but has no intention to rejoin the fight.

In urban fighting in the Donbas, the Ukrainians frequently had very poor co-ordination among their units, leading to multiple instances of friendly fire.

“When the winter comes, and we lose visibility there is going to be a lot more blue-on-blue,” he said, referring to the military code for casualties from friendly fire.

While the fighting continues, many more New Zealanders are reported to have expressed an interest in joining the Ukrainian cause. Another soldier, a New Zealander, also fought in Kharkiv and described the fighting as “unimaginable”. In what he described as the most frightening experience of his life, he was nearly killed after being pinned down by a Russian sniper for six hours in an apartment building during urban combat. He has since returned to New Zealand after his tour.

“I needed to come home to see my family. This is as hard, if not harder, on them.”

He does not regret his service but says “no one will ever understand why we had to go and help”.

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