Ukraine conscripts prefer going home to joining rebels
As his now-former comrades hugged their goodbyes and wished each other a safe journey home, Junior Sergeant Pavel Stupka explained why he refused to renounce his oath of allegiance to Ukraine.
"It would have been a betrayal. I took an oath to the Ukrainian people," Stupka said, pushing his beret back on his head.
"The government in Kiev may have changed but that doesn't mean anything as I took my oath to the people."
For around a year Stupka had been carrying out his obligatory military service at a Ukrainian interior ministry base housing a munitions plant on the outskirts of his hometown Donetsk.
But his service was unexpectedly terminated after heavily-armed pro-Moscow rebel fighters forced the unit to surrender without a fight on Friday evening.
While pro-Kremlin insurgents and government forces have agreed to a shaky ceasefire running until Monday, the rebels are tightening their grip over the remaining Ukrainian-held outposts in the country's restive east.
In a choreographed event staged for the press on Saturday the separatist authorities gave Stupka and other servicemen a choice: either swear allegiance to Russia or leave for good.
In a speech railing against the "fascist junta" in Kiev, a senior rebel leader had tried to cajole the troops to sign up with the separatists.
But when the time came, not one of the roughly 100 young conscripts agreed to switch sides -- opting instead to head back to their families.
"If I defected to Russia I would have difficulty living with myself," Stupka said.
- 'Scared for their families' -
Nearby, rebels toting automatic weapons lounged on olive green ammunition boxes they had seized the night before. An armoured vehicle from the base was being loaded onto the back of a truck.
"The conscripts were clearly scared for their families but they don't understand the situation and don't know what awaits them when they get home," said Vladimir Markovich, deputy parliament speaker of the rebel's self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic.
In his farewell speech to the troops the base commander Colonel Oleg Ponomarenko could only offer kind words and wish them a safe trip home.
"In my 28 years of service I have never lost anyone and what is happening today is a decision to protect the lives and health of those under me," the bespectacled officer said.
"Personally I just want to thank you for fulfilling your duty," he added to conscripts' applause.
Several anxious but relieved parents were waiting for the troops after the ceremony.
"Of course I am happy that my son is coming back to me safe and well," said one mother, who gave her name as Yelena. "We were very worried about them."
But serious questions remained over what lay in store next for the soldiers being dismissed.
"My son finished college and then wanted to join the army to help his career but what can he do now?" said Irina, another parent.
"The rebels say they are letting (the soldiers) go officially but what authority do they have?" she asked.
"What if the government decides later to put (my son) on trial for desertion?"
As they posed for a final group photograph and discussed plans for drinking sprees and finding girls, the conscripts said they too were uncertain about the future.
"I feel a hidden joy," one conscript told AFP after pulling on his civilian clothes.
"Happiness because we're being allowed to go but it's hidden because we don't know what will happen to us next."
© 2014 AFP