NZer in Ukraine certain Dominic Abelen's body in Russian hands

Source: Radio New Zealand

A former New Zealand soldier now fighting on Ukraine's front line is certain the body of New Zealand soldier Dominic Abelen is in Russian hands.

Corporal Dominic Abelen.

The man, who RNZ has agreed not to name, was a close friend of Abelen, who was killed alongside American Joshua Jones in the east of the country.

The New Zealand Government has not been able to say where the body is but the friend said it would be with Jones.

The former soldier said he had seen evidence that Jones' body was with the Russian side.

"They've put in the media, photos of Josh's passport, Josh's Ukrainian military ID, and pictures of Joshua's body as well.

"We haven't received anything or seen anything like that with Dom's body, but it's safe to assume that'll be exactly the same, that they will have his body as well because they were right next to each other. "

He was not sure what was happening regarding repatriation of either of the killed soldiers, but he understood the US State Department was in talks with the Russian Government regarding the bodies.

The soldier and Abelen had talked about what each other wanted, should they not survive the war.

"I know what Dominic wanted.

"This is something we talked about right in the beginning. I just asked him, you know, let's get this awkward shit out of the way.

"If something was to happen to you, what do you want to have happen?

"He said, 'look, if you can get my body back to my parents and to my family, that's cool', and he said, 'but personally, I don't give a s**t... I'm not there anymore, I'm gone'.

"Dom said he didn't want anyone to lose their lives to try and get him back."

READ MORE: Kiwi killed in Ukraine: Government does not know where body is

The soldier said he had talked to the Abelen family and they agreed.

"Just like us, we all want to see Dom home ... but unless you're going to send a whole bunch of dudes out there to secure the whole area, push past it, you're not going to be able to get in there and take the two friends away from a place which is set up 10 to 15 metres away from the Russian position. It's just not going to happen."

The soldier said to have someone like Abelen in Ukraine was extraordinary.

"He was a consummate professional. He was fearless, strong, handsome. You just never felt like you had enough time with him."

"You just never got sick of him being around ... him being sick of you on the other hand, that's probably another thing."

The soldier said he was a hero, for many reasons.

"Not just for his combat ability and what he did on that day, but just in the way that he holds people together.

"Hero is a very, very tame way to put it, he's so much more."

READ MORE: Body of NZ solider killed in Ukraine may not be brought home - PM

Since his death, the soldier said more New Zealanders wanted to join the fight in Ukraine.

"If they do make it to a legion, either a battalion or to another unit is that they have to understand that this place is beautiful, but it's also terrible.

"Some of the places that they'll go to, it's their own special kind of hell.

"So think about the life that they have now, and also think about the lives of their families as well, because as we've seen, it can absolutely tear a family apart or turn their lives upside down.

"One week in this place is like a year in Afghanistan."

Life on the front line

The soldier said the front line was very fluid, not a clear outline or space you could point to on a map.

He said it was more like a 10 kilometre buffer zone.

"One day it can be happy campers... and then the next day you could go there and it'd be occupied by Russians.

"All of a sudden you realise that at that point in time, like, 'well I am in a lot of danger here'."

The next day it can return back to Ukrainian hands and be safe again, he said.

The key to surviving he said, was to just not think about it too hard.

"One day you are in danger, one day you are not, because you're always in danger."

Currently based in the east of Ukraine, unable to be more specific due to safety concerns, he said it was very quiet most of the time.

"It's just an absence of people, there is an absence of other life, and what life is there, it's normally appearing at you through a scope or something"

"You just feel like people looking at you."

READ MORE: 'NZ must be proud of' Kiwi soldier killed in Ukraine, ambassador says

But that quiet changes very quickly.

He said it can go from silence to all of a sudden an attack will open up.

"Artillery rains down on you and then it's very noisy.

"It's explosions, or it's quiet. Those are the two sort of ultra extremes."

Looking at the landscape, he said it was mostly open fields across the front line. They can use the tree lines for shelter, but not for long.

"The next day, the tree line will be wiped out because they saw you, or you saw them, you know, all of a sudden Ukrainians or the Russians will have absolutely deleted that space off the grid square."

The human cost

The soldier had been in Ukraine since April. He was expecting to be home before now, but can no longer see an exit date.

During those long months in a war zone he had seen lots of awful things, but the part that sticks with him is the children.

"A lot of the hardest thing I've had to deal with as far as being about, you know, children.

"With adults, whether it's your friends dying, or whether it is adults being shot or burnt or blown up, that's one thing. To some degree, they have a lot of governance over why they're there. But children don't.

"Children are shackled to where their parents are...seeing kids die or seeing kids get blown up and especially just right in front of you. It's hard to deal with."

He said when the bombs come he'd seen children hiding under shelters or rubble trying to get away, just to escape things.

That was the hardest stuff, he said.

"They just shouldn't be worrying about that sort of stuff, they should be playing football. But instead they are worried about dying, or their parents dying. "

READ MORE: Father of NZ soldier killed in Ukraine says son was 'kind, gentle man'

The solider said while it was hard to deal with, he handled it by delving deeper into his work.

"You want to feel terrible, you want to feel sad because that's the motivation.

"But at the same time it's just like staring into the void, you don't want to stare too deep or go too far."

He said all you could do, was to try you best and work the next day to be better.

rnz.co.nz