The line of trees appears to fragment and disappear as it winds its way towards the Russian positions on the outskirts of the small town of Velyka Novosilka.
Dima, a Ukrainian army infantryman with the 1st Separate Tank Brigade, treads carefully along a path where army boots have worn through the spring clover. The zero line – the final trench – lies ahead. Russian troops are only 700m away.
Further north in Bakhmut, the Ukranians have been losing ground. But here in the south of Donetsk province, Ukrainian tanks and infantrymen are standing firm.
Despite months of vicious Russian attacks, Dima says the brigade has lost less than 10m of territory. Russian forces, he says, have sustained heavy losses.
It is a stricken landscape, where trenches lie exposed to Russian observation posts and surveillance drones. On this front line, Russian eyes are always watching, waiting for an opportunity to attack.
As we pass the infantry trenches, the clover begins to vanish, replaced by mud and bomb craters. Landmines and unexploded shells litter the ground. The treetops, still bare from winter, are now split and shattered. “There was a tank battle here recently,” says Dima, “we drove them back”.
A soldier in a trench shovels soft, red soil, hardly making a sound. From a nearby village, the patter of automatic gunfire catches the breeze.
“There were often battles in the village. Sometimes the whole village was on fire. They threw phosphorus, or I don’t even know what they threw,” Dima explains. He is over 6’4” tall with pale blue eyes made brighter by the dark circles under them. His AK-47 is slung over his shoulder; on his body armour hangs a spoon, a can opener, and a small pair of pliers.
The danger here lies outside the trenches. A moment’s inattention while smoking a cigarette can end in death if a mortar or grenade lands nearby. “Generally, they shell every day,” says Dima, indicating Russian positions. These men took casualties recently, but they are a fraction of the Ukrainian losses from the close-quarter fighting in Bakhmut.
Suddenly a shell whines overhead, landing to the left of our group. The six of us run for cover and hit the ground. I lose sight of Dima, but someone shouts that a Russian tank is firing. A second explosion hits, covering me in dirt. It was closer this time, perhaps 10ft away. I head for cover and see Dima standing tall in a trench. Inside is a timber-covered shelter, which four of us cram inside. As Dima lights a cigarette, there is another explosion nearby.
“They simply have an unlimited amount of shells,” he says. “They have entire warehouses full of [them]. They can shoot all day, and they won’t run out of shells. But us? We’d run out of shells this year. So we’re forming various assault brigades and we’ve been given tanks. I think with those we’ll win. We’re Cossacks. So, brave guys, we can handle it.”
When their positions are under attack, he explains, they take cover in trench dugouts, while one soldier stays on watch looking for enemy infantry and drones. He has learned to cope, he says. “There was fear for the first few times. When I first came. Now it has all, somehow, faded away. It’s become as solid as a rock. Well, there are some fears – everyone has them”.
Another shell lands close enough to knock him off his feet. “That was a good one,” he says, shaking his head and dusting himself off.
Dima is only 22 years old and from the central industrial city of Kremenchuk. He worked in a petro-chemical factory before the war, and like many of the soldiers fighting here, his adult life has barely started. When I ask what he tells his family, he responds, “I don’t have a family yet. I have my mum – I don’t have anyone else for now.” He calls home twice a day, in the morning and evening. “She doesn’t know much – I don’t tell her everything,” he says, his voice trailing off.
Among the soldiers there is disagreement over what the Russians are firing. It could be tank fire, mortars or grenades working on the Ukrainian positions – or a combination of all three. A bearded soldier, grimy with days at the front, enters the dugout and makes a whirling motion with his finger. A Russian drone is overhead. Even here there is uncertainty, it could be armed, or it could be a reconnaissance drone. There is nothing to do but to wait until the barrage is over, or it gets dark.
I leave the men just after sunset. The brigade’s tanks are firing back at the Russians now, and as I return, a fresh shift of soldiers takes up positions along the trenches. I’m mindful in the fading light of where I step, remembering the anti-personnel mines on the route in.
Tanks and artillery dominate here, with the brigade’s Ukrainian-made T64 Bulat tanks operating every day. “Tankers are like the older brother of infantry,” says tank commander Serhii. “When the infantry is being hurt, the tankers are coming. But the problem is that we can’t always come.”
The 1st Separate Tank Brigade is one of the most decorated in the army. Its commander Col Leonid Khoda is awaiting the arrival of Western tanks, including the British Challenger II, and has already sent men for training on German Leopard tanks.
The enemy “has a completely different goal,” he says. “We protect our state, our land, our relatives, we have a different motivation. They have no way out. Their leadership, their party said, no step back. Because to retreat means prison, means execution. So they are moving forward like a lamb to the slaughter.”
In February, the Russians tried to break through the front line 30km away, a bold move that would have put the rest of unoccupied Donetsk at risk. The advance ended in catastrophe, with hundreds of Russians dead, dozens of their tanks lost, and an armoured brigade all but annihilated.
Recalling one of February’s attacks around the town of Vuhledar 13km away, Col Leonid Khoda, describes it as “an act of desperation”. The enemy brigade was in effect, wiped out, he says. “But lately they’ve started to change tactics.”
Much of Donbas is rough with grit of the industrial age. Great abandoned factories and monumental slag heaps dominate the landscape, but not here. The land Col Khoda’s men are protecting specifically is the market town of Velyka Novosilka.
Before the war, the town had a modern school, a tidy fire station and a three-storey kindergarten. All now stand forlorn and battered.
The army driver bringing us to the town swerves to avoid a rocket embedded in the road. Another Russian shell lands in a nearby neighbourhood, sending a long arc of dirt into the grey sky. The small homes and cottages of the town speed past the window, and even as broken as they are, it’s plain to see this was a prosperous town before the war.
Some 10,000 people used to live here – now there are fewer than 200. “Only mice, cats and dogs thrive here now and they also hide from the shelling,” one of the soldiers in the car says.
At one of the shelters I meet Iryna Babkina, the local piano teacher who is trying to hold together the remaining threads of her town. With blazing red hair, she is quietly determined to remain in the town. A few dozen residents live in the cold, damp shelter, and Iryana helps care for the older ones.
She describes what has happened to the town as akin to a feeling of “grief”. “It used to be such a beautiful place,” she says. “It’s [now] more of a sadness – the sadness of how it used to be, the sadness of what it is now.”
Russian bombs often add to the mountain of grief. In the dimly lit basement shelter warmed by a wood-burning stove, I hear a voice. Sitting alone on a bed is Maria Vasylivna, 74.
Before Iryna introduces us, she whispers, “It’s difficult for her to speak, her husband was killed by shrapnel recently.”
Maria takes my hands. “Oh you are cold,” she says, warming them between hers.
Her husband, Sergiy, 74, was too ill to come to the shelter, and remained in their home even as Russian bombs fell across the neighbourhood.
In a soft voice she tells me, “He bled to death overnight. I was here and he was at home. I came in the morning, and he was gone. We buried him and that’s it.” They had been married 54 years.
Before I leave, Iryna takes me through the town’s school. Its lilac-painted corridors are scattered with debris, and the windows have been blown in by Russian bombs. Children’s jackets still hang on coat pegs and homemade Christmas decorations stand uncollected on a shelf.
On a wall above a pale blue radiator, a group picture shows the kids football team celebrating a win. Outside the window, the same pitch is cratered, and the nearby climbing frames mangled by shelling. The tail fin of an unexploded Russian rocket sticks out from the playground asphalt.
A piano stands in the corridor and Iryna sits down to play. But no tune comes, the piano is too badly damaged. She has no music to play and no children to teach. The last of them were forcibly evacuated from the town by police last month and taken to somewhere safer. Her own daughter was among them.
“There’s only the sounds of shells,” she says. “The school is smashed, instruments are ruined, but it is fine, we will rebuild it, and the music will sound again – along with the children’s laughter.”
These are the ties that bind people here, whether civilian or soldier. The determination to resist is the enduring weapon in Ukraine’s arsenal, as vital to the country’s survival as any armoured tank or infantry trench.
Source : BBC