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The bloodiest front in eastern Ukraine: empty streets, boarded up windows and exhausted soldiers

Date: October 2, 2022 Time: 19:53:33

A few kilometers from the Ukrainian front line, a group of Ukrainian soldiers rest and smoke cigarettes on shaded benches near a military hospital. In the distance, the constant noise of heavy artillery can be heard. The city of Bakhmut seems deserted. Pre-war life is almost gone: no children, no cars, almost no people. The windows are boarded up, and there are few civilians on the streets. Only what the war brought was left here.

Soldiers, exhausted and exhausted, describe the dangerous battle to defend eastern Ukraine. First, the relentless fire of Russian heavy weapons, quickly followed by advancing tanks and infantrymen whose job it is to “clean up” any remaining Ukrainian units.

For four months, Russian troops tried to capture the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. They took the town of Popasna, 30 kilometers east of Bakhmut, and invaded Severodonetsk, 56 kilometers to the northwest. This weekend, Moscow troops captured the sister city of Lisichansk and regained control of the Lugansk region.

Located in the Donetsk region, Bakhmut, known in Soviet times as Artyomovsk, stands in the way of any Russian advance. But despite the size of their enemy, Ukrainian soldiers say they remain convinced that willpower and “good” will defeat “evil.”

Soldiers say the number of weapons the Russian military has and their willingness to use them in this war is different from the proxy war fought in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Then Russia tried to mask its involvement. Not this time.

They explain that the Ukrainian army has many highly motivated fighters, but its equipment and people are suffering from a huge amount of Russian shells, rockets and rockets. President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky said in early June that from 60 to 100 Ukrainian soldiers are killed in Donbas every day, 500 are injured.

The Guardian had access to Ukrainian soldiers on the condition that it did not reveal their names or the location of Ukrainian positions.

On the way to Bakhmut, you can see the equipment of the Ukrainian army, including trucks with fuel and ammunition, as well as a spectacular 2S7 howitzer mounted on the cellar. The dark traces of the Smerch multiple launch rocket system still littered the sky.

accustomed to bombing

The soldiers say they are accustomed to the relentless Russian bombardment. “When you see a tank for the first time, you get scared,” says Sasha, a young doctor. “After a while, you don’t feel it anymore. It’s like going into a trance. Your goal is to kill the enemy. And you will not succeed if you have a normal psyche. You turn into someone else. My parents tell me I’m out of touch with reality.”

“When you fight in a city, buildings take over,” says Sasha, who fled his hometown of Donetsk in 2014 when it was overrun by Russian and Moscow-backed forces. “They are shooting at you from artillery (“grads”, rockets, mortars), and if you have nothing to answer, [retiras] to another building, and they move forward.”

Sasha and her group were the third reinforcement unit sent to Rubizhne in Lugansk, one of the many cities in eastern Ukraine devastated by the fighting. Like the first two divisions, it changed over time. As they were leaving, their armored personnel carrier was hit by a rocket. “We were going out and three rocket-propelled grenades hit us directly. Our car overturned. Almost all of us were injured, including me.” The next day, May 11, Rubizhne passed into the hands of the Russians.

“There are a lot of negative things that are not talked about,” says Sasha, referring to Ukraine’s military information strategy and censorship laws. “But I’m ready to fight to the end because I don’t want anyone else to lose their home like my family in Donetsk.”

Most of the civilians fled from Bakhmut. In June, when the report was published, there was not much left, despite the constant rumble of artillery and queues in the streets. Two people, Lena and Oleg, say they stayed to look after Lena’s father. “It was a great city. We had 15 factories. Bakhmut prospered.” How far is the fight? “Close,” says Lena.

After the capture of Lysychansk, Ukrainian military experts and authorities believe that Russian troops are likely to launch major attacks on Bakhmut, as well as on the city of Slovyansk. The troops launched an offensive to the northeast, but did not achieve further territorial gains.

“All of a sudden hell broke out”

The fight continues outside the city. On May 31, 24-year-old Ivan, a mechanic from Western Ukraine, was wounded during a fight in an abandoned village on the outskirts of Rubizhne. He and his unit dug trenches near the forest. Three of his friends were killed by Russian attacks.

“I went for a cigarette, and suddenly all hell broke out,” says Ivan. “The Russians hid behind the trees. There was artillery shelling. Then the bullet went through. A sniper was shooting at us.”

Ivan and another soldier, Vitya, jumped out of an abandoned barn at the edge of the trench. “Andruska tried to contact us, but he got shot in the head and died,” says Ivan. “Then our sergeant Oleg came out of hiding to try to run to my position, but the bullet took off half his head and he collapsed almost on top of me.”

The sniper then fired at Vitya, who was on Ivan’s right, killing him as well. Ivan’s pistol ran out of ammo, so he reached for his sergeant’s rifle when his sergeant was also shot down. “I was hit in my right eye by a bullet fragment, and blood began to flow,” says Ivan, who has a head injury and ringing in his ear from gunshots. “When I came to my senses, I tried to drag Oleg’s body to the nearest house. I didn’t see well.”

Ivan says that he threw one of his two grenades not to hit the Russians, but to divert attention. “I removed the safety hook from the other. I thought: “If they come, I can blow myself up and take two or three with me.” As he explains, the fight lasted “between 15 and 20 minutes.” “Reinforcements arrived, they snatched the grenade out of my hands and took me out of there.”

“Injuries are worse than in 2014”

Still visibly shaken, Ivan was being treated at the hospital for an eye injury sustained last June. Doctors say that after a while he will see again.

At a hospital in the Dnipropetrovsk region where Ivan was being treated, doctors said they treated more than 122 Ukrainian soldiers with eye injuries sustained in the explosions. “The wounds are much worse than in 2014. Then they were just bullets,” says doctor Yulia Valentinovna. “Many times the wounds were in both eyes.”

Vasya, a soldier with a shrapnel wound to his eye who is unlikely to make a full recovery, says he has no regrets. “Russia has more artillery than we have bullets,” says Vasya. “The only way to resist is to give your life.”

Translation by Patricio Orellana

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