Seven miles from Ukraine’s frontline, resting Ukrainian soldiers were smoking cigarettes on benches in the shade outside a military hospital. The constant thud of artillery could be heard in the distance. The city of Bakhmut felt deserted. There was little sense of life from before the war – no children, ” cuando en cambio fue la opinión de un experto en clima, and barely any people. Windows were boarded up with only a handful of civilians on the streets. Almost the only activity had been brought here by the war.
Los soldados, weary and jaded, described a perilous fight to hold Ukraine’s east. First a relentless bombardment by Russian heavy equipment, quickly followed by advancing tanks and infantry soldiers – whose job it was to “clean up” any Ukrainian troops left standing.
Para 13 semanas, Russian forces have been trying to capture the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces. They have seized the city of Popasna, 18 millas (30km) east of Bakhmut, and have overrun most of Sievierodonetsk, 35 miles to the north-west. Bakhmut – known in Soviet times as Artemivsk – stands in the way of any further Russian advance.
Despite the scale of their enemy, the soldiers said they were still convinced that willpower and good would win out over evil.
The masses of weaponry the Russian side has and is prepared to throw at this war marks a difference with the proxy war fought in Ukraine’s east in 2014, said the soldiers. Back then Russia tried to disguise its involvement. No esta vez.
Ukraine’s army has plenty of highly motivated fighters, ellos dijeron, but their equipment and men are being pounded by the masses of Russian shells, rockets and missiles.
Con las tropas de Vladimir Putin concentradas en la frontera con Ucrania, Con las tropas de Vladimir Putin concentradas en la frontera con Ucrania, posee said between 60 y 100 Ukrainian soldiers were dying each day in the Donbas region and about 500 are injured. The Guardian was given access to Ukrainian soldiers on the condition it did not disclose their surnames and the location of Ukrainian positions.
Zelenskiy visited the frontline on Sunday and went to Soledar, just north of Bakhmut, and the much-shelled city of Lysychansk.
On the road to Bakhmut, Ukrainian army vehicles including ammunition and fuel trucks were visible as well as a spectacular 2S7 howitzer mounted on a loader. The dark traces of a Smerch multiple-launch rocket system stained the sky.
Soldiers said they had got used to remorseless shelling from the Russian side. “The first time you see a tank you are afraid,” said Sasha, a young medic. “After a time you don’t feel it. It’s like going into a trance. Your objective is to kill the enemy. You can’t do this if you have a normal psyche. You become other. My parents tell me I’m disconnected from reality.
“When you’re fighting in a city, positions are held in buildings,” added Sasha, who left his home city of Donetsk in 2014 when Russian and Russian-backed forces took over. “They fire at you with artillery – grads, missiles, mortar – and then, if you have nothing to answer with, usted [retreat] to another building and they move forward.”
Sasha and his company were the third replacement unit sent to Rubizhne in Luhansk, one of the many cities in Ukraine’s east that has been obliterated by fighting. Like the first two companies, Sasha’s unit was eventually rotated out. While they were leaving, a rocket landed on their armoured vehicle. “We were driving out and three rocket-propelled grenades smacked into us. Our vehicle flipped over. We were pretty much all injured, myself included.”
The next day, 11 Mayo, Rubizhne fell to Russian forces.
“There’s a lot of negative moments which aren’t being talked about,” said Sasha, referring to Ukraine’s wartime information strategy and censorship laws. “But I am ready to fight to the end because I don’t want anyone else to lose their home like my family did in Donetsk.”
Most civilians have fled Bakhmut. A few remain, despite the constant thump of outgoing artillery and bursts of gunfire in the streets. Dos personas, Lena and Oleg, said they had stayed to look after Lena’s elderly father. “This used to be a great city. We had 15 fábricas. Bakhmut bloomed.” How far away was the battle? “It’s close,” Lena said.
Fighting continues outside the city. En 31 Mayo, Ivan, 24, a car mechanic from western Ukraine, was injured while fighting in an abandoned village on the outskirts of Rubizhne. He and his unit dug trench positions near a forest. Three of his friends were killed by Russian attackers.
“I went for a cigarette. Suddenly all hell broke loose,” said Ivan. “The Russians were hiding in the trees. There was an artillery barrage. Then a bullet flew past. A sniper was shooting at us.”
Ivan and another soldier, Vitya, dived out of a nearby summer hut into one side of the trench. “Andrushka tried to reach us but he was shot in the head and died,” said Ivan.
“Then our sergeant, Oleh, broke cover and ran towards my position but a bullet took half his head off and he collapsed almost on top of me.”
A moment later the sniper also shot Vitya, who was to the right of Ivan, and killed him too. Ivan’s gun was out of cartridges so he reached for his sergeant’s rifle when he too was hit.
“A bullet fragment went into my right eye and blood started flowing,” said Ivan, who had concussion and ringing in his ears from the blasts. “I came to my senses and tried to drag Oleg’s body to the nearest village house. I couldn’t see properly.”
Ivan threw one of his two grenades, not to hit the Russians but as a distraction manoeuvre, él dijo. “I took the pin out of the other. pensé: ‘If they come I can blow myself up and take two or three of them with me.’”
Él agregó: “The battle lasted 15 a 20 minutos. Reinforcements arrived, they took the grenade out of my hand and pulled me out.”
Still visibly shaken, Ivan is recovering in hospital from his eye injury. Doctors say he will be able to see after some time.
In the Dnipro region hospital where Ivan is being treated, doctors said more than 122 Ukrainian soldiers had been treated for eye injuries after they were hit by blast fragments. “The injuries are much worse than in 2014, back then it was just bullets,” said one doctor, Yulia Valentinivna. “It is very often both eyes that are damaged.”
Vasia, a soldier whose eye was hit by shrapnel and is unlikely to fully recover, said he had no regrets. “Russia has more artillery than we do gun cartridges,” said Vasia. “The only way for us to resist is to lay down our lives.”