We make rapid progress north of Donetsk along the derelict rail lines. The leading soldier, whose clothing is white as snow, motions for us to get moving. A sign warns of mines, and downed power wires run across the tracks.
Nearly a mile into our journey, we come across a desolate railroad station that has seen better days. Suddenly, through a break in the trees, we can make out on the horizon the weathered grey high-rises of the enemy-named Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR).
Supposed separatists and regular Russian armed units have taken this region of Ukraine since spring of 2014. The Ukrainian troops have taken up position at the bottom of the embankment, in the woods.
President Vladimir Putin’s military forces continue to amass at Ukraine’s doorstep from three directions: here, the borderland region of the country’s industrial east; north from Belarus; and south from Russian-occupied Crimea.
This is one of the front lines of a war that has lasted eight years and may at any moment explode again.
The Ukrainians had Set up Camp in the Woods, Hidden From the View of the Enemy.
There are crude outposts here and there, built from logs and plastic. A wood-burning field stove sends plumes of smoke into the air; a mirror for shaving has been mounted to a tree stump.
A complex system of ditches, leading to lookout points and trenches, radiates out from the shacks. Shovels and picks are used to dig everything by hand. We enter one of the clefts and exit the woods by way of its length.
We run into a patrol returning from a practise shoot along the road. Grenade launcher Olga is 37 years old. Her fellow soldiers cheer her on and embrace her. There will be a party in the bunker this afternoon to celebrate her birthday.
A shooting range made of logs and sandbags may be found on a snowy field where the down gradually becomes deeper the further out you go.
Another soldier, 24 year old Jaroslav, sits with a periscope to scope out the field, but he must be careful because sniper fire is coming from the DNR region, almost a thousand yards ahead.
“Right now things have calmed down, but there have been provocations almost every day,” Jaroslav explains. He describes a popular type, in which pro-Russian forces fire indiscriminately with a machine gun in the hopes that the Ukrainians will retreat.
The snipers then take aim and attempt to eliminate them one by one. One Ukrainian serviceman died in the area near Luhansk, in the northern portion of the front, just last week.
Oleksii, 30, another soldier in the firing range, says, “You have to be on the guard at all times.” “When you’re in the thick of battle all the time, you eventually become accustomed to it and can’t help but relax.
However, you must not rest easy. The helmet is bulky and uncomfortable, but it is required gear. The safety vest is cumbersome but necessary. And you wish you could stretch out and take in the scenery, but you can’t.
Former TV reporter turned army spokesman in Ukraine, Oleksii has served in both roles. He left his job to join the fight, as did many of his countrymen, and more are getting ready to do the same if Russia resumes its invasion.
“Godzilla” is What the Locals Call Oleksii. His Father Died in the Fierce Fighting that Year in the Village of Zaitseve, During the Height of the Conflict.
Godzilla is interrupted as Jaroslav announces that he has seen a truck and black jeep crossing the field through his periscope. Oleksander, his company commander, examines the situation. His words, “We don’t know what they’re doing but it is something,” are further evidence of the enemy’s stepped-up mobilisation in recent days.
The political climate in Kyiv, the threats from Moscow, and the frenzied diplomacy in the West to prevent another conflict are all irrelevant here on the front lines. It’s our job, and we do it,” Oleksander explains.
As the first line of defence, it is obvious that we will be taking the heaviest hit. He goes on to say that worries on a global scale are for naught because other countries won’t join the struggle, something Oleksander is well aware of. The Ukrainian government is completely independent.
We Head Back to the Base as Night Falls. Olga and Zjuzja, the Company’s Pet Ferret, have Fun in the Bunker.
Olga was a supplementary educator for the deaf before to the war. It has been three years since she left her 17- and 18-year-old sons to join her unit. She rarely gets to spend time with them during the year. The one has already expressed interest in joining the military to her.
Almost all of the homes on the village street in the original section of Avdiivka have been destroyed; the roofs of the traditional, low-rise brick buildings have long since collapsed. The remaining walls are riddled with gunfire damage.
The once manicured lawns have been overrun by wildflowers. Sun-bleached teddy bears litter the lawn outside the one house that has managed to stay standing, and its windows have been nailed shut. The previous inhabitants have long since abandoned the premises.
Natalia, 57, Receives a Pension due to a Disability.
She is a rare visitor from Avdiik, and she stayed with them. She has managed to fix the windows that were smashed during the previous battle with the help of a Ukrainian humanitarian organisation, however they may still be shattered in the future.
Natalia still recalls the initial panic she felt eight years ago. While we were inside our house, helicopters bombed the nearby airport. That event was just horrible.
As Natalia and her family sheltered in the basement, their neighbor’s house took a direct strike. They made it through, but ultimately decided to leave Avdiivka.
Oksana, 49, is far away from you, labouring to turn the crank that will bring water up from a well in a bucket. She fills a jug, which she keeps on a little cart. Oksana’s kitchen window was shattered in October when a grenade detonated in her neighbor’s garden. It’s only her and her cat in their apartment.
Her son, Dimitri, is 16 years old and goes to school in a city some distance from the conflict. Her 25-year-old daughter now has a husband and children of her own. Oksana and her kids had been abandoned by their husband for a long time.