A look at Ukraine’s Donbas frontline. ‘If we tell our families about our losses, they will panic’

Benas Gerdžiūnas, LRT.lt

Benas Gerdžiūnas, LRT.lt2022.12.20

Ukraine’s Donbas has become the epicentre of a full-scale invasion. In the months of fighting, Russian forces have made slow but painful gains; Ukrainian troops are still holding the line.

“We are waiting for an attack to begin at any time,” says Vaselyna, an officer at the Carpathian Sich battalion. “Bahmut and this are the two main directions now.”

We are near Lyman, one of the three places, alongside Bahmut and Avdiivka, mentioned by Ukraine’s General Staff as the main point of Russia’s assault.

Slipping into the combat area under the cover of darkness, we are due to meet a company of men ending their three-day rotation at the trenches.

“We bring [troops] to the positions only in bad weather and rotate them very quickly because of constant shelling, as it’s one of the hottest parts of the frontline,” says Vaselyna. “The Russians are working with everything they have – they are also dropping aviation bombs.”

The roads are littered with trucks and cars, twisted and torn apart by direct artillery hits. Our armoured vehicle seized from the Russians bounces across craters in the road.

The Ukrainians are taking heavy casualties. Their positions, just 300 metres from the Russian lines, are under constant bombardment. In one company, close to half of the people were wounded, says one soldier.

“Dozens got contusions in the past two months alone,” says Vaselyna, naming one of the most common injuries that are caused by close explosions and may lead to brain damage.

In their battalion of some 600 troops, 56 people have died since February 24, she adds.

At the frontline, not a single house is intact, metal sheathing and wood panels lay strewn across unpaved roads. Ukrainian soldiers are seen poking out of the rubble in this ramshackle, their silhouettes planted against the sky.

As an infantry unit, they have the arduous task of holding the trenches. “It’s the hardest work psychologically, because you are just waiting,” Vaselyna says. “When you are on the frontline, you understand anything can happen, but usually it’s just luck.”

Even if they are holding the trenches, the frontline isn’t static.

“We received an order to move to the next position,” says Fedya, a soldier in the battalion. “We took up a position and covered the advancing brigade. After that, we spent another night there. Due to the offensive, the shelling was severe.”

We arrive at their forward base, some three kilometres from the trenches and around five from the Russian lines. The troops are spread out across a village void of civilians.

But the Russians are still able to penetrate their defences.

According to Vaselyna, Russian groups previously approached the village wearing Ukrainian uniforms. When those on duty called out to them, the soldiers answered in Ukrainian.

The Russian soldiers then allegedly killed everyone at the outpost, manned by another unit deployed alongside the Carpathian Sich. Wearing an adversary’s uniform is considered a war crime.

Although the village had been largely unscathed before the Ukrainians recaptured it during the counter-offensive in October, not a single structure is now intact. The Russian guns continue pummelling the lands they falsely call theirs.

We settle in the basement of a home. A generator rattles outside, while a homemade stove keeps the troops warm. The civilians, who the soldiers say are pro-Russian, fled when the Ukrainians came.

Although they accuse all locals of being pro-Russian, it’s unlikely to be the case. Since the full-scale invasion in February, civilians, including those from Mariupol, had to flee via Russia to reach Europe or re-enter Ukrainian territory.

In the basement, tremors run through the walls and your body as Grad rockets and artillery rounds thunder around. The only way to stay safe is to stay down, keeping time above ground to a minimum.

Those who do not are routinely injured. A man lost his leg to shrapnel some weeks ago, according to Vaselyna.

We lose track of which shells are outgoing and which are incoming. Although soldiers say Russia maintains a fire superiority, the Ukrainians are also able to keep up the pressure.

But the Russians’ supplies, according to the men, are seemingly unending.

“We took one artilleryman prisoner, he told us they get constant deliveries of ammunition,” says a soldier nicknamed Happy. “They fire all the time, some 900 rounds a day. We are happy if our units fire 50.”

Their tank unit stands idly in a nearby village due to a shortage of shells. But having tanks in the first place is a triumph for the otherwise infantry unit. A mix of cutting-edge and dated tanks was captured, restored, and is now engaged in long-range duels. A Russian lend-lease, the soldiers joke.

Enemy tank crews are well-trained and effective – so effective that they command respect even from the Ukrainians.

“A good soldier is a good soldier,” says Fedya. “You would want to fight alongside someone like him.”

Due to one Russian tank commander, hundreds of Ukrainian troops were killed and wounded.

“But he is a good warrior, there is respect for him,” says Fedya. “I wouldn’t kill him if he was caught, he is just a normal guy.”

Sasha 'Mac'

Sasha ‘Mac’ / B. Gerdžiūnas/LRT

‘I don’t tell my parents anything’

Can I swear, asks Sasha ‘Mac’, a 20-year-old soldier. After a nod, he resumes speaking: “It’s fucked up.”

Their trenches are beginning to freeze over and some men have already suffered frostbite wounds. The winter will only get colder.

Their positions are hit continuously by tanks and artillery, with shrapnel flying around the trenches. One narrowly missed his comrade.

“Unless a drone or a tank sees you, no one will shell you. And if you sit in the dugout, nothing will happen, but if a drone sees you – you’re done.”


Marik / B. Gerdžiūnas/LRT

Is there anything they can do against the drones? Nothing, he shakes his head.

“When we [see] that they are getting ready to fly a drone, we simply get inside a dug-out and wait.”

Sasha was a second-year university student when the war began. In the early chaos, he couldn’t get drafted into the armed forces, so his road to the frontline led via the Carpathian Sich unit, then operating as it did in 2014 – made up of volunteers, without pay or official support.

“Here they are ready to give their life. You feel safer with them, you trust them and you know they won’t leave you behind.”

Back in 2014, when the war first came to Donbas, Sasha was just 11. “I didn’t really understand what was happening,” he says.

Now, the most difficult thing was telling his parents that he was off to fight.

“No one will tell them how scary it is, because everyone understands that if we tell the truth, how many losses we have, how tough it is when you are being shelled, they will panic,” says Sasha.

“That is why I do not tell my family how much we are under attack. I don’t tell my parents anything at all, I say that everything is fine.”

A final smoke before the trenches.

A final smoke before the trenches. / B. Gerdžiūnas/LRT

In the early hours, the artillery outside dies down. Shelling is less intense at night, as the Russians know most of the Ukrainian troops are safely underground. Only during the day does it become much more unpredictable, sporadic, and deadly.

There is little time until dawn breaks.

A troop rotation takes place outside a small house. Although it is still standing, everything around the small brick structure is ripped apart by successive artillery strikes. The frontline looms over a nearby hill.

After moments of calm, artillery duels pick up pace again, sending light streaks up in the sky and reverberations across the fields.

Carpathian Sich soldiers heading to the trenches.

Carpathian Sich soldiers heading to the trenches. / B. Gerdžiūnas/LRT

Later, a shell scorches through the sky above. The round lands several hundred metres away.

The men pour outside, weapons and bags in hand, waiting for their armoured transport. Some of them smoke, nervously.

I ask Klitschko, nicknamed due to his resemblance to the boxer-cum-mayor, how he is feeling. “Normal,” he answers, adrenaline pulsing in his voice. After walking off a little to the side, away from the others, he concedes: “A little scared, of course.”

Finally, clack-clicking their guns, they climb aboard an MT-LB, a Soviet-era armoured personnel carrier.

They head out into the dark.

We wait for the men they are due to replace. It starts getting bright outside.

Troops coming back from the frontline.

‘It cannot be explained in words or emotions’

An armoured vehicle screeches to a halt as several dozen men jump down. Their faces are sunken, blackened with dirt and smoke, eyes glazed over with exhaustion.

They are carrying a mix of NATO-provided weapons, including NLAWs and German Panzerfausts, and captured Russian guns.

Troops coming back from the frontline.

Troops coming back from the frontline. / B. Gerdžiūnas/LRT

Almost all of their new AKs, ammunition, and even some kit pouches and sleeping bags are Russian. They are superior in quality to the Ukrainian equivalents, the men say.

The soldiers immediately head down into the basement. First, they fetch a drink – in below-zero temperatures, they need gas burners to unfreeze just a few sips of water. The ordeal lasts precious minutes at the trenches and uses up their finite gas supplies.

Troops coming back from the frontline.

Troops coming back from the frontline. / B. Gerdžiūnas/LRT

Then, phones in hand, they reach out to their families with a simple message – we are alive.

Fedya grabs his phone. “Let’s try,” he says. After a few seconds, his wife’s voice crackles on the other end of the line.

Fedya tears up and turns away from the camera. “I will call you later,” he says, putting a cigarette between his teeth.

“I think it’s harder for her than it is for me,” Fedya says after a while. “Because at least I am getting used to it.”


Fedya. / B. Gerdžiūnas/LRT

Their communication lines are enabled by Starlink, the satellite system helping Ukraine evade Russian tracking and jamming.

“[Before Starlink] there was almost no communication, I could not contact my family for weeks,” says Fedya. “It is hard for relatives in such a situation, harder than for us.”

Like all other men, he keeps details about his own ordeal to a minimum. But this will present long-term challenges ahead.

“It will not be understood by those who have not been here. It cannot be explained in words or emotions. Here, everyone finds something that they will have to live with for the rest of their lives,” says Fedya.

“It is difficult to explain at home, or to friends or spouses, what is happening here. War – people understand what it is in general, but it is very difficult to explain it,” he adds.

Carpathian Sich.

Carpathian Sich. / B. Gerdžiūnas/LRT

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