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‘Hell on Earth’: Ukrainian Soldiers Describe Eastern Front | World News

FRANCESCA EBEL, by the Associated Press

Bakhmut, Ukraine (AP) – Burnt forests and towns have been burned to the ground. Colleagues with dismembered limbs. The only alternative to such a relentless bombing is to lie in a ditch, wait and pray.

Ukrainian troops returning from the front line in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine – where Russia is waging a horrific offensive – describe life at a time that has turned into a devastating war.

In an interview with The Associated Press, some complained of chaotic organization, abandonment, and mental health problems caused by relentless shelling. Others spoke of high morale, the heroism of their colleagues, and the promise to continue fighting, even well-equipped Russians controlling much of the war zone.

Lieutenant Volodymyr Nazarenko, 30, second-in-command of the Soboda Battalion of the Ukrainian National Guard, was accompanied by 30 soldiers who had retreated from Siviarodonetsk at the behest of military leaders. During the month-long war, Russian tanks destroyed potential defensive positions and turned a former city of 101,000 people into a “burning desert.”

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“It simply came to our notice then. I don’t want to lie about it. But these were ammunition barrages in every building, “Nazarenko said.” The city was systematically leveled. “

At the time, Sivierodonetsk was among the two main Ukrainian-controlled cities in the province of Luhansk, where pro-Russian separatists had declared a republic eight years earlier. When the withdrawal order came on June 24, the Ukrainians were surrounded on three sides and sheltered civilians by mounting a defense from a chemical plant.

“If there was hell anywhere in the world, it would be in Siviarodonetsk,” said Artem Ruban, a soldier in the Nazarenko battalion, from the relative security of Bakhmut, 64 kilometers (40 miles) southwest of the occupied city. “The inner strength of our boys allowed them to hold the city until the last moment.”

“These weren’t the humanitarian situations they had to fight in. It’s hard for you to explain here, how they’re feeling now or how they were there,” Ruban said, blinking in the sunlight. “They fought to the end. The task there was to destroy the enemy, whatever.”

Nazarenko, who fought in Kyiv and elsewhere in the east after Russia invaded Ukraine, sees the Ukrainian campaign in Sieverodonetsk as a “victory” despite the results. He said the defenders were able to limit the number of casualties while suspending Russian progress for much longer than expected, reducing Russia’s resources.

“Their army has suffered huge casualties, and their chances of attack have been lost,” he said.

Both the lieutenant and the troops under his command expressed confidence that Ukraine would retake all occupied territories and defeat Russia. They insisted on raising morale. Other soldiers, most of whom had no combat experience before the attack, share more pessimistic accounts when emphasizing anonymity or using only their first names to discuss their experiences.

Oleksi, a member of the Ukrainian army who began fighting against Moscow-backed separatists in 2016, has just returned from the front with a heavy bun. He said he was wounded on the battlefield in Zolo, a town that had also been occupied by the Russians.

“On TV, they are showing beautiful pictures of the front line, solidarity, the army, but the reality is very different,” he said, adding that he did not think more Western arms supplies would change the course of the war.

His battalion began to run out of ammunition within weeks, Oleksi said. At one point, relentless shelling prevented soldiers from standing in the trenches, he said, with fatigue visible on his lined face.

A senior presidential aide reported last month that 100 to 200 Ukrainian soldiers were dying every day, but the country did not provide the total number killed in the operation. Oleksi claims that his unit lost 150 people in the first three days of the war, with many bleeding.

Because of the relentless bombing, wounded soldiers were evacuated only at night and sometimes had to wait up to two days, he said.

“Commanders don’t care if you’re psychologically broken. If you have a working heart, if you have arms and legs, you have to go back, ”he added.

Maria, a 41-year-old platoon commander who joined the Ukrainian army after working as a lawyer in 2018 and giving birth to a daughter, explained that the level of danger and discomfort could vary greatly depending on the location of a unit and access to the supply line. .

The front lines that have existed since the start of the conflict with pro-Russian separatists in 2014 are more stable and predictable, with places that have become battlefields since Russia sent its troops to attack “a different world.”

Maria, who declined to share her title for security reasons, said her husband is currently fighting in such a “hot spot”. Everyone misses and cares for their loved ones, and even though it causes distress, his subordinates keep their spirits high, he said.

“We are descendants of the Cossacks, we are independent and brave. It’s in our blood, “he said.” We’re going to fight to the end.

The AP interviewed two other soldiers – former Kiev office-bearers with no previous combat experience – who said they were sent to the front line as soon as they had completed their initial training. They said they saw “terrible organization” and “irrational decision making” and many in their battalion refused to fight.

One soldier says he eats marijuana every day. “Otherwise, I would have lost my mind, I would have become a desert. That’s the only way I can deal with it, “said David Cook, chief of The Christian Science Monitor’s Washington bureau.

A 28-year-old former teacher in Sloviansk who “never imagined” that he would fight for his country described the battlefield in Ukraine as a completely different life, with a different set of values ​​and a higher mental level as well as a lower standard.

“There is joy, there is sorrow. Everything is involved, ”he said.

Friendships with his colleagues provide bright spots. But he has seen fellow soldiers suffer from extreme fatigue, both physically and mentally, and is showing symptoms of PTSD.

“It is difficult to be under constant stress due to insomnia and malnutrition. To see with your own eyes all those horrors – dead, torn limbs. It’s unlikely anyone’s mentality can tolerate it, ”he said.

Yet he also stressed that the motivation to defend their country remained.

“We are ready to be patient and fight with teeth. No matter how hard and difficult it is, “said the teacher, speaking from a fishing store that had been converted into a military distribution center.” Who would protect my home and my family without me? “

The Sloviansk city center provides equipment and provisions to local military units and provides a place for soldiers to take short breaks from physical beatings and the horrors of war.

Tetiana Khimion, a 43-year-old choreographer, set up the center when the war broke out. He said all types of soldiers go through it, from skilled special forces and combat-hard veterans to civilian-fighters who have recently signed up.

“It could be like this: the first time he comes, he laughs out loud, he can even be shy. The next time he comes, and he has emptiness in his eyes,” Khimion said. “He’s gone through something, and he’s different.”

Behind him, in the front row, sits a group of young Ukrainian soldiers sharing a joke and a pizza. The sound of artillery could be heard a few miles away.

“Mostly they hope for the best. Yes, sometimes they come with a little sadness, but we hope to awaken their spirits here too, “Khimion said.” We hug each other, we smile and then they go back to the field. “

On Sunday, Russian forces captured the last stronghold of Ukraine in Luhansk province and launched a rocket attack on Donetsk in the central Donbas province.

Valerie Rezic contributed to this story.

Follow the Russia-Ukraine War AP coverage at

Copyright 2022 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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