By FRANCESCA EBEL, Associated Press
BAKHMUT, Ukraine (AP) – Forests and burned cities have been burned. Colleagues with severed limbs. So relentless bombing that the only option is to lie in a trench, wait and pray.
Ukrainian soldiers returning from front lines to the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where Russia is carrying out a fierce offensive, describe life during what has become a grueling war of attrition as the apocalyptic.
In interviews with The Associated Press, some complained of chaotic organization, desertions, and mental health problems caused by relentless bombing. Others spoke of high morale, the heroism of their colleagues and a commitment to continue fighting, although the better-equipped Russians have more control over the combat zone.
Lieutenant Volodymyr Nazarenko, 30, second in command of the Svoboda Battalion of the National Guard of Ukraine, was with troops who withdrew from Sievierodonetsk under orders from military leaders. During a month-long battle, Russian tanks wiped out any potential defensive positions and turned a pre-war population of 101,000 into a “burned desert,” he said.
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“It simply came to our notice then. I don’t want to lie about it. But it was raining ammunition on every building, “Nazarenko said.” The city was methodically flattened. “
At the time, Sievierodonetsk was one of two major Ukrainian-controlled cities in Luhansk province, where pro-Russian separatists declared an unrecognized republic eight years ago. When the order to withdraw came on June 24, the Ukrainians were surrounded on three sides and mounted a defense from a chemical plant that also housed civilians.
“If there was hell on Earth somewhere, it was in Sievierodonetsk,” said Artem Ruban, a soldier in the Nazarenko battalion, from Bakhmut’s relative security, 64 kilometers (40 miles) southwest. of the captured city since then. “The inner strength of our boys allowed them to keep the city until the last moment.”
“These were not human conditions they had to struggle with. It’s hard to tell you this here, how they feel now or how it was there,” Ruban said, blinking in the sunlight. “They were fighting to the end. There. The task was to destroy the enemy, whatever happened.
Nazarenko, who also fought in Kyiv and elsewhere in the east after Russia invaded Ukraine, considers the Ukrainian operation in Sievierodonetsk “a victory” despite the result. He said defenders managed to limit casualties while slowing Russia’s advance for much longer than expected, depleting Russia’s resources.
“His army suffered heavy losses and his attack potential was eroded,” he said.
Both the lieutenant and the soldier under his command expressed confidence that Ukraine would regain all occupied territories and defeat Russia. They insisted that morale remained high. Other soldiers, most with no combat experience prior to the invasion, shared more pessimistic accounts while insisting on anonymity or using only their first names to talk about their experiences.
Oleksiy, a member of the Ukrainian army who began fighting Moscow-backed separatists in 2016, had just returned from the front with a strong lameness. He said he was wounded on the battlefield of Zolote, a city the Russians have also occupied since then.
“On television they are showing beautiful images of the front line, solidarity, the army, but the reality is very different,” he said, adding that he does not believe that the delivery of more Western weapons would change the course of the war. .
His battalion began running out of ammunition in a few weeks, Oleksiy said. At one point, the relentless bombing prevented soldiers from rising into the trenches, he said, with visible exhaustion on his wrinkled face.
A senior presidential aide reported last month that between 100 and 200 Ukrainian soldiers were dying every day, but the country has not provided the total number of deaths in action. Oleksiy claimed that his unit lost 150 men during the first three days of combat, many due to a loss of blood.
Because of the relentless bombing, the wounded soldiers were only evacuated 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 come back in,” he added.
Mariia, a 41-year-old section commander who joined the Ukrainian army in 2018 after working as a lawyer and giving birth to a daughter, explained that the level of danger and discomfort can vary greatly depending on the location of a unit and access to supply lines. .
The first lines that have existed since the conflict with the pro-Russian separatists began in 2014 are more static and predictable, while the places that became battlefields since Russia sent its troops to invade are “a different world,” he said.
Mariia, who refused to share her last name for security reasons, said her husband is currently struggling at a “hot spot”. Everyone misses and cares about their loved ones, and while this causes distress, their subordinates have kept their spirits up, he said.
“We are the descendants of the Cossacks, we are free and brave. It’s in our blood, “he said.” Let’s fight to the end. “
Two more soldiers interviewed by the AP – former office workers in Kyiv with no previous experience in battle – said they were sent to the eastern front as soon as they completed their initial training. They said they observed “terrible organization” and “illogical decision-making,” and many people in their battalion refused to fight.
One of the soldiers said he smokes marijuana daily. “Otherwise, I would lose my mind, I would desert. It’s the only way I can deal with it, “he said.
A 28-year-old former professor in Sloviansk who “never imagined” that he would fight for his country described Ukraine’s battlefields as a completely different life, with a different value system and emotional ups and downs.
“There is joy, there is sorrow. Everything is intertwined, ”he said.
Friendship with colleagues provides the bright spots. But he also saw fellow soldiers succumb to extreme fatigue, both physical and mental, and showing symptoms of PTSD.
“It is difficult to live under constant stress, without sleep and malnourished. See all those horrors with your own eyes: the dead, the torn limbs. It’s unlikely that anyone’s psyche can stand that, ”he said.
However, he also insisted that the motivation to defend his country remains.
“We are ready to hold on and fight with our teeth clenched. No matter how difficult and difficult it may be, ”said the professor, speaking from a fishing shop that became a military distribution center. “Who will defend my home and my family, if not me?”
The city center of Sloviansk provides equipment and supplies to local military units, and offers soldiers a place to go for short breaks from physical exertion and the horrors of battle.
Tetiana Khimion, a 43-year-old dance choreographer, set up the center when the war began. All sorts of soldiers go there, he says, from skilled special forces and war-hardened veterans to civilians turned combatants who recently enlisted there.
“It can be like this: for the first time coming, he smiles a lot, he can even be shy. Next time he comes and there’s a gap in his eyes, “Khimion said.” He’s been through something and it’s different. “
Behind her, a group of young Ukrainian soldiers rotating from the front sit sharing jokes and a pizza. The noise of artillery can be heard a few miles away.
“Mostly they hope it’s better. Yes, sometimes they come a little sad, but we also hope to cheer up here,” Khimion said. “We hug, smile and then go back to the field.”
On Sunday, Russian forces occupied the last Ukrainian stronghold in Luhansk province and intensified rocket attacks in Donetsk, Donbas province where the center is located.
Valerii Rezik contributed to this story.
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