- Quentin Somerville
- BBC News – Donbass, Ukraine
Ukrainian forces are trying to wrest the initiative from Russian forces before winter arrives. These forces have already launched a counterattack in the south, and the Ukrainians are now preparing to expand in the east to reclaim lost lands in the Donbass and around Kharkiv in the north.
Journalist Quentin Summerville and photographer Darren Conway accompanied a unit of Ukrainian forces fighting on the front lines and returned with this report.
The air here smells of burning sunflower fields, and Russian cluster bombs can be heard falling across the fields, setting fire to sunflowers. The sun that has tilted its heads due to the weight of its fruits, waiting for the harvest season that may not come.
A self-propelled gun roars across the field, its heavy tracks tearing the fertile plains of Donbass.
This land is held by the National Guard in eastern Ukraine, an area that Vladimir Putin has claimed was central to his military operation and will be seized “step by step”.
But now the Russian advance has waned and is closer to crawl. And between the smoke and the dust, there is another thing looming on the horizon: the hope of victory.
Here in the Donbass and far to the north on the outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, government forces are preparing to launch a counterattack.
I recently left army positions in the south around Kherson, the only strategically important city west of the Dnipro River captured by Russian forces.
The same units are now involved in the battle, supporting forces that have breached Russian defense lines in at least three places, and as part of a long-planned counter-offensive in the south, severe restrictions have been placed on news reporting as the operation continues.
Here in the Donbass, they remain absolutely silent. I was not informed of the destination in advance, and the unit’s information officer asked me not to mention the name of the military unit, and also removed the identification badges from the uniforms of the men we photographed.
Amid the roar of artillery bombardment from a base under a cover of trees, Artyom, 35, says we are in the north of the city of Seversk, about 8 kilometers from the line of concentration of Russian forces.
I ask them: “How close are you to them?” He answers: “Thirty meters, do you want to see?”
These are all defensive positions and the success around Kherson leads many to believe that more attacks are planned here and in the north.
I was handed over to a bearded and red-haired escort, Svarog, who is 26 years old.
“I would have looked at 18 without a beard,” Svarog says with a smile. But after spending six months in battle, he became a combat veteran.
His unit experienced the most intense battles in July, in neighboring Leschansk and Severodonetsk, where they numbered far fewer Russian soldiers.
“The fighting here is different,” says Svarog. “The Russians do not attack in large numbers, they advance no longer in groups of battalions, but in a platoon or detachment.”
One of the unit commanders explained that on the battlefield they had one fighter for every three on the “enemy” side.
In Severodonetsk, there was one man for seven, I was taken to the most advanced point.
The bombing was still going on at a distance from us, but the most immediate threat, the anti-personnel mines, was. I found five of them while we were walking along a muddy road towards the river.
At the riverbank we walked into a network of trenches and I was told to speak only in a whisper. It was an observation post but it was full of weapons.
“Where are the Russians?” I asked one of the guards.
He pointed to the other side of the river, and said: 30 meters or so.
Nearby, there are craters left by artillery shells and remnants of a Russian missile. First of all, I was told, this is an observation post, not an outpost.
“But if there is a threat that they will cross the river, we will open fire on them,” the guard said.
In a nearby village, which looked like many other war-torn and mostly deserted Ukraine villages, I met Sergey, 65, who was with his dog Mokha.
I asked him why he didn’t leave, and he replied, “My parents lived in this house and died in it… I can’t go anywhere. I sent my wife away and I live here alone. Everything is fine, I have food and a small farm, and my dog is not hungry.”
Sergey is proud of being Ukrainian, and says “I’m not a nationalist,” but believes in Ukraine and its armed forces.
But others here have divergent attitudes.
The Saffrog unit says that the population’s attitudes toward the war were different when it fought in the areas around Kiev, where the population’s loyalty was mixed.
I walked with his men into another destroyed village. Everyone had weapons, we were wearing shields and helmets.
A flock of geese hovered over us, the noise of which almost overshadowed the sound of artillery shelling.
We were invited to a courtyard full of grapes and roses, where the family went about their lives as if the war wasn’t going on around them.
Julia, the 35-year-old nursery teacher, laughed when I asked her how to live with such a threat. “Imagine the war coming to your city, would you have to pack up and leave your house in 24 hours, sure no, you would do just like me and stick to what You spent your life building it.”
Her sister Lilia is standing nearby. Her 19th birthday was the day I visited them. Her wrist had a tattoo written in Latin that means “joy comes after misery”.
Their father blames the Ukrainian government for failing to negotiate with Russia. “They need to come to the negotiating table and come to an agreement. It’s not right to continue with this,” he says.
His daughter Julia opposes him and says calmly, “We understand that. I think eventually, reason will prevail, let’s wait a month or two for the front lines to straighten out and things will be good here again.”
Days later, I traveled south and met the head of a field medical unit named Raslan, who despite seeing the daily human tragedies of this war, still had a sense of humor and laughter.
When we were preparing to go to a village not far from the battlefields to meet him, I asked him how am I going to find you?
“Look for the feathered ambulance,” he said. “You won’t miss it.”
The car arrived at the village bus station covered in homemade camouflage nets. We drove behind him quickly to the frontline “primary medical point”, where injured soldiers receive immediate life-saving care.
The behavior and attitude of the field doctors is legendary, so we were not surprised when we arrived at the medical point and saw Yuri, the point’s surgeon, wearing camouflage shorts and a metal detector in hand.
“He’s looking for gold,” Ruslan jokes.
After a while, Yuri’s headphones ring, and with a small military shovel, he pulls a black lump of ore out of the ground, and says shyly, “It’s just a hobby.”
The clinic is full of medical supplies. “We want to thank our foreign donors,” Raslan says. “We haven’t taken the supplies out of the boxes yet. Sometimes we don’t have time to fully empty them.”
In a handwritten notebook, he showed me all the injuries they had treated over the past month, including information such as name, time of arrival, and type of injury.
“The more writing on the page, the more difficult the situation,” says Raslan.
About 9,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since the beginning of the war, says the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, General Valery Zaluzhny.
The casualties per unit are a top secret matter.
In Raslan’s thick notebook, the number of deaths was lower than I had imagined.
“We have come a long way since 2014,” he says, referring to the rapid modernization of Ukrainian forces, including field medical services.
Ukrainian artillery is bombing all around us. The powerful M777 howitzer is bombarded from near here, and at night we hear the sound of Hemar launchers firing their long-range shells.
These new weapons helped pave the way for the Ukrainian offensive in the south, and Ukrainians are looking to achieve this in the east as well.
I sat with Vlad, 26, the ambulance driver in the unit.
Vlad was a naval engineer until the beginning of the war, his frigate Hetman Sahaidachny was deliberately sunk so as not to fall into the hands of the Russians.
Before he got behind the wheel of the ambulance, he was a gunner and could discern the sound of every explosion, as well as the production date and type of every tank and armored vehicle passing by the clinic.
I asked him how much he loved this duty compared to what he did when he was serving in the artillery.
“There’s a lot of waiting right now,” he told me. But he doesn’t have to wait long.
Suddenly a truck arrived at the clinic, with screams coming from behind. The clinic operates without radios and the first thing they know about the victims is usually when they reach the door.
The first man was able to walk inward, but his right arm was dangling, along with a deep wound in his shoulder.
The force of the explosion near him broke his arm. Another man, groaning and screaming from being hit by shrapnel all over his body, was carried on the clinic stretcher by Vlad and another paramedic.
The field emergency room became the scene of intense quiet activity.
Yuri was treating the seriously wounded man on a stretcher with the help of the nursing staff, and First Lieutenant Victor, who was helping the casualty by the arm tightly.
The patients were quickly bandaged and covered in silver thermal blankets, then sent for further treatment away from the battle lines.
“We have about an hour to quickly provide medical assistance before sending the casualty to the hospital where the trauma and operations specialist and the trauma team take care of the patient.”
Both will recover but the seriously wounded soldier is unlikely to return to duty.
Raslan sits down and adds two more names to his notebook. The explanations beside my injured name are brief and short.
Four more casualties arrived there later that day. Raslan took us to the trenches where the victims were initially received.
Mortars started falling on the row of trees behind where we were standing. “It’s good that they didn’t hit the target,” Ruslan laughs, now dressed in full combat clothing. “This is Russian precision for you.”
I asked him how the injured are evacuated under the constant bombardment.
“No one will be endangered, so no matter how difficult it may seem, you cannot lose power, means, human resources and vehicles.”
“When calm prevails, the battle stops, or the enemy’s ammunition runs out, the evacuation takes place immediately,” he says.
“In order to do that, we are trying to save the lives of the injured with all the means at our disposal. We have already lost a very large number of field medics.”
As we leave the forehead, the sky turns dark and lightning appears on the horizon.
Summer is ending and bad weather is around the corner, and the fighting conditions will become even more difficult. The heavy winter snows that threaten to freeze the battle lines in place will arrive.
But for now, there is something else looming here: the hope that Ukraine will be able to strike back at Russia after months of stalemate.
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