A traumatised father battles Russia on Ukraine’s front line

The losses in eastern Ukraine are felt by soldiers and civilians alike. For many, nothing remains of their homes but memories.

Through fields and down off-road tracks, amid the constant sounds of artillery guns being fired, is Ukraine’s eastern front line.

Along a tree line used as cover, vehicles are hidden – camouflaged with branches and shrubbery.

Andrii Onistrat is a commander of a drone unit there. He has a confident swagger about him and is comfortable in front of a camera.

Before the war, he was a successful businessman and had his own television show. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine turned him into a soldier.

“The Russians are over there,” he says, standing in the thick trees, casually pointing at a tree line across the fields.

Behind that tree line is the town of Pavlivka. It is dangerously close to Russian positions, about 1.5m to 2km (0.9 to 1.2 miles) away from them.

If Andrii’s team is spotted, Russian forces will target the area with mortars and artillery.

Two soldiers are waiting for Andrii. They set up a satellite and prepare a small drone.

They watch on tablets as it flies over a thin strip of trees. There is a small gap that exposes some dugouts. That is the Ukrainian team’s target.

The drone returns, and they send it back out but this time with a grenade attached to it.

Andrii gives the order, and they drop the grenade. Smoke rises from the impact, and Andrii’s team calls it a success.

They say they kill 10 to 12 Russian soldiers a day. His team knows if they can use a drone to spot positions, they can also be spotted.

Andrii says he has sometimes targeted Russians just to injure them and then waited for another team to evacuate the injured and then targeted them.

“I don’t care,” he says. “I’ll kill as many of them as I can.”

Andrii’s son Ostap was killed on the battlefield last month. He was 21. When we ask Andrii about him, he takes a long pause and stares at the ground.

“I don’t understand how it could have happened. I realise he wanted me to see him as a hero. It was very important for him. I didn’t realise it was so important for him when he was alive. But I realise now. He was looking for ways to show me,” he says.

“I was a strict father, and I rarely praised him, but at the same time, I was very demanding and I always pointed out his mistakes and it put pressure on my son. He wanted to be the best guy for me, and he became the best,” Andrii adds.

Another pause.

“He died right here, right here. I come back and look for him. I found a piece of him here,” he says.

Andrii snaps out of his trance-like state and heads back towards his team.

Away from the thick trees and across the fields, eventually we find ourselves on a road.

At this point, we’re just following Andrii’s speeding car. There are no other vehicles on this stretch of road. Small craters line the route where it’s been hit by mortars.

Then, several shells land right next to us as we drive, narrowly missing us. The shock wave of the impact is startling. We’ve been spotted.

The Russians have eyes on this road, and we urge the driver to step on it and not slow down.

We look behind and can see the dust and smoke rising from the field where the shells landed.

Unclaimed bodies

Village after village along the road has been destroyed. All of them bear the scars of battle, but victories and losses look the same here. The result for these places is always destruction.

In Blahodatne, the bodies of Russian soldiers lay unclaimed. The stench of decomposing corpses fills the air. Twisted, broken, missing body parts, the pain of death etched on their faces.

The shelling is continuous and staying outside is risky.

In a bunker, we see soldiers and civilians living side by side. The soldiers are their lifeline and bring in supplies. The soldiers seem surprised to see us and a little annoyed.

“Who are these people?! Why the hell did you bring journalists here?!” they ask Andrii.

He responds rudely, throwing in a few expletives for good measure. It seems this is not his battalion.

Andrii doesn’t care. He has brought us this close to the front line. Military press officers don’t bring you here.

Subterranean life

Only 10 people remain in this village, unable or unwilling to leave despite the dangers.

Nina Sumakova is among those who’ve stayed. She’s in her 70s and still manages a smile despite living this subterranean life.

“When the Russians entered, there were a lot of them. It was very scary. But when our guys liberated us. Then it became calmer,” Nina tells us.

“All our family homes have been destroyed, but we will rebuild. We will do it gradually – when our boys advance and these shells won’t fall on our heads.”

The Ukrainian advance has not gone to plan. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy admits it has been slower than initially hoped.

Last year, the country’s counteroffensive did achieve big successes when Ukraine’s forces pushed back Russia’s troops in the regions of Kharkiv in the northeast and Kherson in the south.

This time, the Russians are better prepared, dug in and looking to advance themselves.

The soldiers on the front line know this. When you speak with them, their morale is high, but they are sceptical of the daily figures released by the government about the number of Russian soldiers killed, vehicles destroyed and missiles intercepted.

Both sides are engaged in a propaganda war.

The Ukrainians know that if the true reality of the war is presented to the general public, it could create panic, all the defiance they show now could waver, and morale on the front line could be affected.

Ukraine does not release figures of how many soldiers it has lost or how many are injured. Yet we visited a field hospital near the eastern city of Bakhmut and were told medics have been busy.

It seems a lot of the casualties during this counteroffensive have been a result of landmines. A soldier with his foot blown off is brought in and another with shrapnel wounds to his face.

Medics work to stabilise them before they are moved to a proper hospital.

Rising pressure

Those who fight on the front line are being put under more and more pressure. Young men have not had a break since the start of this war in February last year.

Desensitised by the brutality of it, a tank crew shows us their drone footage. Most teams have drones. They filmed what appeared to be an injured Russian soldier. They dropped a grenade that landed on his neck and blew his head off. They laugh and smile at the footage.

Routinely, we meet young soldiers who say they just want to kill Russians. Ukraine controls media access. Military press officers grant permission to visit battalions and certain areas.

We see drone footage of an artillery crew trying to hit a tank. It missed.

“We won’t give you this footage, only footage of when we actually hit,” the commander says.

Every little bit of information, pictures and video is used to try to win the propaganda war and demoralise Russian forces. It usually plays out on social media.

Bumper, a mechanic and tank driver, recalls a battle in which his commander was burned alive in his tank.

“It was like raining shells and mines on us. The field was full of craters and mines,” he tells us.

We later find out that Bumper’s interview from our report has turned up on a Russian Telegram channel.

Kremlin loyalists use it as proof Russian forces are inflicting damage on Ukraine, and they laugh at the loss of Bumper’s commander.

Bumper listens to Russian music on his phone as he repairs a Soviet era T-72 tank that’s older than his father.

Others sing along with some of the words. The irony is that the government adopted a law banning Russian music and printed materials in Ukraine on TV, radio and in public places.

Russian is spoken in parts of Ukraine, especially in the east and south, and soldiers can be heard speaking Russian rather than Ukrainian. But speaking the language doesn’t mean those Ukrainians support Moscow.

There are, however, parts of Ukrainian society that are supportive of Russia, especially in the east of the country.

Sometimes, the support is subtle and manifests itself in statements like: “We don’t know who fired this missile at us,” as we heard in a small town in Donbas.

“The Ukrainians fired first,” said one old man in Siversk, meaning the Russians were only retaliating. He said this while most buildings around him had been damaged or destroyed and most people had fled the fighting.

Confronting support for Russia is a challenge Ukraine will face no matter what the outcome of this war is. Ukrainian generals talk about retaking the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014. However realistic that may or may not be, there’s no word on how they will address how the majority of people on the peninsula support Russia, or at least they did before the war.

East and west divide

In western parts of Ukraine, they’re seemingly detached from the war. The curfew times are later. Cafes and restaurants are open. Life goes on as normal. Couples walk in parks. Children play in playgrounds. Bands play in the streets. They are interrupted only by the occasional air raid sirens and the threat of missile strikes.

In the east, they live and breathe this war. In Siversk, they spend their nights in basements. There’s no electricity or water. They are dependent on aid. Yet they stay. Even here, they say they don’t want to go anywhere else. They feel they are treated differently by other Ukrainians. The farther east you go, the more suspicious they are of journalists.

“You come here, and then they hit us,” we’re told by a woman as she walks past us.

Zoya is one of the few left in Siversk. She doesn’t want to leave even though all the windows of her building have been broken by the shock waves of attacks. She makes her coffee in the morning using a small gas canister and stove.

“My recipe is a secret. I use a mixture of spices. Smell it. Doesn’t it smell lovely?” she asks before taking a sip.

Many who remain in these towns and villages are sometimes accused by other Ukrainians of being pro-Russian. At least that’s how the people we spoke to felt.

Pro-Russian separatists have been fighting in the Donbas region since 2014. Zoya says nothing about the years of war, only about how people from the Donbas are treated.

“When people go to other parts of Ukraine that don’t see the war, they say: ‘You are from Donbas? This all happened because of you! Go back to Donbas. Why don’t you flee elsewhere?’ Where should we flee? Some hostels? I live in my own flat. My own,” she says proudly.

About 18 percent of Ukraine’s territory is still controlled by Russia. Ukraine says it is making gains near the city of Bakhmut with Russia mounting its own push near Kupiansk.

For many, the destruction has already happened, and their homes, towns and villages are nothing but memories and places on a map that either side can claim.

Source: Al Jazeera