BAKHMUT, Ukraine –

Forests burned and cities burned to the ground. Colleagues with amputated limbs. Bombardment so relentless that the only option is to lie in a trench, hope and pray.

Ukrainian soldiers returning from the front lines in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where Russia is waging a fierce offensive, describe life during what has become a grueling war of attrition as apocalyptic.

In interviews with The Associated Press, some complained of chaotic organization, desertions, and mental health problems caused by the relentless bombing. Others spoke of the high morale, the heroism of their colleagues, and the commitment to keep fighting, even as better-equipped Russians control more of the combat zone.

Lieutenant Volodymyr Nazarenko, 30, second-in-command of the Svoboda battalion of the Ukrainian National Guard, was with the troops that withdrew from Sievierodonetsk under the orders of military leaders. During a month-long battle, Russian tanks eliminated any potential defensive positions and turned a city with a prewar population of 101,000 into “a burning desert,” he said.

“They bombed us every day. I don’t want to lie about that. But these were ammunition shelling on every building,” Nazarenko said. “The city was methodically leveled.”

At the time, Sievierodonetsk was one of two major Ukrainian-controlled cities in Lugansk province, where pro-Russian separatists declared an unrecognized republic eight years ago. When the withdrawal order came on June 24, the Ukrainians were surrounded on three sides and were mounting a defense from a chemical plant that was also housing civilians.

“If there was a hell on Earth anywhere, it was in Sievierodonetsk,” Artem Ruban, a soldier in Nazarenko’s battalion, said from the relative safety of Bakhmut, 40 miles southwest of the since-captured city. “The inner strength of our boys allowed them to hold the city until the last moment.”

“Those were not humane conditions in which they had to fight. It’s hard to explain this to you here, how they feel now or what it was like there,” Ruban said, blinking in the sunlight. “They were fighting until the end. there. The task was to destroy the enemy, no matter what.”

Nazarenko, who also fought in Kyiv and elsewhere in the east after Russia invaded Ukraine, calls the Ukrainian operation in Sievierodonetsk “a victory” despite the result. He said the defenders managed to limit casualties while holding off the Russian advance for much longer than expected, straining Russia’s resources.

“His army incurred huge losses and his attack potential was destroyed,” he said.

Both the lieutenant and the soldier under his command expressed confidence that Ukraine would recapture all the occupied territories and defeat Russia. They insisted that morale remained high. Other soldiers, most with no combat experience before the invasion, shared more dire accounts and insisted on anonymity or used only their first names to discuss their experiences.

Oleksiy, a member of the Ukrainian military who began fighting Moscow-backed separatists in 2016, had just returned from the front with a heavy limp. He said that he was wounded on the battlefield in Zolote, a city that the Russians have also occupied ever since.

“On television they are showing beautiful images of the front lines, the solidarity, the army, but the reality is very different,” he said, adding that he does not believe that the delivery of more Western weapons will change the course of the war.

His battalion started running out of ammunition within a few weeks, Oleksiy said. At one point, the relentless shelling prevented soldiers from standing up in the trenches, he said, exhaustion visible on his wrinkled face.

A senior presidential adviser reported last month that 100 to 200 Ukrainian soldiers were dying every day, but the country did not provide the total number killed in action. Oleksiy claimed that his unit lost 150 men during the first three days of fighting, many of them from blood loss.

Due to the incessant shelling, wounded soldiers were only evacuated at night and sometimes had to wait up to two days, he said.

“The 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 in,” he added.

Mariia, a 41-year-old platoon 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 unit’s location and access. to supply lines. .

The frontlines that have existed since the conflict with pro-Russian separatists began in 2014 are more static and predictable, while the places that have become battlefields since Russia sent its troops to invade are “a different world,” he said.

Mariia, who declined to share her last name for security reasons, said her husband is currently fighting in a “hot spot.” Everyone misses and cares for their loved ones, and though this causes distress, her subordinates have kept their spirits up, she said.

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

Two other soldiers interviewed by AP, former office workers in Kyiv with no previous combat experience, 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”, with many people in their battalion refusing to fight.

One of the soldiers said that he smokes marijuana daily. “Otherwise he would lose his mind, he would desert. It’s the only way I can cope,” he said.

A 28-year-old former teacher from Sloviansk who “never imagined” he would fight for his country described the battlefields of Ukraine as a completely different life, with a different value system and emotional ups and downs.

“There is joy, there is sadness. Everything is intertwined,” she said.

Friendship with your colleagues provides the bright spots. But he, too, saw fellow soldiers succumb to extreme fatigue, both physical and mental, and show symptoms of PTSD.

“It is difficult to live under constant stress, lack of sleep and malnutrition. See all those horrors with your own eyes: the dead, the limbs torn off. It’s unlikely that anyone’s psyche can handle that,” she said.

However, he also insisted that the motivation to defend his country remains.

“We are ready to hang on and fight through gritted teeth. It doesn’t matter how hard and difficult it is,” the teacher said, speaking from a fishing shop that was turned into a military distribution center. “Who will defend my home and my family, if not me?”

The center in the city of Sloviansk provides local military units with equipment and supplies, and gives soldiers a place to go for brief respites from the physical grind and horrors of battle.

Tetiana Khimion, a 43-year-old dance choreographer, set up the center when the war began. All kinds of soldiers go through, she says, from skilled special forces and war-hardened veterans to civilians-turned-combatants who recently signed up.

“It can be like this: For the first time he comes, he smiles widely, he can even be shy. The next time he comes, there is an emptiness in his eyes,” said Khimion. “He’s been through something and it’s different.”

Behind her, a group of young Ukrainian soldiers in rotation from the front sit sharing jokes and a pizza. The dull rumble of artillery can be heard a few miles away.

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

On Sunday, Russian forces seized the last Ukrainian stronghold in Luhansk province and intensified rocket attacks on Donetsk, the Donbas province where the center is located.

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Valerii Rezik contributed to this story.

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