When soldiers in Ukraine’s 93rd Mechanised Brigade do their work, most tasks are performed under trees.
It is a simple matter of staying alive.
Members of the brigade’s Oril Company stack their munitions under a stand of gnarly-looking trees. Their mortars are hidden in the bushes.
We were told to walk in single file – and strongly advised not to stand in groups of more than two.
Best to try and look like an ordinary civilian if the Russians are watching from the sky.
And everyone knows the Russians are watching.
“Quadcopters (drones), it’s quadcopters. They can see us. Everything we do needs to be masked,” says Yurii, the commander of Oril Company.
A former carpenter, Yurii is now military commander in a village just outside the eastern city of Bakhmut.
Drones have become a serious headache, he said, passing information onto Russian gunners.
“It’s like 24 hours a day, we have attacks on our positions, it doesn’t stop,” he added.
‘Time for us to go down’
However, the 93rd Brigade also has drones and when the company commander was radioed a set of coordinates, his men ran over to the bushes to retrieve the mortar.
“Vuha!” shouted a serviceman, warning everyone to cover their ears, as he dropped one of two mortar shells down the tube.
There was a momentary silence, before the munition screamed into the sky.
A minute or two later, we received the Russians’ reply. A tank shell descended with a sickening whine, crashing into the earth several hundred metres from our position.
“Time for us to go down,” said Yurii, calmly.
Like a game of hide and seek, we took refuge in a nearby underground bunker as a succession of Russian shells screeched through the vicinity.
When they hit the earth, a blast of air gushed through the bunker’s main door.
Six or seven soldiers eat, sleep – and store their arms in the bunker – and with unmistakable pride.
Yurii showed me a bulky 50-calibre machine gun that his team had ripped from the top of a Russian tank.
They are probably his biggest supplier of weapons, he said.
“We have American, Romanian, Czech, Bulgarian and Russian stuff. It’s multinational, but we have a lot of Russian (equipment), they’re like trophies, but we prefer Czech or American.”
‘Russians are learning from us’
Western countries, like the US and UK, have provided Ukraine with billions of dollars worth of military hardware, but they are still outgunned by the Russians.
Yurii thinks the enemy has five times the number of artillery pieces.
Still, human motivation is a different story. “We know what we’re fighting for. They don’t,” he said.
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Yurii and his men have been trying to turn their fleet of off-the-shelf drones into miniature bombers, by strapping cigar-shaped grenades to the bottom.
“I ask my friend, to drop a present in this hole, and we have success,” he said, showing me a video of the grenade tumbling into a pit hiding a gun position.
“But Russians now (do) this too, we show them the example, so they are learning from us.”
‘Don’t walk in the middle road, OK?’
After the Russian barrage, we returned to the surface, for the commander wanted to take us to a town called Soledar. It is the site of some of the most ferocious fighting in this war.
Every structure had been damaged or destroyed, and smoke emanating from the ruins of a salt factory made it difficult to breath.
It was like a scene from World War Two.
“It’s like Stalingrad,” he said. “We maybe have 90% (of the) buildings smashed. We call it Soled-grad. Like Stalingrad yes?”
Yurii emitted a sad-sounding laugh, then readied his men for the walk back to the bunker.
Before we parted, he offered a few words of advice.
“Don’t walk in the middle road, OK? And if you hear something coming, jump in the ditch.”