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IAN BIRRELL reports from WWI-style trenches where insurgent Ukrainian troops face Putin

A sudden burst of machine-gun fire reverberated across the fields, followed by a strange hum above our heads as we trudged down a trail through a cluster of ruined summer houses clinging to a hillside.

“That’s a drone,” Sergiy said, resting the Kalashnikov automatic rifle on his shoulder as thick snowflakes fell from the misty sky. “They’re used for artillery strikes,” he added, before insisting, “Let’s get out of here faster.”

We didn’t need much encouragement. We had just passed the stark memorial to two soldiers who fell here on the front lines of eastern Ukraine in what had been Europe’s forgotten war, until the world’s attention was gripped by the looming prospect of Vladimir Putin destroying this land of 44 million people. would invade.

Sergiy had also told me about a fallen comrade who was killed in a shelling last September.

“Only fools are not afraid,” said the 25-year-old officer, whose daughter is about to celebrate her first birthday. “I am afraid of being killed or badly injured, not only for myself but also for my family. And every soldier at the front has a family.’

As we moved quickly across the frozen ground, the scenes around us looked like a movie set with blown-out buildings, abandoned toys and clothes, smoke billowing from chimneys, and armed soldiers dressed in winter camouflage uniforms.

Nearby, where the car I’d used to get here was parked, lay the mangled wreckage of a restaurant hit by artillery fire four months ago. Also a rough sign that warns of sniper fire. Several stray dogs barked at us before coming to say hello, tails wagging.

This is the reality of the Russian attack on Ukraine, which, despite all the talk of troops now gathering around its borders and launching an invasion by Putin, began eight years ago here in the Donbas region after nationwide pro- Democratic protests the Kremlin’s stooge ousted the country’s president in 2014.

Nearby, where the car I’d used to get here was parked, lay the mangled wreckage of a restaurant hit by artillery fire four months ago. Also a rough sign that warns of sniper fire. Several stray dogs barked at us before coming to say hello, tails wagging.

This is the reality of the Russian attack on Ukraine, which, despite all the talk of troops now gathering around its borders and launching an invasion by Putin, began eight years ago here in the Donbas region after nationwide pro- Democratic protests the Kremlin’s stooge ousted the country’s president in 2014.

Putin’s reaction, as I saw at the time, was brutal. The Kremlin illegally seized Crimea, sparked separatist uprisings in eastern Ukraine — and started a war that continues today over the breakaway pro-Moscow republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Fighting for freedom: Lieutenant Tatiana Zaritska (pictured) took Ian Birrell to speak with Ukrainian troops on the front lines

Fighting for freedom: Lieutenant Tatiana Zaritska (pictured) took Ian Birrell to speak with Ukrainian troops on the front lines

The front line runs like a raging scar for 275 miles along Ukrainian soil – and in places like Avdiivka, a town near Donetsk, the rival troops are dug into positions with trenches that twist across the land in a gruesome reconstruction of World War I. .

The two sides are stuck in a tentative stalemate, a legacy of the July 2020 ceasefire agreement following a conflict that left at least 14,000 dead and two million more displaced. But the truce is regularly broken – witness that machine gun fire.

“Russia is like a shark – once it smells blood, it keeps biting,” one soldier told me, retrieving a list of historical incidents before warning that if Putin tries to seize more of Ukraine, it would lead to a new gigantic conflagration to engulf Europe.

Sergiy, unit chief of the 25th Airborne Brigade, led me past the icy trenches where his troops face the armed forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), which are assisted, armed and almost certainly reinforced by the Russian army.

This is a place where danger lurks around every corner, heads must be kept down, holes dug in the sand to hide – and soldiers die or are wounded with appalling regularity. Nine Ukrainians were killed last month and three injured this week.

In the two days before my visit, according to data collected by international observers, there were more than 900 ceasefire violations – such as grenade attacks, mortar shells and shootings – in the Donetsk region alone.

Sergiy said the trenches and lookouts on the hill had been dug before his unit’s arrival last September by troops forced by constant attacks to leave the safety of nearby homes. Roots and wires protrude through holes in the corrugated steel cladding.

This friendly officer pointed out Kruta Balka, a group of houses on a hill, 500 meters away. “DPR soldiers are stationed in the middle of the village. They’ve dug trenches between the houses so we can’t see them when they move.’

Sergiy has no doubts that his troops face the Moscow army. He says the Donetsk People’s Republic had exhausted its supply of local volunteers, such as miners from Donbas, in 2015. “These are professional soldiers from Russia,” he added. “They know how to use their weapons. There is no random shooting during the day.’

Later we visited a lookout where one of his men was on watch for three hours and looked through binoculars in his bunker over enemy lines that lay about half a mile in the distance next to a row of tall trees. “It’s quieter during the day, but more shots can be fired at night,” said the lookout, Dmytro. “They shoot almost every day. We’re just making sure they don’t move forward.’

So what would he do if he suddenly saw Russian tanks roll in? “I’ll pass the information on to my seniors,” he said sternly.

There was a laugh when I asked if this situation felt like a replay of World War I – and Dmytro replied that he was too young to remember that conflict.

In the two days before my visit, according to data collected by international observers, there were more than 900 ceasefire violations - such as grenade attacks, mortar shells and shootings - in the Donetsk region alone.  Pictured: A member of Ukrainian troops on the front line

In the two days before my visit, according to data collected by international observers, there were more than 900 ceasefire violations - such as grenade attacks, mortar shells and shootings - in the Donetsk region alone.  Pictured: A member of Ukrainian troops on the front line

In the two days before my visit, according to data collected by international observers, there were more than 900 ceasefire violations – such as grenade attacks, mortar shells and shootings – in the Donetsk region alone. Pictured: A member of Ukrainian troops on the front line

These soldiers spend up to nine months on duty in this dystopian landscape, where temperatures can drop to -13F (-25C). They sleep in the destroyed houses and take turns cooking for a week. In one kitchen, a pot of borscht bubbled on the stove.

In another room, where plates of sausage and cheese sandwiches were on a table, I saw an Orthodox religious icon hanging over a roaring fire. Were many of the soldiers devout? I asked Sergiy. “Everyone has God in their heart,” he replied.

Many of the buildings are covered in gruesome graffiti with phrases like “Glory to Ukraine” and “Let’s kill the Muscovites,” while rival forces are close enough to taunt each other with obscenities and patriotic slogans shouted across the no-man’s-land.

My escort to the front line was Lieutenant Tatiana Zaritska, 39, a fiercely patriotic former kindergarten teacher who joined the army with her husband after the Russian-backed separatists captured Donetsk and Luhansk.

As we approached the frontline of her unit, she warned that she would accelerate quickly due to the risk of snipers on a stretch of dirt road. She later said that she often drove home in the dark without using headlights to avoid fires. She began her military involvement by helping to organize food and clothing for the fighters when Putin flared up tensions in 2014. “I felt I had to do something when the first Ukrainian soldiers started dying,” she said. “I took it all very personally.

“I didn’t want my children to live under Russia or go through war times like those in Donetsk and Luhansk. Russia is a totalitarian country, there is no development. I want my children to live in a democratic – and European – Ukrainian society.”

Now she is an officer of the air brigade, a veteran of 18 parachute jumps and a fully trained fighter. Her youngest daughter, age 13, plans to enroll in a military academy next year to follow her mother into the military.

Lieutenant Zaritska is scathing about the Kremlin’s treatment of her nation in recent history – from the time in 1933 when four million Ukrainians starved in man-made famine under Joseph Stalin, to the suffocation of their language under the Soviet Union. .

Still, we must hope that these skirmishes around these trenches are not just a dress rehearsal for a much bigger horror show in this eastern corner of Europe.  In the photo: journalist Ian Birrell in Ukraine

Still, we must hope that these skirmishes around these trenches are not just a dress rehearsal for a much bigger horror show in this eastern corner of Europe.  In the photo: journalist Ian Birrell in Ukraine

Still, we must hope that these skirmishes around these trenches are not just a dress rehearsal for a much bigger horror show in this eastern corner of Europe. In the photo: journalist Ian Birrell in Ukraine

Unlike some comrades, she fears that Putin – with his imperial ambitions – is about to attack Ukraine. “I hope this situation is resolved peacefully and that Russia will not launch a large-scale invasion, but they are stupid enough to do something,” she said.

Despite such scary times, she insists she is not afraid. “I know why I’m here and I know what we’re fighting for,” she said, adding emphatically, “Many Russians will be killed.”

Other Ukrainian soldiers, serving on the front lines of a war that has often been forgotten but could soon degenerate into something far worse, talk with similar bravado about the prospect of confronting the threatening Russian forces currently encircling Ukraine from Belarus in northwest to Crimea in the south.

“We’ll be ready when there’s war,” said Evhen, 22, with a typical display of fearlessness. “The Russians are the ones who should be afraid, as they return in their coffins.”

Still, we must hope that these skirmishes around these trenches are not just a dress rehearsal for a much bigger horror show in this eastern corner of Europe.

Additional reporting by Kate Baklitskaya

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