“Yes!” came the reply.
Snow and the thud of artillery
The deep pre-dawn darkness gives no hint of a drone overhead. A yellow round moon glows, and we can see occupied Donetsk 10 or 15 kilometers away on the horizon.
A soldier, the last in our small column, gets up, runs forward and falls in the snow a few meters away.
Petro orders everyone to do this: the last one gets up, runs a couple of meters and falls, waiting until he becomes the last one again. And so it goes. All this while in a bulletproof vest, helmet and carrying a backpack — and in the case of the soldiers, also with a Kalashnikov rifle over the shoulder.
Instead of machine gun fire, we see flashes on the horizon now: artillery fire.
“Damn, damn,” says the press officer, looking up.
After a while, the flashes turn into the sounds of impacts, but, fortunately, distant ones — this time it did not hit us. But did it hit other Ukrainians?
Petro warns that we will again run the last meters to our destination. The road ahead is under fire.
In civilian life, 200 meters can be crossed in minutes, walking on asphalt with your feet. In war, it takes 10-15 minutes, half of which you lie down with your cheek pressed to the snow, and catch your breath before going another few meters.
Russian daily airstrikes
This is how we arrived at the infantry positions of the 110th Mechanized Brigade, near Avdiivka, Donetsk.
We spent a day with the soldiers of the 110th. In addition to giving an update on the situation and how the fighting is going, we wanted to show something else: how war shakes up ordinary life, and allows people to live just a few hundred meters from the enemy.
I sat down, and thought that I should go to defend my land.
Serhii had previously served in the Ukrainian military, but until February 2022, he had returned to civilian life, working as a long-distance truck driver and farmer. He has been at position N in the Avdiivka region for a year.
After Russia launched its full-scale invasion last year, Serhii used his old connections in the military enlistment office — not to dodge military service or get into an elite unit, but to convince his wife that it was his time to fight.
"I arrived home on March 4, sat down, and thought that I should go to defend my land," he says. "I quietly went to the military enlistment office, where I have friends, and agreed that they would call me from an unknown number. On the right day, they did so, after which I said to my wife: 'That’s it, I have to go to the Military Commissariat!'"
Serhii was assigned to the 110th brigade, the main unit that has defended the long-suffering town of Avdiivka near Donetsk River since March 2022.
The industrial city had already survived eight years of conflict with Russia, but now, a year after the full-scale invasion, the city is constantly under fire. Russian shells, missiles and airstrikes hit every day.
Avdiivka residents, Luba and Mayoarva, sit with their dog as cluster munitions land above.
Madeleine via ZUMA
Strategy in the trenches
Like in Bakhmut, Russian forces are trying to outflank Avdiivka and encircle it. Assault operations from the beginning of 2023, according to the Ukrainska Pravda, allowed the Russians to capture Opytne and Vodyane south of the city and expand the offensive zone to Krasnohorivka and Vesele in the north.
Serhii says that Ukrainian soldiers here are facing off against fighters from the Donetsk People's Republic, the Russian-backed, self-proclaimed breakaway state.
"They have moved a little, because it was not possible to pass through our positions. Now, they are storming the guys in the other direction from Avdiivka. Although once, a couple of kilometers from us, they did 'drop by'," Serhii recalls.
"Then there would be someone to dig."
"Well, they 'dropped by' here several times, and their infantry fighting vehicles, too," adds his comrade Kolya, who we woke up with our conversation in the trench.
"I thought that the guys were lying that they had entered the position. Well, how is it?" asks Serhii, indignant. "But it turned out that someone there was afraid, left and did not tell anyone about it. About six of them came in and just sat. Anyway, we knocked them out of there in an hour."
In the fight, Serhii and Kolya captured two machine guns and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and the Russians got several “Cargo 200s” — Russian code for casualties. Despite this, the Ukrainians call it a defeat — because they could not take prisoners.
"Then there would be someone to dig," Serhii smiles.
If words could be placed on a scale, the word “dig," which means doing the most physically exhausting and emotionally monotonous work, would weigh about as much as a tank.
Serhii puts the kettle on to boil water for morning coffee, and says that no matter how forcefully the Russians attack, Ukrainians will not leave Avdiivka.
"It is the same as with Bakhmut," he says. "If they take Bakhmut, they will destroy everything 15 kilometers in the direction of Sloviansk. It is clear that our boys do not want to leave, because many of them died. Their conscience will not allow them to give up this land now," Serhii says.
"This machine gun," he says, pointing to a Kalashnikov with an attached grenade launcher that sits by his improvised bed, "belongs to my 'Cargo 200' comrade-in-arms. I carry it as a talisman. We have been here since day one."
A soldier, Vitaly, points to an icon of the Mother of God bearing a child in her arms, which hangs on the earthen wall of the trench — his good luck charm. "Once, I got surrounded with mines, but the icon was never touched!"
Just before 7 a.m., Serhii takes a metal mug and walks off. "Coffee without a cigarette is like tea without tea leaves," he says. He crouches down, balances the cup on the frame of a bicycle which is used to bring gas bottles to the position, and takes the first puff.
A damaged and unexploded shell sits on a road near a residential neighborhood in Avdiivka, Ukraine.
Daniel Carde via ZUMA
Observe and report
The barely blue sky begin to break through the predawn darkness. Drones fly from both sides, followed by artillery and planes. You need to walk quickly through the trench, keeping your distance and jogging while bent over.
"What do you usually think about over your morning coffee?" we ask Serhii, in a quiet voice so as not to create extra noise.
"About my wife and children. I rarely saw them," he says. “When the war is over, I won't go back to working as a long-haul truck driver. I had land — I’ll collect a little more land and I’ll do business with it.”
"Oh, the owner is coming," Serhii nods behind us, where a black and white cat slowly approaches the dugout. "Who's there, Kuzya? Strangers? Yeah, I see. Come in; don't be cold."
The infantry's main task here is to observe. For several hours during the shift, they look ahead and watch for the enemy — infantry, equipment or drone — and quickly report it to the commander.
Moments later, having finished his shift, Ivan returns to the dugout. With his left hand, he takes off his machine gun, helmet, balaclava, bulletproof vest and white camouflage coat. The right palm remains in the glove. A few-month-old kitten is barely squeaking in the dugout. Unlike Kuzya, it is domestic — its fluffy paws do not leave the dugout.
Kolya, like several of his comrades, returned from working abroad to join the war. He went home to the Ivano-Frankivsk region and helped his 11-year-old daughter and wife go to Poland, then went to the recruiting office.
He calls the first three or four months around Avdiivka a nightmare — constant enemy attacks, digging trenches, lack of communication. But now he’s used to it. Between enemy drone sightings, he feeds birds from his hand.
Asked if he plans to return abroad after the war, Kolya says that he is not thinking about it yet. “Now, we must drive out the enemy. It's very hard to get those boys behind our backs to come and replace us here, you know? They won't," he says.
“How do you imagine the end of the war?” a journalist asks.
Hearing this question, Serhii and Kolya are confused. They've never thought about it, they say.
"We held our positions until the end."
They joke, saying they want to liberate at least one settlement — maybe Horlivka, Donetsk — somewhere they can tell their children and grandchildren about, if they ask "Where did you fight?"
“We need to keep the flag and uniform after the war,” Kolya says.
“No, I'll give the uniform to hell,” Serhii responds.
“So, what will you show your children?” asks Kolya.
“Medals, a flag. That's enough,” Serhii answers. “I want to go to sleep here," he leans on his hard wooden bed, "and hear them say on the radio: 'That’s it, boys, the war is over! Pack your stuff, get the fuck home!' I think I'll even cry, damn it!"
“Yeah, we will cry!” Kolya agrees. “I want to imagine how we will get to the Red Star," he says, referring to Moscow.
A couple of weeks after the arrival of Ukrainska Pravda journalists, Russian troops intensified their offensive on Avdiivka. Vitaly died. Several others were injured, some seriously.
“We held our positions until the end,” one of the soldiers says, in a voice message.