Filled with exhausted Ukrainian soldiers with clenched jaws, the truck speeds away. The troops of the 81st brigade have just received the order to withdraw from the eastern front where the Russian forces are advancing.
The brigade marched 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) on Saturday, camouflaged in the woods and under crossfire, to their retreat point in Svyatogirsk.
For a month, the 81st – whose motto is “always first” – fought to repel the Russian advance in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, where Muscovite troops are slowly advancing, taking the villages one by one.
“Everyone understands that we have to hold the line here, we can’t let the enemy come near, we try to hold it with all our strength,” says Lieutenant Yevgen Samoylov, anxious that the unit might be hit by Russian fire at any time.
“As you can hear, the enemy is very, very close,” he said, pointing to the sky. The line of Russian tanks is on the other side of a hill, about seven kilometers (4.3 miles) away.
At 21, Samoilov, an officer at the Odessa military academy, finds himself managing 130 conscripts, often twice his age.
“This is my first war. I was supposed to graduate in four months, but they sent me here,” says the baby-faced officer with a short black beard.
Samoylov, who goes by the nom de guerre “Samson”, never leaves his red notebook alone. He notes every movement, but also every request and notices soldiers whom he always addresses in a soft voice.
The unit went into action on February 23, a day before Russia launched the invasion.
At the start of the war, they spent a month defending Izium, which fell on April 1, before joining the fighting around the village of Oleksandrivka.
“Some really tough battles,” said the calm Samoylov.
In this brigade, as in the others, it is not said how many people were killed.
When the topic comes up, Samoylov’s gaze becomes hazy. The pain is raw.
A deathly silence fills the military truck during the journey to the abandoned building where the soldiers will stay during their week of rest.
When the convoy passes a truck loaded with long-range missiles rushing forward, the soldiers automatically make the victory “V” sign with their fingers before fixing their gaze again on their feet or the horizon in silence. .
Arrived at the base, the soldiers unload their weapons, remove their kit and immediately go to one of the dilapidated rooms without electricity where they undergo a medical examination on their return from the front.
For the survivors, “there are small wounds on the forehead, those who were buried under the rubble during a bombardment have fractures and (injuries) related to shrapnel”, specifies Vadym Kyrylov, the squad doctor.
“But above all we see somatic problems, such as hypertension or chronic illnesses that have worsened,” adds the 25-year-old.
Men also suffer a great deal from “trench foot” syndrome caused by prolonged exposure to humidity, unsanitary conditions or cold.
“For a month, they can’t dry their shoes…so there are a lot of foot injuries, mostly fungus and infections,” says the doctor.
After the medical visit, they all have the same reflex: isolate themselves and use their telephone to call a female partner, a child or a parent.
The military cannot use their phones on the front lines, and any application requiring geolocation is prohibited.
Four soldiers pull up the rusty metal bed frames and sweep the dust-covered floor to make a semblance of a bedroom.
“It’s time for the guys to relax, to heal their physical and psychological wounds, to regain strength before returning to the fight,” Samoylov said.
“They will sleep warm, eat normal food and more or less try to get back on their feet. »
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