They call themselves “badgers” because of the call sign of their commander. Vadym Suharevsky – ”Badger” –  commander of the 503rd battalion of marines, known as the one who first shot in response to the attack of the Russian Forces in 2014 near the city of Sloviansk. He is highly respected by the soldiers that’s why the marines call themselves “badgers”.     

The sign informs: “Driver, stop! Dangerous area! Operational range of ATGMs!”

A sign with a warning for drivers. A truck was shot a few meters from here…

Only yesterday, the 27-year-old driver marine Artur Holub was killed by ATGM in this place as he was delivering food to the positions. The black skeleton of his KamAZ at the roadside reminds of a ghost. Now this road is closed. The war is going on here, and very close combine harvesters are working. It’s time to gather the harvest. Even though mortar shelling reached this peaceful field a few days ago too. 

The truck burnt with ATGM of the Russian hybrid forces. 27-year-old driver was killed. There was food in his truck

The first rotation, the first loss

The path to the positions looks like a snake among the high grass. This grass is our most reliable protection now. Thanks to it we don’t have to run but can walk upright. However, this grass also contains danger. The guys keep insisting that we do not step away from the path, do not touch the bushes, and in case of shelling we fall down on the path, not on the roadside. This field is full of mines, and even the god of war doesn’t know the map of all of those “surprises”. 

On the way to the positions

After the loss of their brother-in-arm, soldiers are depressed. All of them knew Artur very well and liked him a lot, so they set their hearts on revenge. Guys tell us quietly that even a few deaths would not be enough for him. 

“Yesterday our brother-in-arm was driving, he was delivering food when he died, – the soldier with the call sign “Santiago” tells us. – He was going from one of our posts, when he was burnt with an ATGM shot from a very long distance. The second one killed him. There were two aimed shots of ATGM. He had not even a chance to survive. The whole day yesterday, I saw his face in my mind, and the last minute I talked to him. Well. That is war”.    

Marine with a call sign “Santjago” (left). This is his first rotation

He says that they spoke about some household things. “Santjago” needed some tools and spare parts for the car. “And he was a driver, so he helped me, told me where to find them”, the soldier says.  

“We were friends, – remembers the other soldier Yuriy. He speaks stuttering a little. Silence hangs between his words. – We were close friends. Half an hour before he was killed, we talked and joked. We communicated joking all the time. We passed the exams together to get the marine berets, we supported each other. He was a really nice person and a great professional. He was a very simple good guy”. 

Yuriy remembers his killed brother-in-arm and smokes

It is the first rotation for Yuriy, and the first loss. Before the war he worked in trading. 

“Santiago” worked with metal in the past. He worked as a blacksmith and welder. He admits that his whole life he was interested in weapon. 

“I like weapon since childhood. I can use it”, – he says. – “All my conscious life, weapon has been very close to me. People around me also had weapon”.  

One of the “quiet” fire points

He says that he has been fighting as a soldier for one year. “Another version of my participation in this war was from its beginning – I helped the army and my friends. I parted ways with the 60% of the people who surrounded me after Maidan. Because I had a clear and unambiguous position, and some people couldn’t stand it morally – they were afraid. And when I raised Ukrainian flag in my yard – I live in a countryside in a private house – some of the neighbors got scared! (he laughs). I live in Kyiv oblast”.   

Under the “umbrella” and out of it

Soldiers say that silence is a rarity here.  

The relief is complicated here. It creates problems for the soldiers

“Our rotation has just started. Three-four days at the same time in evening one person comes and makes two aimed shots from the same fire point on our positions, – “Santjago” says. – He works quietly. There is no sound of shooting, just quite “tuh-tuh”. And he starts shooting at us. As I understood that person has just come for “safari”. He must have just paid money to hunt people, to hunt us”. 

A 120-caliber mortar worked for two days in a row. There were more than 20 shelling hits each day.  

The fresh pieces of the “killing metal”- that’s how one of the soldiers describes the fragments we found

There were nearly 60 shots from 122-caliber barrel artillery. The enemy snipers work all time and their drones fly too. 

Donbas Frontliner reporter Eva is sitting near the hole from the 122nd caliber shelling

Forecasts for the fall are not very optimistic. 

“The grass will be burnt probably! – “Satnjago” says. – They have a “cool” method: as soon as the grass dries, they wait for the wind to blow in our direction and burn this dry grass. They have comfortable positions – the sun shines in such a way that it is very convenient for their snipers to work and so on. 3-4 days ago, I came here in the evening, I brought some logs for our fortifications. I put the log and was about to dive into the trench – very-very quickly – I felt something was wrong. I just heard a quite “bang” in the bushes. One bullet, one shot! Nothing else. No sound”.   

Caterpillar in the trench

Oleksii Hodzenko, the press officer for the 503rd marine infantry battalion, with a call sign “Godzilla” tells us that civilians are suffering as well: “Just the day before yesterday there were around 60 strikes of the 122-mm shells around here. They hit the farming enterprise where combine harvesters work. One civilian vehicle – Tavria – got damaged – the windows were smashed. You can even see a piece of shell still stuck in the glass”.

Farmers gathering the harvest a few hundred meters away from the burnt truck

Together with the war “in the fields” the information war is also going on. Hodzenko regularly monitors the enemy’s media resources and denies their fakes. He says that in their articles they regularly pay attention to the legendary “badgers” and to him personally.     

“All the shelling we are getting now – we have such situations every other day. We can see lots of fake information about it in their telegram-channels – they mostly use Telegram. Two hours after Artur was killed, the fake appeared. They said that we had remodeled the ammunition, and it had exploded. But you see the real situation the vehicle burnt with ATGM. The horde is lying as usual in a bold and cynical way. The same story was when they shelled the civil citizens with artillery… they wrote that we are alcoholics or self-educated deminers. There are constant lies which start with telegram-channels and end with Russian federals channels.        

Press officer Oleksiy Hodzehko showing his weapons – the gun and the camera

Here, as in many other positions of the frontline, soldiers use a land wire communication device for connection – so-called “tapic” (TA-57). Despite its respectable age (it was created in 1957), it remains more reliable than radiosets which could be easily “muffled”. 

Through the cracking of the “tapic”, we can make out a command – “umbrella”, which is a warning of a possible shelling. We wait at the position for a while and start making our way back. The second shelling catches us right in the middle of the road. We wait in a trench and then run along the snake-looking path to the conditionally safe zone.  

 

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Here we can take off our armor vests and helmets and rest. Soldiers here are relaxed – it is not their watch now. They are drinking tea and cleaning their guns. There are mugs and bullets on the table, and as a contrast – one cup covered with hearts with an inscription “To my lovely defender”.  

We can hear the coaxial grenade launcher shots from here. “That is our work”, – guys tell us lazily. We found out later that one of those shots hit an enemy’s loophole.

The village and people

From the hills we can see the uncontrolled Horlivka. Yasynuvata is behind it.

The slag heaps and high-rise buildings of the occupied Horlivka

The closest village is Verkhnotoretske. 

The mood of the citizens varies here. “Some of them are real separatists, – Hodzenko comments. – We interviewed the guardian of the farming enterprise which had been shelled. And one of the journalists asked him a question in Ukrainian. He answered in Russian that he didn’t want to answer in Ukrainian. But baba (“a senior lady” in Ukrainian) Masha, for instance, who was also shelled 5 days ago, has a portrait of Taras Shevchenko in her house! That is as everywhere. Most of the people here want nothing but peace. There are lots of separatists. But there are also normal people”. 

People in Verkhnotoretske are poor. Most of them living off farming

“Santjago” adds his story too: “We went to the shop to buy some goods. And a kid came to us near the shop in silence! I don’t know, maybe he couldn’t speak. He just held out his hand, shook mine, and went away. That’s it. People are different”.  

Call-sign “Santiago” at the “working place”

Some of the citizens of Verkhnotoretske greet the strangers (us) and the soldiers. While we are copying the photo and video footage to our laptops a young and not at all sober lady comes to us. There are two kids with her. She asks for a cigarette and starts a conversation. First, she asks about the reasons for the morning shelling. Then she gets angry and starts blaming the marines. She says that before they came it was quiet there and that soldiers shouldn’t provoke the enemy. Oleksiy Hodzenko answers patiently but strictly. Finally, the drunk angry lady goes away.    

Single shots of various calibers were still heard till the end of that dayc.

Trench still-life

Olena Maksymenko, Eva Fomycheva, Andriy Dubchak

Edited by Oleksandra Osipova

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(The material of the Donbass Frontliner was prepared with the support of the European Union and the International Renaissance Foundation within the framework of the joint initiative “EU4USociety”. The material reflects the position of the authors and does not necessarily reflect the position of the International Renaissance Foundation and the European Union).

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