The commander, whose codename was Beast, appeared worn out.
Under his green helmet, shadows surrounded his eyes. He had spent the entire night on his feet fighting. He, like many on the eastern front of the Ukraine, is battle-hardened and war-weary.
“It’s not easy. People don’t get enough sleep. They stand for twenty hours. The battle continues around the clock. I cannot elaborate, as it is a secret. However, we cannot go back.”
His unit from the 35th Brigade of the Ukraine is a part of the Vuhledar defense. This once-thriving mining town, whose name means “gift of coal,” was once home to 15,000 people. It is now a wasteland along Ukraine’s 1,300-kilometer-long (807-mile-long) front line.
Apartment buildings covered in darkness tower over deserted streets. The roof has been peeled off and the windows have been shattered, leaving a church in ruins. A bullet-riddled cross still stands at the front of the structure. On the playground slide, there are bullet holes. The children of Vuhledar are long gone.
The town is situated on high ground in the heavily contested eastern Donbas region. From here, Ukraine can target Russian rail lines used for resupply. It must defend this stronghold. Moscow must accept it. Here has been some of the fiercest fighting in recent months.
“The front line is one kilometer away,” repeated the commander over the din of heavy machine gun fire, this time in the opposite direction.
“They are advancing, and we lack protection. We will advance as soon as the Lend-Lease [a US program that provides military equipment] arrives.” This is a common refrain on the front lines of Ukraine as its allies await delivery of Western battle tanks.
The commander with the codename Beast states that Ukraine’s forces are awaiting Western weapons before advancing.
Currently, the defenders of Vuhledar make do with what they have.
A few soldiers quickly move into position to engage the enemy. They hurl mortars and obscene language, then flee to avoid being targeted themselves.
We cautiously advance to within 500 meters of the front line. The Russians have no visibility. We are protected by structures. Suddenly, however, a warning shout is heard. We must take cover behind a wall. The soldiers have heard a noise in the sky, possibly a Russian drone. This is our cue to retreat.
The Russians may have eyes in the sky here and superior firepower, but their vision is being questioned by critics at home.
An unsuccessful Russian assault on the city earlier this month resulted in heavy casualties and humiliation. On a flat plain, in plain view, a column of tanks and armored vehicles headed straight for Ukrainian positions through minefields. Ukraine stopped them in their tracks, just as it did a year ago when an armored column approached Kiev. If the Russians learned anything from this experience, it was not reflected in Vuhledar.
Age-frozen in place, clinging to their memories, approximately 300 souls remain in this abandoned, darkened town. Oleh Tkachenko, a cheerful evangelical pastor in combat gear who delivers aid twice per week, provides solace.