Artillery vehicle

“Eyes” of artillery on the outskirts of Zaporizhzhia

We meet them on the positions, which are not far from one of the occupied settlements of the Orikhiv district. The enemy is only three or four kilometers from here.

Most of the servicemen of the territorial defense battalion of Vasylivka came from temporarily occupied settlements, such as Enerhodar, Dniprorudne and Kamianka. Former nuclear energy miners and engineers now go all out to hold off the enemy.

Literally half an hour before our arrival, the Russian air force launched strikes near their positions. We learned about this from the military themselves, and later the General Staff of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense published relevant information in its report.

“Here, the situation is difficult but under control. Our units try to push the enemy back from the positions they occupy, but it is difficult to do. The enemy also tries to attack but fails. Speaking about the military situation in the Zaporizhzhia region, it is the most difficult in the direction of Zaporizhzhia. Continuous shelling is ongoing. Our aerial reconnaissance assets are working; anti-aircraft defense units control the skies. The Ukrainian army regularly shot down planes and helicopters of the occupying troops here. Therefore, the front line is under our control,” Andrii Bystryk, press secretary of the Zaporizhzhia Separate Territorial Defense Brigade, told us as we walked to the meeting point.

“THE ARMY CAN’T WIN WITHOUT PEOPLE”

The executive officer of the Vasylivka battalion uses the call sign “Mazhor”. He is a professional military, naval officer from the former USSR. In 2014, he came as a volunteer fighter to the military commissariat. In 2015-2016, he performed his military service in the 54th mechanized brigade. In 2018, he retired, but resumed service on February 24, 2022.

“At 05:00, I was already at the office of a military commissioner in Enerhodar. I come from Znamianka, but I have been here without days off for more than six months now,” the army explains.

He openly says that now, since his village is under Russian occupation, it is more difficult for him to wage war than in 2015-2016.

“At that time, I knew my family, my parents and my home were safe. It’s harder to fight now, because we know our settlements have been seized and our loved ones are there. I think every military feels that now. Has the enemy become more evil? I think they’ve always been like that. It’s just that the inhabitants of the Zaporizhzhia region learned about this only from our stories or news. But, nothing fundamentally changed for us during those years: the enemy was destroying our villages, opening fire on our positions from residential areas then, and it is so now. And we couldn’t answer, because they were hiding behind civilians. They ruthlessly tortured and murdered people, and they still do so today. According to reports, enemy forces took civilians from Enerhodar, Kamianka and Znamianka hostage. We are not fighting against an army, but against an armed gang of terrorists who do not respect the rules of war and international humanitarian law. They are bandits who must be eliminated, ”said the executive officer of the battalion Vasylivka.

In his words, Orikhiv’s leadership is very important; the enemy spreads false claims that Zaporizhzhia will be seized on September 1, but he quickly adds: “We firmly defend the leadership and even launch counterattacks.”

“In fact, the enemy has multiplied the strikes not so much on the military positions as on the settlements. They open fire on Orikhiv, Komyshuvakha, Tavriiske – all villages. In addition, they insidiously attack civilians and infrastructure: electricity transmission lines, transformer stations, silos. A large silo in Orikhiv was completely destroyed. The enemy does everything possible to demoralize people. Now there is a war of annihilation. The army cannot win without people. If people don’t endure, we will cease to exist as a nation. We simply won’t be there, ”continues the interlocutor.

He talks about the hard days of the war – when they were losing soldiers. ‘Mazhor’ says it’s very difficult, when people from your battalion die, and you are responsible for it. But, war is a kind of “work” that you have to do, after overcoming your fears.

“We have one motivation: we have to liberate Ukraine from the occupier, and that’s the only thing that unites us. We will drive out the enemy, return home and live our lives. I want my granddaughter not to hide in basements but to laugh,” the army said.

WAR IS NOT SHOOTING BUT TECHNOLOGIES

Meanwhile, a military man using the call sign ‘Bdzhola’ joins the conversation. He is a professional beekeeper [bdzhola is a Ukrainian word for a bee – Ed.]. Before the war, he worked as a miner in Dniprorudne. He has an apiary of more than 100 hives. According to her words, Ukrainians and Europeans tasted her honey.

He did not have time to evacuate his apiary, as he had joined the ranks of the Territorial Defense Forces since February 24, 2022. Now his friend, a pastor to whom he taught beekeeping in peacetime , takes care of his hives, his bees and his honey.

“On February 24, when it all started, I just finished my shift and left the mine – and six missiles flew over our village. I immediately made a decision, took a gun home and went to the office of a military commissar, and here I am, ”says the fighter.

He switched to the Ukrainian language from the first days of the full-scale war, and even… got married at the front. The wedding took place on August 16. His wife Tetiana came from Enerhodar (a city which is now also under Russian occupation). She serves as a company doctor, using the call sign ‘Holka’ [holka is a Ukrainian word for a needle – Ed.].

‘Bdzhola’ tells us how he entered one of the key positions with his comrades in arms, where they needed to gain a foothold. He says that the mission was difficult, then, before taking office, he made a proposal. Tetiana said “yes”.

“I had been divorced for over a year and generally had no intention of remarrying. I lived on war and thought only of victory, and suddenly – love,” says ‘Bdzhola’.

At a family meeting, it was decided that he would wear the wedding ring on a chain around his neck, so as not to lose it during combat missions. He got a tattoo in honor of his love – a needle and a kiss (a real imprint of his wife’s lips), – and she got a tattoo of a bee.

At the front, “Bdzhola” covers a drone operator, delivers ammunition to “hot” directions and will soon start studies, because he wants to operate an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

“Before that, I imagined the war differently. I thought it was more about shooting, and war turned out to be about tactics, technology, and intellect. Thanks to the “eyes” [drones and other UAVs are called so – Ed.], it is possible to ensure the safety of personnel. Previously, reconnaissance groups were used, it was risky, and now drones can do everything,” says ‘Bdzhola’.

The man adds that even if a drone gets lost, it’s only a matter of money, but people will be saved. He remembers how, the first days, when they had just entered these positions, they had to cross a section in the gray zone. In those days, they had to go through enemy tripwires on their own, and now drones can help with that.

“The drone war on our side and theirs. I will study, although I understand that it is difficult,” says ‘Bdzhola’.

As we speak, we can continuously hear explosions. The military say that there is practically no silence in this direction. The enemy literally covers the colonies with projectiles.

The company commander, using the call sign “Balu”, adds that the enemy is very afraid of losing positions and therefore opens fire more frequently.

“Self-propelled artillery systems are the most dangerous, in my opinion. Bombing every day – it’s like saying ‘hello’ at 4 o’clock,” says ‘Balu’.

He is also a miner, from Dniprorudne. His family had spent about two months under Russian occupation.

“The most difficult moment was that I was already at the front and my family remained in the town seized by the enemy. And we did not know what, who, to whom and when he will say, designating the collaborators.

I ask them how many hours a day they can sleep, given a tense situation.

‘Bdzhola’ smiles at me and says: two-three hours, sometimes a little longer if they are lucky. In addition, honey helps them regain strength.

DRONE WAR

The military believe the best UAV operator is their comrade in arms, using the call sign “Sviat”. He is a drone operator and has a whole “flock of birds”.

‘Sviat’ comes from Enerhodar. Before the war, he worked as a main operator and reactor construction engineer. Now he conducts aerial reconnaissance, adjusts the firing of our mortars, self-propelled artillery, SPG-9 guns and drops “gifts” for enemy units.

He learns to fly drones during the war: undergoes training at the front and obtains a certificate.

“Why did I choose drones? Because it’s challenging, interesting, and it’s the future of warfare. Drones fly forward, destroy everything, leave nothing behind. The artillery cleans on “tips”, and the soldiers will practically not meet face to face. The war will be like this… and it is already like this. Kamikaze drones, drones dropping ‘gifts’ are the future,” he says.

‘Sviat’ shows his ‘weapons’. Some drones were presented by volunteers. He says he could never think he would be involved in such activities.

“Where am I, where are the drones and where is the war? It was like that before, but now the concept has changed slightly,” he says.

On TikTok, ‘Sviat’ posts different videos on military life situations. One of them (on fake military positions) generated over 2.5 million views.

The soldiers showed us their “trench” kitchen and offered us tea. By the way, instead of teacups, they use SPG-9 caps.

WHAT DOES THE MILITARY DREAM ABOUT

As we were talking, I asked each of them, “What will be your first thing after winning?” “.

“I think I will meet those who remain alive and go to Lviv, to my granddaughter,” ‘Mazhor’ said.

“Wow, I never even thought of that. I will continue to live my life as before the war. However, that is far from certain, as each day lived will never be the same as the previous one, and we will also be different,” ‘Sviat’ replied.

“I will restore my apiary and send honey all over Ukraine. Well, and Europe too,” ‘Bdzhola’ added.

‘Balu’ simply said, “I’m going home”.

As the military shared their post-victory plans, they smiled, but some of them also had tears in their eyes. Above all, they not only want to hold back the enemy but also to liberate each captured village and bring back homes for those who had to flee the war, like their relatives.

Olha Kudria, Zaporizhzhia

Photo: Dmytro Smolienko