In Kharkiv, on the frontline of the “zero point”

published on Thursday, March 31, 2022 at 8:53 PM

“Behind us are our families. We cannot back down, we have no choice”: In the trenches and at gunpoint, on the northeastern outskirts of Kharkov, Ukrainian soldiers defend the country’s second city attack by the Russian army.

Welcome to “Point Zero”, the last Ukrainian position “before the enemy”, greets Captain “Best”, who welcomes AFP to the front line to share with him a moment of the dangerous and exhausting daily life of his squadron.

Eyes red with fatigue, but apparently in good spirits, these men belong to the 92nd Armored Brigade, the main army unit charged with the defense of Kharkov.

Not far from a crossroads and a forest that marks the border of the city, they camp in an old residential area, half buried in the gardens and the ruins of the houses exploded by the shells.

The place is “strategic” as it is on a road that leads directly to the city center. It is defended by several tanks, a solid network of trenches and fortresses.

The earth trembles at regular intervals to the rhythm of shells falling here and there all over the area, in a steel blow that freezes to the spine.

Five corpses of Russian soldiers, half undressed, lie on the lawn of a gas station. A bird pecks carrion. The remains of a “Russian infiltration attempt behind our lines,” explains a lieutenant.

“The bodies have been rotting there for almost two weeks.” Too exposed to grenades for an ambulance or someone else to pick them up. Ukrainian soldiers have many other things to do.

“We are under constant attack day and night. The last time was artillery fire this morning,” tells the young captain “Best”, the Kalashnikov on the side.

“It was wake-up gymnastics,” jokes one of his men, Oleksy, a steel-blue-eyed lawyer and dedicated volunteer.

The captain shows a gaping hole in the facade of a house that is already in bad shape, a little behind the forts. Smoke rises from a pile of rubble, the remains of a nearby wooden hovel that served as a meal for the troops.

– Ivan and Orlan –

“These bastards blew up the restaurant! What are we going to eat now?” bursts out laughing from a sub-off, licorice in the nose and Cossack haircut, the tuft falling on his shaved head.

Landed at the wheel of a backfired van with shattered windows, the chatty soldier with a mustache is in charge of “logistics”. He rummages through the rubble of the battlefield in search of anything that may be of use to the squadron, all the way to the no-man’s-land that separates the warring factions.

“I find a bit of everything there, the Russians come to get their bodies back there,” laughs this modern Taras Boulba, after telling how he killed four Russians with a grenade.

In his caravan that morning, boxes of Russian ammunition, a generator, an old shovel, Kevlar bulletproof plates, one of which was pierced by a bullet…

The “Ivans” – as Ukrainians sometimes call Russian soldiers – are less than 4 kilometers away. “Their scouts regularly make small raids on our lines. Five of them were killed in their last attempt a few days ago,” said the captain.

A lawnmower engine suddenly hisses in the ear, eyes roll up to the sky. The silhouette of a small plane stands out among the gray clouds. A Russian “Orlan” drone, according to Oleksy.

These strange birds “spot the Ukrainian positions and help to adjust the Russian artillery, we absolutely have to take them down”. Soldiers descend on the plane, which continues its flight imperturbably.

“That means the missiles will fall,” the petty officer warns, as he pushes visitors down a narrow staircase hidden under sandbags and descends underground.

Well sheltered in their bunker, two soldiers prepare tea in front of a table on a stove. On the wall are children’s drawings, including those of a tank in the national colors of blue and yellow: “Dear soldiers, thank you for fighting for our beloved Ukraine,” wrote the hand of a schoolboy.

On the surface, we jump into the trenches, slip into the fortresses, waiting for the storm of Russian iron. “If it’s a tank firing, it falls in two seconds. If it’s a missile, it comes in thirty seconds…”. The war is also played by ear here.

Artillery fire can also herald a dismounted attack, Olevsky explains. “Once the shelling lasted almost six hours. The Russians thought we were dead and then advanced to our positions.

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