Pinned down by Russian fire in key frontline village

By Quentin Sommerville
Near Izyum, eastern Ukraine

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Watch: Quentin Sommerville under fire with Ukrainian troops

Serhiy drove like a maniac. Before the war, the laconic Ukrainian was a lawyer. Now he sat in the front of a Mitsubishi pick-up, barrelling along a dirt road at 65mph (100km/h).

Three of us were crammed in the back and the seat belts didn't work. But that was the least of anyone's worries - up ahead lay our destination, and it was being shelled by Russian artillery.

The car swerved to avoid a spent Russian shell stuck in the earth. "Cluster bomb," said Serhiy. It felt as though it could be a marker - a warning to travel no further.

"Do you want to see the village first, or our bunker?" he asked as the green pickup lurched to a halt. "Bunker," cameraman Darren Conway and I said in unison.

Image source, Darren Conway
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A volunteer fighter, part of Ukraine's Territorial Defence takes a break in the bunker

Vladimir Putin has turned day into night along Ukraine's eastern front, forcing people underground. This village lay at the edge of Izyum, where Russian forces are concentrated. The artillery barrage was ending as we descended into the cool darkness of the shelter.

After its failure to take the whole country, Russia is focused instead on taking Ukraine in pieces. The men in the bunker - and there are many of them - are here to ensure that doesn't happen. Izyum is in Russian hands, it's called the gateway to Donbas. During Russia's Victory Day celebrations last week, they crossed live on television from Moscow to occupiers in the city.

Bare bulbs lit the dark space in the bunker - the new home to the group of volunteer fighters who are part of Ukraine's Territorial Defence.

It could have been a scene from earlier wars, except it was pimped by technology. A widescreen TV showed live feeds from powerful spy cameras trained on Russian positions. "A gift from our friends," one commander told me, indicating they had come from western governments.

The men sat around scrolling through Instagram and Facebook, messaging wives and lovers. If frontline troops have their way, Elon Musk will be made a hero of Ukraine. His Starlink satellite network provides free internet to men across the battle space.

Image source, Darren Conway
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Troops are under an almost constant barrage of constant fire from nearby Russian positions

The shelling restarted outside, loud enough to make the cobwebs on the ceiling dance. "The Russians have finished their cigarette break," another fighter said, rising from his army cot.

It was time for us to move. We were to accompany a foot patrol, some of it across open ground, to the first line of defence. Outside a dove called out, and everything was still. Then somewhere I could hear automatic gunfire.

"Don't bunch up," we were instructed, as we walked in single file through the ruined village. Of course, it would make us more of a target, but it is hard to resist the urge when under fire.

Image source, Darren Conway
Image caption,
A Russian shell embedded in the wall of a home

Incoming shelling restarted in earnest - one shell squealed overhead and hit not far away. A Russian tank was operating nearby, and then the mortar fire started, too. The men leading us moved steadily through back yards and gardens, avoiding roads and trying to stay out of sight of spotter drones.

I ducked as another shell whistled overhead and exploded 300m away. "If you can hear them, it isn't for you," said Yuri who was accompanying us. It is the ones you don't hear that kill you. It's the third time in this war that someone has cracked that grim joke.

The men pressed on and we reached our destination. It was much further than we'd been led to believe. Inside, the unit was having lunch, apparently unbothered by the constant explosions.

"God save the Queen," said Yuri pointing out a British-supplied anti-tank weapon. "Thank you, Mr Johnson, we need more," he said with a laugh. It struck me that what these men needed was armoured vehicles - I didn't see any during the whole day at the front.

We waited out the latest barrage. Surely it was time for the Russians to take another cigarette break?

Then we were on the move again, fresh craters along our route and the smell of cordite and smoke in the air. The ground was littered with enemy munitions.

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We passed byres and stables, wary looking cows and nervy sheep still in their pens. When the villagers had fled, they had no time to save their livestock, the only sign of life. But then, improbably, a woman with red hair and green eye make-up came out of her house, as if to see what all the commotion was about. Natasha began to cry. She told us she couldn't leave her village because her husband was buried here. It would be a betrayal, she said.

Image source, Darren Conway
Image caption,
The villagers have left but Natasha doesn't want to leave her home

The shelling reached a new crescendo, the patrol was pinned down, and even Natasha ducked. "Would you boys like some borscht?" she asked. Instead, we took cover in her garden underground larder, where jars of preserved vegetables were turning bad on the wooden shelves.

Finally, the sound of outgoing artillery. Ukrainian shells headed over Natasha's house seeking Russian targets. We took that as our signal to leave, but Natasha refused to come. Her husband's portrait was still hanging on her sitting room wall, she said. The defence unit said they would send someone back for her.

Back in the operations den, the men were crowded around the surveillance screen. Twenty Russian infantry, with mortars, had been trying to attack the village while we were with the patrol. The Ukrainian guns didn't find them, so today like many other days, stalemate reigned. But the defenders' lines were unbreached and the men around us had again done their duty. The gateway to Donbas remained closed.

Defeat in the west of the country has sharpened Russia's focus to Izyum, where it has its command headquarters, and Donbas to the south, where a long war has been fought against separatists seeking to break away Donetsk and Luhansk. But even concentrated there, Russia struggles to advance.

But our day wasn't over. The Russians were still firing and we needed to get back across those exposed roads and out of range of their guns. It was dusk when Serhiy arrived in his green pickup. Perhaps he was in a good mood, or maybe it was more frontline humour, but he was humming God Save the Queen.

Before we had set off on the day's journey, I'd met a veteran American journalist who had been to the same front, 'You'll pray on your way in, and you'll pray on your way out," she said. As I ran through the Lord's Prayer in my head, we accelerated across the fields and hit something hard in the road. Thankfully for the second time in its short life, a Russian shell that had landed in the dirt didn't explode.

Follow Quentin on Twitter @sommervilletv

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