The impact of a tank round broke the plaster roof of the bunker and caused uniformed men to scramble. Flak jackets and helmets were thrown up and automatic weapons cocked. Amid a crescendo of machine-gun fire, a tall soldier hurled an anti-tank rocket launcher over one shoulder and took a slow drag on his cigarette.
The Russians were close.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine has mostly taken place at a distance, with Ukrainian and Russian forces lobbied for artillery, sometimes from tens of miles away. But at some points along the zigzagging Eastern Front, the fight becomes a vicious and intimate dance, with enemies getting glimpses of each other as they battle for command of hills and makeshift redoubts in towns and villages shattered by shells.
One such dance took place on Wednesday when a Russian unit of about 10 men entered the village where soldiers of a Ukrainian contingent, the Carpathian Sich Battalion, had dug in. The Russian troops likely helped direct incoming tank fire, including the bullet that shocked the Ukrainian soldiers into action. Ukrainian troops saw the Russian soldiers and opened fire and pushed them back.
“It was a sabotage group, intelligence agency,” a 30-year-old fighter known as Warsaw said, panting after the brief firefight. “Our boys did not sleep and reacted quickly, forcing the enemy to flee.”
That’s how it goes every day, every hour for the fighters of the Carpathian Sich Battalion, a volunteer unit named after the army of a short-lived independent Ukrainian state that was founded just before World War II. Attached to the Ukrainian Army’s 93rd Mechanized Brigade, the battalion is deployed through a row of villages and dug farmland in the Kharkiv region, with the task of stopping Russian troops thrusting down from their stronghold in the occupied Ukrainian city of Izium .
The battalion authorized a DailyExpertNews reporter and photographer to visit a front line on the condition that the precise location of their base would not be disclosed. Most soldiers agreed to identify themselves only by their call sign.
They have not had an easy battle.
The Russian army has deployed a massive force along this front in eastern Ukraine, bolstering its overwhelming superiority in tanks, fighter jets, helicopters and heavy artillery.
The huge war machines seldom stay still for long. Tanks in particular have become a serious threat, fighters said, often coming within a mile of battalion positions and wreaking absolute havoc. This month, 13 soldiers with the battalion have already been killed and more than 60 wounded.
“It’s a very different war than I’ve seen in places like Afghanistan or Iraq,” said a colonel named Mikhailo. “It’s tough fighting. Nobody cares about the law of war. They shell small towns, use forbidden artillery.”
Many of the battalion’s soldiers had experience in the eight-year war against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine and had fought in some of the most intense battles of the conflict. But most had been used to civilian life for years.
A tall, bearded soldier known as Rusin owns a bathtub selling business in the mountainous region of Transcarpathia, western Ukraine. But when Russia invaded on February 24, he quickly married his girlfriend — saying he wanted someone to wait for him at home — and left for war with a sense of mission.
“We understand that this is not a war between Ukraine and Russia,” he said. “This is a war of the pure and the light that exists on this earth and darkness. Either we stop this horde and the world gets better, or the world is filled with the anarchy that takes place wherever there is war.”