In Kharkiv, on the front line of “Point Zero”

published on Thursday, March 31, 2022 at 8:53 p.m.

“Our families are behind us. We can’t go back, we have no choice”: In the trenches and under shrapnel, in the far northeast of Kharkiv, Ukrainian soldiers defend Russian army attacks on the country’s second largest city.

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

Red-eyed with exhaustion but seemingly in good spirits, these men belong to the 92nd Mechanized Brigade, the main army unit in charge of defending Kharkiv.

Not far from a four-way intersection and a forest that marks the edge of the city, they camp in an old residential area, half buried in the gardens and the ruins of houses blown up by shells.

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

The ground trembles at regular intervals to the rhythm of projectiles falling here and there in the area, in a spin-chilling thunder of steel.

Five bodies of Russian soldiers, half naked, 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 projectiles for an ambulance or anyone else to pick up. Ukrainian soldiers have many other things to do.

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

“It was a workout that woke up,” jokes one of his men, Oleksy, a steel-blue-eyed lawyer and committed volunteer.

The captain shows a hole in the facade of a house already in disrepair, a little behind the forts. Smoke rises from a pile of rubble, the remains of a nearby wooden shack that served as food for the troops.

– Ivan and Orlan –

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

Landed behind the wheel of a van with broken windows, the talkative soldier with a mustache is in charge of “logistics”. He sniffs the chaos of the battlefield in search of anything that might be of use to the squad, reaching into the no man’s land that separates belligerents.

“There I recover a bit of everything, the Russians come to take their corpses there”, laughs this modern Taras Boulba, after having recounted how he killed four Russians with a grenade.

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

The “Ivans”, as the Ukrainians sometimes call the Russian soldiers, are less than 4 kilometers away. “Your scouts regularly attempt small raids on our lines. Five were killed a few days ago during their last attempt,” says the captain.

The engine of a lawnmower suddenly sputters in the ear, the eyes turn skyward. The silhouette of a small plane stands out under the gray clouds. A Russian “Orlan” drone, according to Oleksy.

These strange birds “detect Ukrainian positions and help to adjust the Russian artillery, we must imperatively shoot them down.” The soldiers rush on the plane, which continues its flight unperturbed.

“That means the rockets are going to fall,” warns the petty officer, ushering visitors up a narrow stairway hidden under sandbags and descending underground.

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

On the surface, we jump into trenches, sneak into forts, waiting for the storm of Russian iron. “If it’s a tank firing, it goes down in two seconds. If it’s a rocket, it comes in thirty seconds…” The war here is also waged by ear.

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

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