Painful break as Ukrainian frontline troops think of family

SUMY REGION: Soldiers on Ukraine’s eastern front spent five grueling months under Russian bombardment, measuring the long days and longer nights in the metronomic cadence of relentless artillery fire.

Yet sometimes it’s the quiet moments that kill – when there’s a pause in the shelling and the calm sets in – as thoughts inevitably return to family and home.

The Ukrainian army’s 10th Battalion had begun advancing, digging new trenches in the humus-rich grassland soil just two kilometers (1.2 miles) from the Russian border, when it experienced such a lull.

“We had missiles and periodic shots. But now we have the grain armistice for the harvest period on both sides,” said Sergeant Chekh, whom AFP identifies by his code name in accordance with security protocol.

“But in two or three days, when this is over, artillery and mortar fire will resume with renewed vigor.”

The 51-year-old squadron commander has family behind enemy lines in Kherson, a largely Russian-occupied province 500 kilometers from the war he is waging in the northeast region of Sumy.

“I haven’t had any contact with my mother for three months and I don’t know if she is alive. She is 88 years old,” he told AFP in an brogue so soft it almost whispered.

“I had contact with neighbors and sent money, but I have no idea what the situation is.”

– ‘Motivation’ –

A lawyer by profession, Chekh brought his family to the relative safety of the western city of Lviv when war broke out, then volunteered at the local recruiting office.

In addition to worrying about an unreachable mother, he longs to reunite with his wife, two daughters and young son, all of whom are waiting for the end of the war abroad.

He says the goal of reuniting with his family is what keeps him going.

“‘Difficult’ is not really the right word,” he told AFP. “For me, it’s another motivation that supports me and helps me focus on the work at hand.”

Nearby, Chekh’s comrades sit under the forest canopy, smoking and swapping stories as they take a break from digging trenches, their main job while the break in fighting continues.

About 150 civilians died in the war in the Sumy region, its 39-year-old governor Dmytro Zhyvytsky told AFP.

Towns and villages along its 564-kilometer border with Russia still come under near-daily bombardment from Grad rockets, howitzers and mortars, he said.

But for now, at least, that part of the 10th Battalion’s front line seems eerily peaceful.

On the short trek through the dense woods to get to the new front line, there is no crackle of gunfire or the familiar rumble of throat-squeezing, blood-stirring explosive shells.

In a moment of unintended comedy, the air vibrates with a cacophonous moan that sounds like a warrior’s battle cry – but then a snare kicks in and it’s obvious it’s just someone’s ringtone. a.

– Model –

The laconic company commander, Captain Roman, supervises the excavation of the new trench, his hands formally clasped behind his back as if on a parade ground rather than a mound of mud.

He scans the treeline, eyes narrowed, looking for signs of enemy movement that never come.

“They fire artillery and grenades from time to time and there is always a single shot from time to time,” the 43-year-old told AFP, almost apologetically.

About 90 percent of the 10th Battalion’s fighters are volunteers who have seen little or no combat, but their commanders say what they lack in experience they make up for in heart.

“We are here to defend our country,” Roman told AFP. “The soldiers know they can die, but they are ready to do their job: to defend Ukraine.”

Below, platoon commander Lt. Volodymyr proudly shows off the new trench – apparently a labor of love – as he explains his motivation for volunteering.

An administrative employee at Lviv Polytechnic in another life, the 43-year-old quit his job and joined because he wants to be a role model for his two sons.

He thought about the effect his death in battle would have on the 12- and 16-year-old boys, but he argues his bravery would also set a good example for them.

“If I had stayed in Lviv doing nothing, what example would it have been for my sons to be patriotic towards Ukraine? -AFP

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