Inside Ukraine’s trenches: ‘It’s like the First World War – very compact, claustrophobic’

World

In the lowlands which separate the regions Mykolaiv and Kherson, there is little of great value to see.

The fields are flat and generally featureless, and the residents of local villages have evacuated their homes.

Yet this territory is critically important, for it serves as the gateway to the city of Kherson.

A metropolitan centre of some 300,000, it is the only regional capital the Russians have managed to capture – which makes it an inestimable military prize.

By capturing the city, the Ukrainians would effectively banish the enemy from western side of the Dnipro River, reinforcing the momentum they have built over the past weeks.

Their forces lie some 30km from the outskirts of the city and we were taken to a series of narrow-walled trenches which form the Ukraine side of the current front line.

A soldier called Oleksandr, who led us down a passage, then pointed at a hole that had been chiselled in the wall.

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“Sleep,” he said, opening a small wooden door.

“That’s where we go, sleep and take cover.”

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Cover is something Oleksandr needs. This position is continually hit by the Russians.

It’s very active, every day, tanks and mortars, small and big calibre, howitzers, cluster bombs, Grad missiles – everything they have, they use.

Nearby, we found soldiers Vadim and Anatoly staring at the horizon from their lookout post.

It was cramped and claustrophobic but they said the Ukrainians will soon take more ground.

“We won’t be here for long, just for a couple of days,” said Anatoly.

“But winter is coming, won’t that make it more difficult?” I asked.

“We can take it, we’ll be okay.”

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There is a machine gun post that protects Ukrainian positions in the area and the commander told us he was willing to take us if we were prepared to run.

We sprinted through a section of open ground and found a pair of gunners at the end of a shallow trench.

They told us that this spot had recently been seized by the Russians.

“Browning gun, Germany. I can show you,” said one, as he gripped the handles of his heavy machine gun.

“If you look forward, 11 o’clock, there’s a building there and our intelligence is now saying there are Chechens inside.”

Chechen fighters, under the direction of Ramzan Kadyrov, a prominent Russian supporter of Vladimir Putin, are actively involved in this war, developing a fearsome reputation for brutality.

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Have you used (the gun) I asked?

“Yes, we have used it and successfully too – it’s undefendable. I can only imagine how the enemy felt afterwards.”

The light was fading and the commander told us that we had to return. He had good reason to ask us to leave – the field in front us was peppered with artillery fire as we made our way out.

We knew that the men on this ramshackle trench line would have a long and difficult night.

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