Saturday, October 7
Al Jazeera’s Alex Gatopoulos travelled to four front-line locations in October. Read his first dispatch about life in a subterranean front-line town and his second about a village that lost one-sixth of its population after a Russian air raid.
Yesterday was a long day. The team tries to remain upbeat but everyone is a little ground down.
We head out to meet the commander of a mechanised brigade on the southern front near the village of Robotyne. A combined arms formation, the brigade is made up of artillery and armoured units, combat engineers, reconnaissance and mobile infantry.
The brigade is self-contained and designed to quickly exploit gaps and take advantage of any progress Ukraine may have made in the fighting, without having to wait for other specialised units. Because of this, they are always at the sharp end of the fighting.
Dimi quietly sings to his young boy on the phone while we all loudly discuss what is happening in Israel and Gaza. As we follow an escort car to the rendezvous point, two fighter jets on combat patrol fly overhead, low and fast. The white arcs of smoke from rocket launches hang in the still morning air.
The checkpoints become more muscular the closer we get – the soldiers manning them are heavily armed and focused – although we breeze through with the escort. We are taken to meet the brigade commander who will brief us on what we are allowed to film.
After a brief chat, we are told we can return tomorrow to witness the preparations for a pre-dawn assault. Today, Stepan, sharp-eyed with a black wispy beard, will be our guide and take us to interview a T-72 tank commander.
Much talk has been made of Western tank donations but it’s the Soviet-legacy T-72s and T-80s that provide the backbone of Ukraine’s armoured units.
We pile into a convoy of military vehicles. There is a lot of military traffic on the road as cars and vans ferry troops in both directions. A green military ambulance wails past, heading to the aid station. We walk through a cornfield, a brisk wind rustling the dry beige leaves. A small sign tells us to beware of mines.
A soldier pulls back a camouflage net to reveal two T-72 tanks. One of the tanks was captured from Russian forces and refurbished, the other was donated by the Czech Republic.
A small black cat prowls beneath the tankers’ feet. The cat is clearly loved by the crew who have adopted it as their mascot. The tank commander chuckles as the cat bites his hand. When I ask about its name, they all shrug at the question.
Climbing briefly into the gunner’s position on the turret, I’m immediately confronted by just how tight a squeeze it is. The space is cramped and crammed full. The main gun is to one side with the aiming sights and other equipment visible through padded eye-pieces facing forward.
The thought of the tank catching fire and having to wrench open the heavy steel hatch to wriggle out and jump to safety seems like a long shot. For the most part, you fight or die in these things.
The driver pops his head out the front hatch as the tank engine starts up. Everyone gets out of the way. Just before it starts to move, he beeps its horn as a warning, a strangely ineffectual sound, like something from a scooter.
Under guidance from a soldier in front, the tank roars out from under the camouflage netting, turning and lurching as it growls out of sight, leaving a thick pall of engine smoke in its wake. Alasdair races off to catch it driving around the corner. He then pelts back just in time to film it returning. Its size, noise and speed catch us off-guard – who would have thought something that big could be that fast?
A group photo, handshakes, goodbyes and we are off, this time to a front-line trench system, albeit in a quiet sector.
Getting there is a 20-minute ride on the back of a pick-up truck bouncing over potholes, the tires whipping up dust as we are thrown around while nestled between supplies.
A grinding stop. We jump off the back and into the trench system we go. The dirt floor is tidy, but the surrounding area is littered with used paper plates, plastic bottles, boxes, sacks and netting. The soldiers are dug in on a treeline, the open ground of southern Ukraine being virtual suicide to cross.
In the first bunker, food is being prepared, the assigned cook methodically stirring something steaming in a pot. To our eyes, it’s almost pitch dark.
Several bangs ring out, one after another, as an artillery battery steadily fires a salvo of shells at the Russian positions. Booms from other directions occasionally join in. The only other sounds are the wind moving through the trees and quiet conversations between the soldiers.
We share the bumpy ride back with some soldiers and chat in broken English. “What music do we like?” they ask us. As children, they listened to Metallica and AC/DC. “AC/DC,” Zein and I both coo in reply. Some things are international.
Stepan takes us to a house where we are offered coffee and biscuits, then given a talk in Ukrainian about mines. The engineer giving the lecture shows us various kinds of mines – anti-personnel, anti-vehicle and two types of Claymore mines. More coffee and biscuits. One of the soldiers receives a promotion. We all clap and the middle-aged man looks sheepish as he has his picture taken.
We are driven to the next town to interview a local commander. Everything here is ruined – burned, smashed, littered with rubble. There are holes where there should be walls, burned cars lie rusting. Want to know what the Apocalypse will look like? Come here or any other war zone. Mini-apocalypses, local ends of the world, dotted around the planet, coming to a neighbourhood near you.
And yet the humming of generators in the distance. There is still life here.