Ukrainians fighting in Donbass describe relentless shelling

Ukrainian soldier

Ukrainian soldiers and civilians in Donbass have been under intense fire for more than a month (Image: Reuters/Rex/AFP)

Soldiers returning from the Donbass front call it “hell on earth”.

Putin’s forces have been bombing eastern Ukraine since Vladimir Putin turned his attention back to the predominantly Russian-speaking region in May.

The Russian President claims he wants to “liberate” it after his failed attempts to capture Kyiv.

Many local defenders survived to tell of the horrors they witnessed, but others have succumbed to extreme physical and mental exhaustion and are showing symptoms of PTSD.

Lieutenant Volodymyr Nazarenko, deputy commander of the Svoboda Battalion of the Ukrainian National Guard, was with troops withdrawing from Sieverodonetsk on orders from military leaders.

The month-long battle, billed as the largest on European soil since World War II, saw Russian tanks obliterate all potential defensive positions.

Mr Nazarenko said the city, with a pre-war population of more than 100,000, had been turned into “a burned desert”.

A local resident walks past a severely damaged apartment building in the city of Sievarodonetsk

A resident walks past a heavily damaged apartment building in the city of Sievierodonetsk, in the Luhansk region (Image: Reuters)

One view shows a destroyed tank and bomb shell inside a building

A wrecked tank and bomb shell remain under the rubble of a building (Image: Reuters)

“They shot at us every day. I don’t want to lie about it,” said the 30-year-old. “But that was ammunition fire on every building. The city was leveled according to plan.”

At the time, Sievierodonetsk was one of two major Ukrainian cities in the Lugansk governorate, where pro-Russian separatists proclaimed an unrecognized republic eight years ago.

When the order to retreat came on June 24, the Ukrainians were surrounded on three sides.

“If there was any hell on earth, it was in Seyerodonetsk,” said Artem Ruban, a soldier in Mr. Nazarenko’s battalion, from comparatively safe Bakhmut, 40 miles southwest.

“The inner strength of our guys allowed them to hold the city until the last moment.”

Some soldiers complained of chaotic organization, desertions, and psychological problems caused by the relentless shelling.

Smoke and dirt rise from Sievierodonetsk

Smoke and dirt rise from Sievierodonetsk on June 17 (Image: AFP)

Others spoke of high morale, the heroism of their comrades, and a commitment to keep fighting. Admittedly, for many, that wasn’t a choice.

Mr Ruban added: “They fought to the end there. The task was to destroy the enemy at any cost.’

His comments come just over a week after Ukrainian forces were ordered to withdraw from Sieverodonetsk.

On Sunday, Russian forces also occupied the last fortress in Luhansk province and stepped up rocket attacks on Donetsk.

But both Mr Nazarenko and Mr Ruban expressed confidence that Ukraine’s military would retake all occupied territories and insisted morale remained high.

Other soldiers, most of whom had no combat experience prior to the invasion, shared more pessimistic accounts.

Oleksiy, a member of the Ukrainian army who began fighting Moscow-backed separatists in 2016, had just returned from the front lines with a severe limp.

He said he was wounded on the battlefield at Zolote, a town the Russians have since occupied.

“On TV they show beautiful pictures of the front, of solidarity, of the army, but the reality is very different,” he said, adding that he didn’t think supplying more Western arms would change the course of the war.

Oleksiy claimed his battalion lost 150 men in the first three days of fighting, many from blood loss, and within weeks they ran out of ammunition.

He added: “The commanders don’t care if you’re mentally broken. If you have a working heart, if you have arms and legs, you have to go back in.’

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Justin Scacco

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