Exhausted Ukrainian soldiers say ‘only death’ awaits Russians
Exhausted and caked in mud, Ukrainian paratroopers fly their blue and yellow national flag from tanks, fresh from recapturing the strategic city of Lyman from the Russians.
Painted on the front and rear of the tanks are large white crosses, the emblem adopted by the Ukrainian army for their blistering counter-offensive which has seen Kyiv retake thousands of square kilometres in the east and south.
“It was hard, really hard,” admits Oleksandr, a slim paratrooper with grey eyes and a small moustache, talking about winning back Lyman in Donetsk, one of four regions that Russian President Vladimir Putin has annexed.
“We were moving forward,” he said. Ukrainian soldiers serving on the front line rarely give their full name for security reasons.
“We had no other choice. We’re protecting our land.”
He expressed no fear about Russian reinforcements after Putin called up hundreds of thousands of reservists last month in a bid to stem a spiral of defeats.
“No matter how many of them there are, they don’t really want to fight us,” said Oleksandr.
“Only death” awaits Russian troops in Ukraine he believes — “or captivity if they are lucky”.
In a country lane near Lyman, a strategic railway hub, bearded paratroopers wear blue ribbons on their forearms or chests.
– ‘Chase them’ –
“We are exhausted,” admits one young soldier, who did not want to give his name.
Visibly tired, some flash the V sign for victory while others raise hands to greet journalists.
“We’re resting a bit and then we’ll go further,” says the same soldier smiling along with those around him.
“We’ll chase them away.”
Another Ukrainian soldier wears a Russian tactical vest over his national uniform.
“A trophy,” he laughs.
The Russians “put up resistance” says another, eating a bar of chocolate, “they didn’t run straight away”.
With face and hands daubed with mud, Roman, a 34-year-old soldier whose helmet is covered with a camouflage net, smokes quietly.
“We had some smart (Russians), who surrendered,” he said.
– ‘Untenable’ –
Bodies of Russian soldiers still lie on the ground, including one with his head torn off, likely by an explosion, near the small town of Drobysheve, less than five kilometres (three miles) from Lyman.
Nearby, a Ukrainian de-miner advances slowly, metal detector in hand, through the forest.
His colleague prepares a wire detonator.
“Now there will be a boom”, he warns, before a dizzying explosion rings out in the distance, releasing a cloud of white smoke.
In Drobysheve, a charitable foundation is evacuating residents.
Valentina, 78, wearing a blue scarf, waits with her husband in the evacuation van.
“We evacuated when there were bombardments but we came back afterwards because we really wanted to go home. But it was untenable,” she said, tears in her eyes.
“We’re going to Kyiv.”
Leonid, 65, came to wish his neighbours goodbye, but vowed not to join them.
“We will stay here. On our land.”