A Blog by Jonathan Low


Sep 14, 2023

The Secret Diary of A Ukrainian Soldier About the Kharkiv Offensive

The diary of an anonymous Ukrainian paratrooper who participated in last fall's Kharkiv offensive. 

For those who still wish this year's counteroffensive could be more like that, this provides some illumination on the nature of luck and a much less formidable Russian enemy at that time. JL 

The Economist reports:

Vehicles begin to appear. First comes the bmp I’m to take command of. As it roars up alongside us, a filthy, soot-covered hatch opens, and a no less grubby chap emerges. The two seem made for each other. Spartans emerge, compared with my bmp, these are the Mini Cooper of armoured personnel carriers. A tank follows. It’s the first time I’ve seen so much armour in one place. We sweep the treelines and cast our eyes around. Scorched fields. The remains of metal bed frames and burned equipment. The evidence of retreat and escape.

By Anonymous

This is the third part of a diary written by a Ukrainian paratrooper. When war broke out in 2022, he was a civilian. He volunteered to fight and, after cursory training, found himself on the front lines, in charge of a platoon of equally unprepared men. He made new friends but lost comrades in chaotic early battles in Donbas, a region in the east of the country. This instalment begins in August 2022, as our diarist was recuperating in the forests of the north of the country, waiting to begin a secret new operation.

Day 67. August 29th 2022

Never in my life have I slept so deeply. When I wake, I inhale the scent of pine needles. Everything that went before feels like a dream: the shelling; the shooting; the dead; the base in Dnipro; scoffing four pieces of cake; the drive through the night across marshlands; the sight of new artillery pieces lining the roads going east. Clickety click. Someone is tapping on the window of the truck. It’s Raccoon, my company commander, who has come to wake us up. I last saw him yesterday lunchtime. It feels like a month ago.

Raccoon asks us to remove our unit’s insignia. If anyone asks us, we are members of a territorial defence battalion from the Cherkasy region in central Ukraine. “The First Somali battalion”, we joke, taking off any badges that might identify us as assault forces. It’s not that difficult a legend for me to absorb. I am from Cherkasy and the idea of being a professional paratrooper still feels pretty weird.

There are a number of units dispersed in the pine forest. This is the place where we are massing our forces before the battle begins. If the enemy spots us, God forbid, it’s better that we aren’t all in one place. I know this isn’t the time to relax, but I can’t help it. The warm sun of late summer has melted away my circumspection. My fellow soldiers too are resting on the ground. With their little camps scattered among the trees, they look like overgrown boy scouts.

We haven’t been taught what we should be doing during the waiting phase. I try not to get worked up with thoughts of a bloody apocalypse. I dig a foxhole. It’s a quick and easy job. I remember what they told us during our training: the ideal depth of any trench depends on the density of the soil. If you dig too deeply into soft ground, and a shell lands nearby, you will be buried alive.

The whole world seems to be talking about a counter-offensive in the Kherson region in the south of the country. We’re right at the other end of the front line. I’ve no idea what I’m meant to be doing. So I keep digging.

Day 68. August 30th 2022

I sleep like a log for the second night in a row. The soft sandy floor of my foxhole is better than any mattress. I congratulate myself for getting the size right, too: I can stretch my legs fully and there is still room for a rucksack and an assault rifle.

The armoured vehicles are supposed to be arriving today. For weeks, Raccoon has been telling me that we are to get British Spartans, armoured personnel carriers with tracks, and bmps, Soviet-made amphibious fighting vehicles. I’ve yet to see either outside a training range, and I can’t believe I’m about to take charge of one of them. I’m not a real soldier, after all.

The vehicles begin to appear. First comes the bmp I’m to take command of. You can hear it from the other side of the forest. As it roars up alongside us, a filthy, soot-covered hatch opens on the top, and a no less grubby chap, with red hair and beard, emerges from it. He looks shattered and stumbles as he dismounts from the vehicle. The two seem made for each other. Soon afterwards a column of Spartans emerges. They maintain a perfectly even distance from each other. Compared with my bmp, these are small, nimble things – the Mini Cooper of armoured personnel carriers. A tank follows behind the Spartans. It’s the first time I’ve seen so much armour in one place.

“Pay attention to the combat order.” Our battalion leader has called together his company commanders for a presentation about what is to come next. He’s laid twigs, stones and bricks on the forest floor. Ukrainian troops are the bricks. Hazel branches indicate the paths we will clear through our minefields. And a little bit farther away are the paths we will clear through the Russian minefields. We were given instructions like this when we were training. But never in my life did I think someone would actually explain a battle order with such props.

According to the plan, we are to manoeuvre through the minefields once the main strike group has passed through. All being well, that first group would capture a Russian-controlled village and engage the enemy on the outskirts of Balakleya, a large town with a barracks. Our task is to blockade Balakleya from the north. If the first strike group fails to gain a foothold, we will have to defend against the Russian counter-attack. The operation’s end point is Izium, a crucial hub 40km away, and one that the Russians fought months of bloody battles to capture. Everyone understands it’s an “impossible” ask. The commanders aren’t being honest with us, I think to myself.

We spend two hours watching drone footage of the terrain that lies ahead of us. The Russians have deep trenches that look like those I saw in textbooks. There doesn’t seem to be a soul in sight. There’s either not too many of them, or they are really disciplined, and hide whenever they hear the buzz of our drones.

Day 69. August 31st 2022

We receive an order to paint white crosses on our vehicles. We make them as big as we can and daub them on all sides. You don’t want someone to have to put on glasses in order to decide whether to shoot at you or not. When we are done, we look like some medieval order of knights. Unfortunately the Russians appear to be expecting our crusade. Social-media channels are filled with reports about an accumulation of tanks in our sector.

I don’t know what lies ahead, or how to prepare myself for it. I find myself carving words into the magazines for my rifle. These are the names of those who helped me along the way: friends and colleagues; the staff at the gym where I train and at the restaurant I once worked in. They’ve all been sending money and badly needed equipment for my soldiers. The pick-up truck we’ve been driving was also a present from my friends.

Our battalion’s machinegunners join us in the evening. Another group has been sent over from territorial-defence units. Quite a few of them seem to have been drinking and their behaviour is unruly. But they have been assigned to my company for the operation. I’m going to have to take responsibility for them whether I like it or not.

Are we ready? Our commanders apparently think so. Formally speaking we have everything we need: the correct number of men, the equipment, the guns and the combat order. But wars are never fought on paper.

Day 70. September 1st 2022

Another of the Soviet bmps arrives in the middle of the night. It makes a noisy entrance, running into a pine tree and chopping it down with its sharp prow. Were it not for the hysterical screams, I might have had another full night’s sleep. The falling tree really spooked a hardened reconnaissance officer going by the nom de guerre of Hightower. To be fair, it almost fell on his head.

Hightower was meant to be a reinforcement. On paper, he is an experienced soldier who could assist our young commander if we had problems with discipline. But he doesn’t feel like much of a backup. I would not be surprised if the real reason he was transferred to us was that his previous colleagues had grown tired of his endless chatter. His moniker –inspired by Moses Hightower, the taciturn comic hero of the Police Academy films – must be ironic.

We get a delivery of a box of grenades. “Take as many as you like, boys,” we are told. One thing I’ve discovered is that juggling them is a perfect way to deal with the endless waiting. Three at a time is easy enough. It’s when you add a fourth that things become difficult. I can’t stop wondering why we are still hanging around in the forest. We’ve already got the combat order. The Russians know we are up to something. It’s surely time to move.

Day 71. September 2nd 2022

My guys are itching to go. Every time they open their mouths they seem to ask: “So when is it?” There is nothing worse than bored soldiers. We officers have to be careful to keep them occupied with training exercises. The rumour is that we are waiting for ammunition for the new M777 howitzers to arrive. Some of us have taken to using military slang for these British guns – the “three axes”. We all understand we are showing off to look more experienced than we actually are. None of us has actually seen these things in real life.

During the night, the Russians fire cluster munitions near our positions in the forest. I hear a loud whistle from my dug-out. Pieces of sharp metal pierce the nearby trees  – you can tell this by their characteristic racket. “Can you take us in?” shout Odessa and Farmer, two of my guys who had until that point been sleeping under a canvas tent. They had teased me for digging such a large foxhole. Now it doesn’t seem such a bad idea to them.

Day 72. September 3rd 2022

Pryshyb is a small village which has the misfortune of falling right on the demarcation line between the two sides. Most of its residents have left. The only visitors are Russian mortars, which explode at regular intervals in the middle of the abandoned gardens or vegetable plots. And, for one day only, a small group of novice Ukrainian soldiers.

The three of us – me, Panda and Navigator – have been sent here to conduct drone reconnaissance. We need to see if there has been any change in the Russian positions since the videos shot a few days ago. If the Russians spot us, we will know about it pretty quickly. We hide our car under the cover of an overgrown apple tree that bears small, sour fruit in abundance.

Once we’ve completed our mission, we pass by another village on our way back through the forest. There are still a few functioning shops here, so we stop to stock up on Snickers and Coke. An old man queuing in one of them asks me when the war will end. I struggle to answer. The shopkeeper seems to sense my befuddlement. “Soon! Not long now,” she says. “These guys know what they are doing. The Russians will be gone in no time.” The locals insist I skip to the front of the queue. A woman opens the door for me. Kids outside shout “Glory to Ukraine!” I feel awkward. This feels like a propaganda movie. We give the youngsters some chocolate as we leave.

Day 73. September 4th 2022

I’ve got used to the forest. It feels like I’m reliving my childhood. There is a huge lake nearby. The lads are allowed to swim there if they are accompanied by an officer. I’m not keen on swimming, but I agree to supervise so they can enjoy themselves. They jump and bomb into the water from a long wooden platform.

We decide to turn my foxhole into a fully fledged dugout. It’s now three times the size, and a whole shovel-width deeper. We cover the new digs with pine logs and dry leaves. From a distance, you’d be hard-pressed to guess anyone could be living here. To make things even more comfortable, we line the walls with plastic and lay down camping mattresses and sleeping bags.

My new neighbours take no time in settling in. Farmer, who, appropriately enough, used to be a farmer in central Ukraine, has a wife and son waiting for him back home. Odessa, a school teacher from Odessa, fell in love with another school teacher when doing military training. He’s always talking about her, and planning the rest of their life together. He wonders whether she will ever agree to move to Odessa. I light a candle in the dugout. Things are cosy. I feel at home.

Day 74. September 5th 2022

We are woken in the middle of the night. The operation is beginning. It’s time to jump onto the armoured vehicles and “Go, go, go”. We wrap blue tape around our arms. This is supposed to distinguish between friend and foe. It is still a bit abstract to me. I’ve never yet had to make a call to shoot or not to shoot based on the colour of the tape on someone’s sleeves. It’s also the first time I’ve ridden an armoured vehicle in convoy. Not to mention in the pitch dark.

The tank is the first to leave, shortly followed by the tracked infantry vehicles and all the Spartans. My bmp is at the end of the column of armoured vehicles. Immediately behind me are the wheeled vehicles: cars and an anti-aircraft gun mounted on a truck. My job is to keep proper distance from the heavy armour in front, while checking on the wheeled vehicles behind. One of them is sure to break down or get stuck in the sandy soil of the forest road.

We join another military column at a rendezvous point on our way. Suddenly, it has become extremely difficult to determine where my guys are – everyone now looks the same. It’s a miracle we don’t lose anyone. Judging by the growing din of artillery, we’re close to the point where we are supposed to break through their lines.

We grope around for a place to sleep until the morning, or the order to move arrives. We find a narrow gully set a few metres off from the road. I sleep in a makeshift tent that I’ve made from a poncho. I could dig a foxhole, but decide it’s best to get as much sleep as I can. I hope that Russian artillery won’t find me in the meantime. When dawn breaks, I see that the forest ahead of us has been burned to the ground, leaving an opening.

Raccoon is still asleep, snoozing with his back leaning against a tree. I decide to inspect the combat groups in his place. At each stop, the groups of soldiers offer me food. I have breakfast with each one of them. Coffee and chocolate; fresh, cooked pasta. Contractor’s group is playing gypsy music out of a Bluetooth speaker. One of his soldiers – a round-faced, chubby guy – is dancing on top of an armoured personnel carrier (apc) to keep warm. Another is rummaging through an infantry vehicle trying to find something among the clutter. Our battalion feels like a travelling circus.

Day 75. September 6th 2022

The combat order says it is here that we will have to cross Russian minefields near Pryshyb. My company is part of the battalion reserve, so we aren’t in the first wave. I don’t know if that group has managed to blast a passage through the minefields for us. I’m only a platoon commander, after all. No one tells me about the big picture.

While we wait I try to prise open the door of an abandoned wooden house. I sense the place hasn’t been lived in for some time – certainly since long before the invasion. I can feel the house crumbling as I push on the door. The flimsy construction just can’t stand it. I push harder with increasing desperation. But the door, which is reinforced with a layer of metal, won’t give despite all my efforts. If I can’t break into a wooden hut, I ask myself, what hope do I have against Russian defences?

There is no time to brood. My company commander Raccoon is radioing me to hurry and he sounds increasingly frustrated. There is news. The plan has changed. “You’re going on alone now,” he says. It turns out that the first wave has broken through Russian lines and penetrated deeper than anyone expected. The Russians are fleeing. I recall the lessons of military training: when the enemy is running, you chase after them. We have to step on the gas, and fast.

Now I’m in charge of my own group. I have several combat teams operating on Spartans, two grenade-launcher crews, one anti-tank crew armed with Javelin missiles and a tank. That’s right, folks: my own tank.

Commanders assure us everything will be made safe ahead of us. There is, after all, a well-worked algorithm here. A mine roller goes first. When it hits mines, it stops, and a mine-clearing vehicle called the zmiy-gorynych – named after a magic dragon in Slavic folklore – steps up. The dragon throws out a hose of explosives, and clears a lane up ahead. “If you stay in the corridor, it’s safe to drive” – or so they tell us repeatedly. If I’m honest, the mantras don’t do much to calm someone about to cross a minefield for the very first time.

The battalion commander has arrived to take us through the minefields himself. This turn of events suggests to me that things are going well. He surely wouldn’t take the risk otherwise? Still, the picture ahead is terrifying. Our path to the other side is narrow – just ruts that our colleagues have dug into the weedy fields. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of anti-tank mines either side of them. One careless move and we will turn into cans of sardines in tomato sauce.

It’s already dark by the time we enter Yakovenkove, a village that is our target destination. The outermost house is in flames. I can see a petrified man in his 60s, leading an equally petrified cow out of the yard. If it wasn’t for him, the animal would surely have been burned alive. We find out that this large house served as the Russian headquarters. When they fled, they set the building on fire, leaving a web of tripwires.

Our evening sweep doesn’t last long. After checking the first few houses, the futility of the task becomes clear. First, the darkness means that it is much more likely we will blow ourselves up on tripwires than catch any remnants of the enemy. Second, we understand that the offensive has, if anything, gone too well. We aren’t the only Ukrainian unit here. Artillery men and scouts from neighbouring battalions, all driven forward by the good news, are hiding under every bush. We don’t want to shoot our own guys in pursuit of Russian stragglers.

We set up positions for the night in the far end of the village. As we look for a place to sleep, we frighten an old lady, one of the few remaining residents. She can’t understand who we are, or why we are asking permission to let our soldiers sleep in her barn. We’ll have to apologise to her tomorrow, I think to myself.

Day 76. September 7th 2022

I wake up after a night of sleeping on a hard floor. I can tell the owners of the house I’m sleeping in had plenty of time to leave. The carpets are rolled up and stacked neatly; the windows are covered; the clothes they didn’t need for the journey are wrapped neatly in a jacket. The war damage – a mine blew a small crater in the yard, damaging the minibus parked outside – obviously came later.

“Boss, erm, the owners have arrived,” says Misha, a short infantryman aged 45 or so. His naive and earnest nature make him an unlikely soldier. “Will you talk to them?” I feel shame as I remember we entered someone’s home at night without their permission. I might be the commander of an airborne platoon, but I am completely in the wrong here. I feel like a boy caught stealing apples from a neighbour’s garden.

Blushing, I prepare to deliver words of apology to the two women standing with their hands on their hips at the gate. The older one is wearing a brown jumper, the younger one red. “We…erm…needed somewhere to sleep,” I mutter. They don’t let me end my sentence, and instead pull me towards them, embrace me and start crying. “Boys, boys! What took you so long?” I’m numb. Nothing prepared me for this. I don’t know what to say or how to react. The women insist they cook dinner for us. But it’s against the rules to accept food from the civilian population. Yes, we are on home soil. Yes, it’s obvious that these people are on our side. But rules are rules.

The mobile networks are down, and we have no access to the internet. For the time being we have no news, just rumours. And what are those rumours saying? They say the first battalion broke through lines so speedily that they drove over Russian trenches without even noticing them. They say terrified Russian soldiers stayed in their pits until the next wave of attackers captured them.

I decide to break the rules and allow the boys to accept dinner from the ladies of the village.

Day 77. September 8th 2022

Misha clearly is not a man designed for war, but now at least he has a purpose. We’re putting him in charge of our domestic arrangements. One thing I’ve found is that as soon as you give a soldier a particular area of responsibility, he becomes a new man. Misha takes great care in keeping the house spotless. He reminds everyone of the importance of regular meals. He makes sure that the food is hot and there is enough for everyone. He glows with pride from the praise and the feeling he is needed.

The boys decide to cook borscht tonight. For whatever reason, they want to have it with mayonnaise. Some might describe this as a war crime: sour cream is, as is well established, the only acceptable condiment. But Snake nonetheless has resolved to head down to the local shop to buy it. About 30 minutes later he comes back with a machinegun, a hand-held anti-tank grenade launcher, ammunition and delighted cries of “There’s loads more!” He’s forgotten the mayonnaise.

There are indeed plenty more treasures where the machinegun came from. The Russians left behind another two machineguns, five rocket-propelled grenade launchers, half a dozen hand-held flamethrowers and under-barrel grenade launchers for Kalashnikovs. There are loads of Soviet-made helmets and Russian bulletproof vests. The Russians appear to have dropped everything heavy when they scarpered on foot.

I find clues about the Russians in a notebook that my opposite number – a platoon commander from the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic – has left behind. You can see the commander was a responsible kind of guy. His notebook resembles that of a classroom swot. The entries are neat and colour-coded. This platoon was mobilised in the Luhansk region about six months ago. Ever since they have been training and patrolling, first at home and later here in the Kharkiv region. Every one of these moments is recorded meticulously.

We sweep the treelines and cast our eyes around. Scorched fields. The remains of metal bed frames and burned equipment. The evidence of retreat and escape. Later in the evening, I return to the large house that had been the local Russian headquarters. The yard is being swept by an elderly couple, their daughter and a young boy. They say that the owner of the home has asked them to clean up after the Russians, even though the place is still full of tripwires and unidentified boxes of equipment.

The child keeps his distance from us, and barely says a word. He follows the adults while clutching a dog in his arms. “He gets frightened whenever he sees a soldier,” explains the old man. The boy started wetting the bed because of the fear. The gossip in the village is that his mother was raped. I choose not to listen to the rumours. Even if they are true, it strikes me that gossip makes things worse.

My guys test the Russian bulletproof vests. They report that the plates actually withstand the bullets and cannot be easily penetrated. I’ve attached one of the under-barrel grenade launchers to my rifle. My already clunky Kalashnikov is now even heavier. But it looks epic.

Day 79. September 10th 2022

We wake to the realisation that gophers have eaten much of our food. These hyperactive rodent bastards jump from branch to branch, and gnaw through packets of biscuits and packets of dry rations. They’d robbed us before daybreak.

There is quite a bit of commotion on the radios this morning. Another part of our company tried to approach Savyntsi, the village that is next on our hit-list, and saw a car driving through it with a white cross. Our troops have already taken it without a fight, it seems. The only danger facing us there are the mines scattered on the streets.

From there we move on quickly across the fields towards our next target village, Vesele. We can finally breathe a bit more freely. Not so our Spartan apcs. On the way, sunflowers get stuck in their radiators and they begin to lose power. We are overtaken by a Soviet-made infantry vehicle.

The locals who remained in the village happily open up their neighbours’ houses so that my soldiers can rest. We know we are headed for Izium in the morning so it’s important they are fresh. Everyone wants to tell us something. About how the Russians built two checkpoints: one manned with Ossetians from the Caucasus and another with soldiers from occupied Donetsk. They tell us how the Ossetian commander would mock the Donetsk fighters: he beat them and made them shout “Donetsk is a shithole.”

I ask everyone to go home to sleep. Tomorrow is an early start. But two of the local men don’t want to leave my boys in peace. They continue chatting in the yard of the house where we are staying.

“Relax, these are our guys,” says one of them.

“Yeah, we’re back home. In Ukraine,” replies the other

.“No, no, what I’m saying is one of the guys really is local. He’s from Savyntsi. We’ve known each other since we were kids.

”I wonder what it’s like to find yourself on an operation to surround the village you lived in your entire life. Where, perhaps, your wife and son are living right now. Where it might even be your son’s birthday. I find myself getting angry with my soldier. Why didn’t he tell me he was from here? I’d have brought him to his son’s birthday party personally – on an apc.

Day 80. September 11th 2022

Our convoy flies down the beautiful highway towards Izium. I feel elated. It’s easy to breathe. There’s a light drizzle. The air is fresh. We pass tank crews resting on the sides of the road. They wave to us. They did the hard work. Our job is now to sweep up any Russians left. As we approach Izium, I see two Russian corpses still lying across the road. We call them “sheep”. I’ve got nothing but contempt for the people who came to invade my country. They aren’t people to me anymore. Just bodies.

A tall stele with the inscription “Izium” marks the entrance to town. My heart wants to jump out of my chest. I feel triumphant. I might not have fired a single shot yet, but it feels like my victory. I grin when I see my reflection in a mirror. My face is covered in the soot that the apc in front had sprayed onto me.

Across the way, an old woman is riding a bicycle. She gazes towards the soldiers gathered around the stele. But she isn’t looking where she needs to be looking – by her wheels, which is where anti-personnel mines are lurking. A jumping mine can tear your foot off if you step on it. In slow motion, we catch sight of the woman, tottering towards the mines. We shout at her. She doesn’t hear us. When the mine explodes, the old woman falls over the handlebars of the bicycle. We help her to her feet. Thankfully, she isn’t seriously injured, just a little frightened.

Every time, I ask for residents’ permission to enter their houses. I explain that I will do so only with their say-so. Although it would be hard to refuse a filthy, soot-covered bloke armed from head to toe. I can see the residents are tense and don’t understand what is happening. They have been cut off from the world beyond the village for months. They do not immediately realise who we are. The colour of our armbands means nothing to them. I don’t think they expected to see Ukrainian troops here so soon.

Izium means raisin in Russian – and it’s not hard to understand why the town got its name. The grapes are everywhere. There are giant, green ones with a sweet taste. And small, sour bunches. Picking one at a time, I eat kilos of the stuff.

“A tank! Tank!” All around me, soldiers grab their weapons and jump to join the hunt of a Russian tank. It’s the first time I see everyone running towards a tank, rather than away from it. It turns out that the vehicle is not, in fact, a tank, but an armoured vehicle. A disoriented Russian soldier had tried to escape from a nearby hideout, but instead headed straight for our sector. He didn’t get far.

The guys up ahead have run into a Russian sniper. Some fucker is shooting from a tower in the industrial estate. Our guys return machinegun fire. One shot from a grenade launcher and suddenly the shooting stops. When we reach the sniper’s position, we see a Russian uniform thrown onto the floor. It seems he managed to flee, disguised as a civilian.

We discover a ton of abandoned equipment at the far corner of our sector. There’s a completely intact tank, covered with explosives that the Russians never got around to detonating. More loot is waiting at what had been a repair point. We claim two extra amphibious tracked vehicles, two brand new anti-aircraft guns still in their packages and a rare apc configured as a comms vehicle. The rest of our haul goes to other units.

Day 81. September 12th 2022

We’ve set up in a house recently abandoned by the Russians. A Russian tricolour hangs at the entrance. I think about keeping it as a trophy, but by the time I’ve returned from setting up our monitoring posts, my soldiers have already ripped it off the wall and burned it.

The Russians left piles of documents behind. There are A4 forms stamped “secret”. One contains a list of soldiers injured in artillery battles. Another, dated the next day, contains handwritten refusenik statements. Each member of the unit – the platoon commander, his deputies and the lowliest privates – has written that they refuse to take part in the “special military operation”. Everyone has come up with their own reason: because they have not been granted leave; because they are ill; because they are tired or in bad psychological condition.

We also find a pile of letters written by Russian schoolchildren. They offer support and motivational stories for “this not very good predicament”. Even kids are afraid to use the word “war”.

Astonishingly stupid propaganda litters the fancy house that Russian commanders used as their headquarters. There are cheap anti-Semitic caricatures of President Volodymyr Zelensky – as either a rabbi, the devil or an American puppet. Joe Biden is also a target for their teenage minds. A stand outside the building explains that “Russia never attacks anyone”. And even if it ever did, it was “forced to do so”. It feels absurd to be reading this in ransacked Izium, 160km from the Russian border.

Day 84. September 15th 2022

Getting a mobile signal in Izium isn’t easy. The only place where it’s possible to speak is at the top of Mount Kremenets, which overlooks the town. If you are lucky, and a 4g connection somehow dribbles through, you can make the call. But do not dare move. Half a metre to the left or right and you will lose reception. At any moment you can find dozens of locals at the top of the hill, in varying degrees of frozen frustration.

The residents soon get wind that the military has a secret communications weapon: Starlink, a satellite-powered internet service. I don’t think it’s a great idea to have locals surrounding your headquarters with dozens of phones. It’s against the rules for a start. But how can you deny people who have spent so many months without hearing from their loved ones?

Day 85. September 16th 2022

The full extent of Russian atrocities in Izium is beginning to be revealed. The world’s press has already published photos from the mass grave at the entrance to the town. There are several hundred people buried under the sandy soil there. Many of them will have been Ukrainian sympathisers. We don’t talk about it much. We just ask each other: “You saw it?” And we silently nod.

Over the last few days, we’ve heard stories of rape and torture. Of people who have disappeared. Of a disabled man whose adapted car was stolen and who was shot dead when he tried to retrieve it.

The testimonies of those we meet near our positions is shocking enough. One man would not let his son out, fearing he would be detained by Russian soldiers looking for people with pro-Ukrainian sympathy. So his 16-year-old never left the confines of their small yard for five and a half months. Another neighbour, known for pro-Ukrainian sympathies, was taken away by Russian soldiers one day. He was never seen again.

Day 87. September 17th 2022

Everyone’s focus is now on Lyman, the next major town 48km down the road. Every hour we check for updates from there and the nearby urban conglomeration of Lysychansk/Sievierodonetsk. The Russians have gathered a huge force if our information is correct. But if our guys can manage to advance around them, there is a chance of trapping them. In my heart of hearts, I want them to keep running. I want the next few days of our raid to be free and easy. For it to be like it has been in the Kharkiv region. No losses and no direct clashes. But a gnawing feeling in my gut tells me the party might be coming to an end.

Everyone believes our next departure is tonight. The rear guard are already here in Izium. We won’t be staying here for long, that’s for sure.


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