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Fighting through hell: The Ukrainian soldiers who liberated Andriivka

Ukrainian servicemen walk through a charred forest at the frontline a few kilometers from Andriivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine
Ukrainian servicemen walk through a charred forest at the frontline a few kilometers from Andriivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine Copyright AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov
Copyright AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov
By Euronews with AP
Published on Updated
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The fighters who see their friends cut down by Russian troops and have to adapt quickly, while fearing for their own lives.

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The Russian bullet struck Sergeant Gagarin just above the left ear. The leader of the Ukrainian platoon was down. Headquarters radioed a battlefield promotion to the private who had called him “brother” — a man known as Courier.

Courier knew the platoon's orders were to move forward through the forest, on the road to Bakhmut. He hesitated for 30 seconds near his fallen commander. Maybe a minute. Then he decided: There would be no turning back. 

“Forward!” he howled.

He fired toward a trench just ahead until he was sure the Russians inside would never shoot again. Then the men stumbled through the charred spindles of trees toward the village of Andriivka — the objective of the 3rd Assault Brigade since the start of Ukraine’s counteroffensive this summer, about 10 kilometres south of the city of Bakhmut.

Days later, as he prepared for Gagarin's funeral, Courier predicted his own future, his pale eyes unfocused.

“This forest is taking our friends away,” he said. “And when I think about how far we still need to move forward ... most likely someday I will be the one to remain lying in the forest, and my friends will just go forward.”

AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov
Ukrainian servicemen from the 3rd Assault Brigade at frontline positions near Andriivka, Donetsk region, UkraineAP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov

This stretch of dead forest — a couple of dozen trees wide and a mile (two kilometres) long — toward the equally dead village of Andriivka is one of countless like it on the road to Russian-controlled Bakhmut, which has taken on huge symbolic significance.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is making his country's case for more money and weapons, and must persuade his audience that the counteroffensive is working. 

The 3rd Assault Brigade, composed of volunteers and considered one of Ukraine’s best corps, has been fighting almost non-stop in the east since January. 

The men are known by their call signs, which is how they identify each other. 

Bakhmut fell to Russia in May, largely due to waves of attacks from mercenary Wagner fighters. Ukraine has been trying to reclaim it ever since.

But the soldiers are relying on largely Soviet-era armoured vehicles and older weapons. In the past month, the 3rd Assault Brigade had only been able to move two kilometres, crossing mines and booby-trapped trenches and dodging artillery, drone-launched grenades and Russian forces within shouting distance.

AP Photo
A Ukrainian servicemen fires machine gun towards Russian positions near AndriivkaAP Photo

Andriivka was their goal. And on 6 September, the day Courier left his commander's body behind, he and his men took over a trench in the forest and held it for four full days. 

During moments of rest, he leafed through a diary, written by a Russian soldier: “I’ve been at war for four weeks already and I miss my mom,” Courier read.

Courier would go to western Ukraine and represent the platoon at Gagarin’s funeral. Gagarin was buried in his hometown of Polonne, a 550-mile (900-kilometre) drive from the battlefield.

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Gagarin’s mother sought out Courier, among the last to see her son alive. But he finds it hard to talk to civilians these days. “I feel like there is a gap between civilians and us now," he said. “When the war is over, I will probably just leave to fight elsewhere.”

For Courier, war is complicated. He says he enjoys the dopamine rush, when he leaves the “horrible grinder," comes back to headquarters and jumps down from the armoured vehicle.

And yet he did not want to return to the forest leading to Andriivka. His commanders ordered him to take 10 days’ leave, a break for a fighter whose anguish they sensed despite his outward calm.

“Unfortunately, I’m only able to leave after going through hell,” he said bitterly.

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On the day of the funeral, 13 September, any man able to fight was in the forest, including another sergeant in the platoon, Fedya. On 5 September, Fedya had been lightly wounded by a cluster munition, and the injury may have saved his life. Gagarin took his place in the assault, and that was the day he died.

The last push started on 14 September. Men from other depleted units joined in for the usual three to four-day stint on the battlefield. After two months of inching their way forward, maybe they would finally break through the woods to Andriivka.

AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov
A Ukrainian flag next to a rifle inside a bunker at a frontline position in AndriivkaAP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov

On 14 September, they finally did it — three months after receiving the order to reclaim Andriivka. They broke through the shelling and the drone-launched grenades, firing at Russian forces who fled in front of them.

The Ukrainians went house to house in the tiny village, taking Russian prisoners and killing those who fought back. Even after the last of the Russian forces were expelled, Andriivka came under constant shelling, with buzzing drones on both sides.

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The next morning, 16 September, Fedya carried a Ukrainian flag to hoist in Andriivka.

Andriivka was now nothing but a pile of bricks and scorched trees with the smell of death. But it was in Ukrainian hands, and Fedya was ready to hand control to the next brigade to reclaim the next forest. 

He tried to explain to the incoming commander why the fight for this broken town was worth it.

“Look at these fields, this forest. Everything grows again," he said. 

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But Fedya was ready to leave.

“I’m tired of this forest. I want to go home. I want to wash and sleep,” he said with a curse. “Until morning. And in the morning, I’ll come back.”

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