Beast, the commander's code name, appeared worn out.
Dark shadows surrounded his eyes from beneath his green helmet. He had spent the entire night fighting on his feet. He is war-weary and battle-hardened, like many others on the eastern front of Ukraine.
"It's challenging. People do not sleep enough. They spend 20 hours on their feet. The conflict continues nonstop. Because it's private, I can't say more. But we are unable to turn around. ".
His unit, which is a part of the 35th Brigade of the Ukraine, is defending Vuhledar. This prosperous mining town, whose name means "gift of coal," once had 15,000 residents. However, it is now one of many wasteland-like areas along Ukraine's 1,300-kilometer (807-mile) front line. .
Apartment buildings covered in rust tower over deserted streets. An entire church has been reduced to a shell, with its windows broken and its roof peeled off. At the front, a cross still stands but is pierced by shrapnel. The slide in the playground has bullet holes. The offspring of Vuhledar are long dead.
In the hotly contested Donbas region in the east, the town is located on a high plateau. From here, Ukraine can take aim at Russian resupply rail lines. It must maintain this stronghold. Moscow must accept it. Here has seen some of the most intense fighting in recent months.
The commander had to repeat himself over the rattle of intense machine gun fire, this time coming from the outside. "The front line is one kilometer away," he said.
We lack armor, and they are pushing. We will advance while we await the Lend-Lease program, a US initiative that provides military hardware. This is a common refrain on the front lines as Ukraine waits for the promised Western battle tanks from its allies.
The Vuhledar defenders are currently making do with what they have.
A few soldiers sprint into position to engage the opposition. They launch mortars and profanities before fleeing quickly to avoid becoming targets themselves.
We advance cautiously until we are 500 meters from the front line. There is no line of sight for the Russians. We are protected by structures. But then a shout of caution is heard. We need to hide behind a wall. The soldiers have heard what they believe to be a Russian drone flying overhead. That is our signal to back off.
The Russians may have better firepower and eyes in the sky here, but back home, skeptics are doubting their strategic thinking.
An unsuccessful Russian invasion attempt earlier this month resulted in significant losses and humiliation. On a flat plain, a column of tanks and armored vehicles was moving directly toward Ukrainian positions while passing through minefields. Similar to how it did last year when an armored column tried to approach Kiev, Ukraine stopped them in their tracks. If the Russians had learned anything from that, Vuhledar didn't reflect it.
There are about 300 souls left in this destroyed town, trapped by age and clinging to their memories without heat or light. Oleh Tkachenko, a cheery evangelical pastor dressed in combat gear, who delivers aid here twice a week, offers solace. .
He arrives early in the morning, before the shelling intensifies. Soon a line of people wearing winter coats and hats forms in front of his armored van. He says, "Hang on," reaching out for the hot bread. One loaf is provided for each person. ".
Valentina, 73, waits patiently for her turn. She is a small woman who is hunched over a walking stick and wearing a headlamp around her neck. She claims she doesn't have anywhere else to go.
Of course we're scared, she says. But what can we do? We just have to accept it. They have a job to do, so you cannot order them to not shoot. We lead our own lives. " .
She remembers the days before the invasion. The town was orderly, peaceful, and quiet. People had jobs and money. It was a good town, is all I can say. Her voice breaks, and she stops speaking.
Pastor Oleh gives people a quick hug and some advice before rushing them out of the van. One's target is a crowd.
He claims that shelling is constant. "We try not to have large crowds. We carefully park in the most secure locations close to the entrance of a structure where people can seek refuge. We assist because it's a life-or-death situation. Saving lives is the reward, but the risk is also very great. " .
He feels sorrow over what happened to Vuhledar, his three-year residence. He asserts, "I think it's crystal clear that Russia despises Ukraine. It devastates everything it despises and hates our cities and people. Russia's actions always speak louder than its words, regardless of what it says. ".
Numerous locations along the eastern front feature a variation of the Vuhledar story. Ukraine is putting up a fight, flexing every muscle. Although they are losing, the Russians are not giving up.
In this situation, the cold, hard truth is on the front lines. President Putin still controls close to a fifth of this enormous nation a year after his invasion.
Major offensives are forthcoming, as both sides have indicated. The crucial months will be those to come.