NEAR KREMINNA, Ukraine – The sound of artillery launching and landing along the front line pierces the silence of the forest a few miles away, where combat medics wait to receive the wounded.
On the horizon, a military vehicle moves on a dusty road and comes to an abrupt halt when it reaches the trees. A soldier named Valentyn parks him there to naturally camouflage himself from Russian drones in reconnaissance of Ukrainian military positions.
A group of soldiers, visibly shaken, quickly unloads three newly recovered bodies from the front line, placing them each in a plastic body bag and closing it with a zipper. Their position was bombed and then attacked by a drone, they say.
“They are shooting at you from all sides. You turn around, you run, they hit you and it’s impossible to run away,” said Maksym, who survived the attack. “It is a great tragedy for us.”
“One more body is left with the Russian soldiers,” he added.
While much of the world’s attention has focused on the bloody urban battle unfolding in Bakhmut, Russia’s campaign in eastern Ukraine is also raging in the forests and fields at about 80 km north of the city, near Kreminna. Here, soldiers take up positions in trenches surrounded by tall, slender trees, crouching to avoid the direct line of sight of their Russian enemies.
“People say it’s tough in Bakhmut,” said Valentyn, who joined the army seven months ago. “But it’s hard here too.”
For the past month, Valentyn has been stationed at this evacuation point, making almost daily trips to the front line to rescue wounded soldiers and pick up the dead. His job requires him to head straight for Russian forces, and he has occasionally come under fire.
“There’s nothing good about it,” Valentyn said. “What is this war for?
Ukrainian and Russian military officials have been reluctant to release data on casualties in their ranks, though US government and military experts believe both sides suffered major casualties in the tens or hundreds of thousands.
For Valentyn, the victim response work has been both grim and relentless.
“There’s blood everywhere,” he said as he cleaned it from his vehicle. “It smells. Mostly fresh blood.
A bright red liquid ran through his fingers as he rinsed a bloody rag. He emptied the rag and used it again to wipe down the back seat.
“It’s hard to watch young boys die,” Valentyn said. “Sometimes I cry softly.”
In calmer times when there is no one to evacuate, Valentyn goes deep into the forest to transport soldiers to and from the line of contact, where Ukrainian and Russian soldiers are sometimes positioned a few hundred meters away. one another.
He said that at least one group of soldiers could not get to their position because Russian troops had already taken it.
“Every day is scary here,” said Viktor, a soldier who returned with Valentyn. “I feel constant anxiety, for our country and our lives.”
His stoic face reflected the fear and horror known only to those who had witnessed the fight in the forest.
“Those who haven’t been there will never understand.”
Benjamin Laffin, Oksana Nesterenko, Adam Coll and Haley Willis contributed reporting.