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"How Putin chipped his teeth": Stories from the front in Ukraine

Of course, life at the front consists of a lot more than successful recaptures and deadly defeats making the news. Some soldiers told me - on the basis of anonymity - their experiences in short stories and anecdotes. These recollections are not glorious or heroic. They are stories of the actual circumstances of men and women defending our freedom. 

This piece is excerpted from Ardy Beld's new book "How Putin bit his teeth". Order the book this page.

'It must have been in September. After crossing the Donetsk River, we continued to retake our territory towards Liman. We passed holiday centres lying along the "goloebye ozjora" (blue lakes). Somewhere in the forests, we took up positions to repel enemy attacks. There was no panic in my unit, but of course there was tension. We were digging all the time. We dug trenches, dug bunkers, it was regularly the case that we were digging trenches twice a day, because we had to change positions. One day we were in our position and in front of us the reconnaissance was running. Suddenly they started getting shelled and started shooting themselves. I am sure two of them were killed and one was ambushed. The enemy trapped him so he couldn't get back to us. One of the commanders said we needed 10 volunteers to get our scout out of there. I was one of them. As we approached the enemy positions, we were ambushed, another small firefight ensued. Nearby, mines and grenades exploded; there was huge noise and it was unclear where the shooting was coming from. After everything calmed down, we were left with four wounded. The commander decided to leave me behind with a medic to give first aid to the wounded. The others went to help the scout. Two of them had minor injuries and the other two were seriously wounded. We moved them out of the firing zone. One of them was a soldier with the call sign Pokemon. He returned to our ranks after a long hospitalisation and rehabilitation. When he returned after New Year, he was still so furious with the Russians that in a completely reckless action, he defused a tank alone! Everyone joked later that we had not saved him for nothing three months earlier.'

'After we left the 'goloebye ozjora', sometime in September, we approached Liman. Observation points along the defence line were set up at every 100-150 metres. On a rainy day, I carried drinking water to a neighbouring position. On my return, I saw a civilian standing under a tree, his bicycle lying next to him. Four of our soldiers were talking to him. The man said he wanted to pick mushrooms quickly before our troops recaptured Liman. The conversation revealed that the Russians had been helped by the stragglers in Liman. And that after the Russians left, LNR and DNR soldiers came, with whom the stragglers were also on good terms. The man with the bicycle said he did not know there was fighting. You could tell from his facial expression, his gestures and his attitude that he had been in prison. And so I didn't believe anything he said. After a brief interrogation, we contacted the secret service through our transmitter. Without waiting for their arrival, we blindfolded the man and gave him back his bicycle. The commander walked with him to meet the secret service men. Everyone wanted to get rid of him as soon as possible.'

'In early October, we were able to recapture Liman. The capture involved 81 units from our side. After the demining, we were stationed on the outskirts of the town in summer houses of locals. A boy about 8 or 9 years old came into the courtyard. He said, 'Can I get you something to eat?' Someone replied, 'I would like some kefir and a sandwich'. He said, 'Coming up' and ran away. About three hours later, he returned with a litre and a half of milk and a loaf of bread. He said, 'No kefir.' We didn't refuse because we hadn't had anything for a long time. We were hungry. We shared the milk and bread among ourselves. When the boy left, we said, 'Thanks, little one'. He turned around and said 'I am not little one, I am Zjeka.' At that point, no one needed to explain to us what we were fighting for. It was clear to each of us that we were there where they really needed us.'

'We had relieved soldiers from the 36th Marine Brigade at a position near a village. Dogs from the abandoned houses immediately came to us. It was clear they were used to humans, but we had not yet been introduced to them. I gave them porridge in tins. None of us ate that porridge because we cooked normal food ourselves, no more powdered meals. I gave the dogs food and water in the morning and evening. It was like a ritual. It calmed me down. We were constantly bombarded with artillery and Grad rockets. We went to the village to wash - there was a well near one of the houses. I put buckets down and the sun heated the water, sufficient for refreshing and doing laundry. The impression of a village without inhabitants is depressing. Cattle, poultry, cats and dogs are left alone. There was a herd of cows and a horse grazing near an abandoned farm. It was very sad for the animals, they suffered immensely from the shelling by the Russian army. At that time, the Russian army was three kilometres away from us and every day they shelled our positions. Mortars, 122mm and 152mm artillery. Rocket-propelled grenades and attacks with cluster munitions. We had good cover and could not be hit. We were experienced soldiers who recognised by ear when a shot was fired. Other units had injuries and deaths, but not many. Mostly due to inattention and carelessness.'

This piece is a selection from Ardy Beld's new book "How Putin bit his teeth". In this book, personal interviews with well-known and less well-known Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians paint a penetrating picture of the consequences of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Order the book this page.