Ukrainian tankers, in a cellar on the Kharkov front.

On the battlefront, you can talk about everything except discouragement, living conditions or fallen comrades. So the soldiers of the 92nd brigade, precariously installed about 15 kilometers from Russia, quickly move on from the subject. The state of mind? High. The fallen comrades? Heroes. The family? Far Donbas? We’ll get it back.

Yakiv, Andrei, Eugen, Viktor are tough people, used to waging war at ten degrees below zero, eating cans for weeks, falling asleep on a bunk when the ground rumbles, and advancing with a tank over enemy lines. The four are part of a larger group that has a single mission: to resist. They are the spearhead of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in their conquest of the villages closest to Kharkov and for three weeks they have lived in a newly recovered village – whose name the military authority prevents saying – in which artillery fire sounds every few minutes.

Only a few crazy They are prepared to be the vanguard of the reconquest of the lost ground and the conversation, which begins in the old playground of the town, has to continue in the basement for fear that some projectile will fall on their town.

The oldest, Yakiv, 38, has a huge L-shaped scar sewn into his face that starts at his forehead, runs across his temple and reaches his eye. On the top of his head there is also a marked shrapnel scar. “I remember March 1,” he says with a laugh, referring to the first days of the war, in which the Russian armies quickly planted themselves in the center of Kharkiv, the country’s second largest city.

“We knew you were coming, so we’ve removed all the Nazi decorations from the basement,” he jokes. “And we have started up the bomb machine,” adds another with a laugh. If the group is afraid to fulfill the entrusted mission, this does not come out in front of the journalists.

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The war began for them, as for the whole of Ukraine, also on the morning of February 24, when the Russian city of Belgorod (the town opposite them and from which almost all the missiles that fall in eastern Ukraine leave) left a column of soldiers and vehicles with the intention of gobbling up Kharkov, with almost two million inhabitants, in a few hours. While the world looked towards kyiv, a rain of missiles and projectiles fell on Kharkov until destroying everything. While the tanks and the infantry surrounded the urban area, the shells destroyed homes, stores, shopping malls, markets, the power station, gas pipelines, villages, schools, academies… In a few days, anything over two heights on the north face of the city was annihilated. Then more Russian soldiers crossed into the Ukraine and by mid-March the Russians had penetrated half a hundred kilometers to stand very close to the central square of the city.

Little by little a reconquest began that has been recovering territory meter by meter. Now, two months after that, Yakiv, Andrei, Eugen, Viktor devour one cigarette after another in a bunker that serves as a barracks, a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen and a confession room. Upstairs, hidden under the trees, are his work tools: several model T-72 tanks and a T-64, seized from the Russians.

Ukrainian tankers, in a cellar on the Kharkov front.
Ukrainian tankers, in a cellar on the Kharkov front.Jacob Garcia

Precisely with the Russian tank, Andrei, 24 years old, learned to wage war. All he had driven until March is an old Ford in which he was going to pick up his girlfriend at the hairdresser, but since his city was attacked he dressed in olive green and has not taken off his military clothes since. He learned to shoot in the Russian tank abandoned by the invaders, which paradoxically has become the main supplier of weapons to the Ukrainian armies. Now the group of men sleeps next to their tanks in the city that invented them when engineer Alexander Morozov stopped building trains and tractors in 1927 to make way for the most powerful armored vehicle industry in the Soviet Union, located precisely in Kharkiv. .

The mission of Andréi and his companions is to keep nothing under their control, a position nothing more, because not even cats live in a town where a thousand families lived three months ago, but in which there is not a house that is not destroyed. , burned or punctured.

Weapons and professional military

“The ratio in tanks is one to four in this part of the country,” says Eugen, his 24-year-old tanker partner. The figure squares with that given by President Volodymyr Zelensky, who considers that for every seven Russian soldiers there is one from Ukraine. Precisely the tankers repeat like a mantra the official discourse that says “we need weapons…”, but also manpower. “There are hundreds of volunteers who volunteer every day, but we need military professionals. There are plenty of people, but someone capable of handling a tank, shooting, needs to come. In fact, hundreds of volunteers volunteer every day, but professional soldiers who know how to drive a tank are needed.” Enthusiasm is not a good companion in war and they all recognize that most accidents occur among those who joined the Armed Forces without ever having seen a rifle.

Learning to drive a tank is not an easy thing. The interior of the T-64, a tank created 50 years ago, is a suffocating space where fat people don’t fit because you have to keep your arms glued to avoid being hit by the projectile. The Russian tank with which Vladimir Putin aspired to conquer Ukraine is a crude device in which three soldiers travel, two seated and one more in the turret. The pilot must fit into a tiny space that has periscope-like lenses in front of his face with a marked cross to indicate the objective. With one hand he moves the cannon from right to left and with the other from top to bottom until the cross coincides. Just behind the back are stored a dozen projectiles similar to a large bottle of cava that are loaded mechanically and are fired, making the distressing box of machines rumble. Precisely this way of storing ammunition has become the weak point of a tank that any enemy impact can blow up, which has confirmed its expiration for modern warfare. Added to the more than a thousand destroyed tanks is the fact that soldiers are increasingly abandoning their old tanks to flee. The number of abandoned tanks is so high that even the Ukrainian government has told the population that whoever finds any of the “combat trophies” does not need to declare it to the Treasury.

Precisely for this reason, Viktor, able to handle a tank more easily than his mobile phone, is convinced of victory. “We are defending our land, our towns, our cities and our families. It is clear that we are going to win this war and expel the invader because our lives depend on it, ”he affirms before a new explosion makes the walls of the bunker rumble to remind him that his mission to resist is not over yet.

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