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"Hell on earth", Ukrainian soldiers describe the situation on the eastern front
Forests and burning cities were burned. Colleagues with amputated limbs. Bombardment so merciless the only option is to lie in a trench, wait and pray.
Ukrainian soldiers returning from the front lines in eastern Ukraine's Donbas region, where Russia is waging a fierce offensive, describe life in what has turned into a grueling war of attrition as apocalyptic.
In interviews with The Associated Press , some complained of chaotic organization, desertions and mental health problems caused by the relentless shelling. Others spoke of the high morale, heroism of their colleagues and commitment to continue the fight, even as the better-equipped Russians control more of the combat zone.
Lt. Volodymyr Nazarenko, 30, the second in command of the Svoboda Battalion of the Ukrainian National Guard, was with the troops that withdrew from Sievierodonetsk on the orders of military leaders.
During a month-long battle, Russian tanks wiped out any possible defensive positions and turned a town with a pre-war population of 101,000 into "a scorched wasteland", he said.
"They attacked us every day. I don't want to lie about it. But these were bursts of ammunition on every building," Nazarenko said. "The city was methodically flattened."
At the time, Sievierodonetsk was one of two main cities under Ukrainian control in Luhansk province, where pro-Russian separatists declared an unrecognized republic eight years ago. By the time the order to withdraw came on June 24, the Ukrainians were surrounded on three sides and were being protected by a chemical plant that also housed civilians.
"If there was a hell on Earth anywhere, it was in Sievierodonetsk," said Artem Ruban, a soldier in Nazarenko's battalion, from the relative safety of Bakhmut, 64 kilometers (40 miles) southwest of the since-occupied city. "The inner strength of our boys allowed them to hold the city until the last moment."
"Those were not human conditions they had to fight in. It's hard to explain it to you here, how they feel now or what it was like there," said Ruban, squinting in the sunlight. "There they fought until the end. The task was to destroy the enemy, no matter what."
Nazarenko, who also fought in Kiev and elsewhere in the east after Russia invaded Ukraine, considers the Ukrainian operation in Sievierodonetsk "a victory" regardless of the outcome.
Both the lieutenant and the soldier under his command expressed confidence that Ukraine will regain all the occupied territories and defeat Russia. They insisted morale remains high. Other soldiers, most with no combat experience before the invasion, shared more pessimistic accounts while insisting on anonymity or using only their first names to discuss their experiences.