The commander, codenamed Beast, looked exhausted.
Beneath his green helmet, dark shadows ringed his eyes. He had been on his feet all night fighting. Like many on Ukraine’s eastern front, he is both battle-hardened and war-weary.
“It’s difficult. People don’t get enough sleep. They are standing for 20 hours. The fight goes on around the clock. I can’t say more, it’s secret. But, we can’t go back.”
His unit, from the Ukraine’s 35th Brigade, is part of the defence of Vuhledar. The name means gift of coal, and this prosperous mining town was once home to 15,000 people. But now it’s a wasteland – one of many on Ukraine’s 1,300 kilometre (807 mile) front line.
Blackened apartment blocks tower over deserted streets. A church has been reduced to a shell – its roof peeled off and windows shattered. A cross still stands at the front, punctured by shrapnel. In the playground, there are bullet holes in the slide. Vuhledar’s children are long gone.
The town sits on high ground in the heavily contested Donbas region in the east. From here Ukraine can target rail lines used by the Russians for resupply. It needs to hold this bastion. Moscow needs to take it. Some of the fiercest fighting of recent months has been here.
“The front line is one kilometre away,” said the commander, having to repeat himself over the rattle of heavy machine-gun fire, this time outgoing.
“They are pushing, and we lack armour. We are waiting for the Lend-Lease [the US programme that provides military equipment] and we will advance.” That’s a familiar refrain on front lines here as Ukraine awaits Western battle tanks promised by its allies.
For now, the defenders of Vuhledar use what they have got.
A few troops dart into position, to target the enemy. They lob mortars – and obscenities – then make a quick getaway, to avoid being targeted themselves.
We move forward carefully to within 500 metres of the front line. The Russians have no line of sight. We are shielded by buildings. But suddenly there’s a warning shout. We have to take cover at a wall. The troops have heard something overhead, possibly a Russian drone. That’s our cue to pull back.
The Russians may have eyes in the sky here – and superior firepower – but critics back home are questioning their vision.
A hapless Russian attempt to take the town earlier this month ended in heavy losses and humiliation. A column of tanks and armoured vehicles headed straight for Ukrainian positions – through minefields – in full view on a flat plain. Ukraine stopped them in their tracks, much as it stopped an armoured column approaching Kyiv last year. If the Russians learned anything from that, it didn’t show in Vuhledar.
About 300 souls remain in this broken town without heat or light – frozen in place by age, clinging to their memories. Solace comes in the form of Oleh Tkachenko, a jovial evangelical pastor in combat gear, who brings aid here twice a week.
He arrives in the early morning, before the shelling reaches its peak. Soon his armoured van attracts a queue of men and women bundled up in winter coats and hats. “Hang on,” he says, as hands reach out for freshly baked bread. “It’s one loaf for each person.”
Valentina, who is 73, quietly waits her turn. She’s a slight figure, bent low over a walking stick, with a head torch around her neck. She tells us she has nowhere else to go.
“We are frightened, of course,” she says. “But what can we do? We live with it. You can’t say ‘Don’t shoot!’ They have their job. We have our lives.”
She recalls life before the invasion. “The town was quiet, calm, and clean. People worked and had money. What can I say? It was a good town.” Her voice cracks and she falls silent.
At the van Pastor Oleh dispenses some advice, and a quick hug before hurrying people away. Crowds are a target.
“There’s always shelling,” he says. “We try not to gather a lot of people. We park carefully, in the safest places, near the entrance to a building where people can take shelter. We help because it’s a matter of life or death. The risk is huge but so is the reward – saving people’s lives.”
He’s pained by the fate of Vuhledar, which was his home for three years. “I think it’s completely obvious that Russia hates Ukraine,” he says. “It hates our cities and our people, and it is destroying everything it hates. No matter what Russia says, its action scream louder than its words.”
The story of Vuhledar is replicated in many parts of the eastern front. Ukraine is resisting, straining every sinew. The Russians are not winning but they aren’t giving up either.
There is a cold hard truth on the front lines here. One year after his invasion, President Putin stills holds almost a fifth of this vast country.
Both sides have signalled that major offensives are coming. The coming months will be critical.