The 93rd brigade: Part of the Red Army in WWII, it now fights against Russian-backed separatists

The unit is based near Donetsk as part of the Ukrainian Armed Forces

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In the Second World War, as part of the Soviet Red Army, the 93rd Brigade played a proud role in the three-year struggle to retake the city of Kharkiv from occupying German forces.

Now, as part of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, it’s engaged in the deadly struggle to stop Russian-backed separatists in the city of Donetsk from expanding further into Ukraine. It is based two-and-a-half miles from Donetsk city, in Pisky, a former wealthy suburb.

Pisky now lies in ruins, after nightly shelling. It is almost surrounded and an attempt at an all-out attack, as happened earlier this month in the town of Marinka, 35 miles away, may not be far away.

On Saturday morning, a tank fired on a church housing a unit of the 93rd Brigade inside Pisky. The night before brought regular high-explosive artillery shelling, banned under the Minsk peace accord. The aim of the agreement was to halt the conflict that began last year – but a ceasefire signed in February has been undermined by repeated violations.

A Ukrainian serviceman takes shelter in a Pisky church (AFP)

The Ukrainian military said that at least six Ukrainian servicemen had been killed and 14 wounded in separatist eastern territory in the previous 24 hours. Military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said that the area around the city of Donetsk, especially near the airport, was particularly tense. Meanwhile, separatist officials accused Ukrainian forces of shelling three districts of the city over the past day.

In Pisky, stray dogs roam gutted houses where soldiers sleep in basements. Only a dozen of the poorest civilians remain, many of them shell-shocked and carrying injuries. The 93rd Brigade and volunteers provide them with food and medical assistance.

“Mama” is one of the volunteers with the 93rd Brigade and provides daily frontline medical assistance. She is from Lviv in western Ukraine and, although she gives her name, it is wise not to publicise it – families have been threatened.

On Friday evening, as Mama, 57, prepares food for the younger soldiers, a rooftop sniper armed with a rifle takes aim on her makeshift hospital. Mama knows only too well the results of the impact of this weapon. “It destroys a man,” she says and then smiles. “But they cannot destroy our spirit.”


The young soldiers look on admiringly. Her spirit calms their nerves. “I am their mother and they are my babies,” says Mama. “We are Mama’s boys,” chant the soldiers as they eat.

The top brass at the 93rd Brigade UAF field headquarters – 10 miles back from Pisky – are convinced a ground attack will come.

The roads and surrounding fields are peppered with mines; casualties caused by them are a problem for both sides. Dan, 25, one of “Mama’s boys”, is one of those whose job it is to defuse  the mines. Despite the dangers of his role, he is always smiling and rides around Pisky on a classic motorcycle he has found and repaired.

Dan says that it may take 50 years to clear all the mines in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. With the building of a second line of fortified trenches 30 to 50 miles back from the front, Ukraine may be settling into a “frozen conflict” – where major fighting has ceased, but the threat remains. But, for now, in exposed towns such as Pisky, it remains daily warfare.