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.
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.”
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
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.Reuse content