Conflicts & War

Cats, prayers and camaraderie: war of nerves at Ukraine’s border with Russia

By Marcel Gascón

Kharkiv, Ukraine, Aug 4 (EFE).- Truckers, mechanics, veterans of the Afghan war and Donbas have been thrown together in the effort to secure Ukraine’s border with Russia, in a constant war of nerves with the enemy in which cats, praying and camaraderie among the troops helps them survive the seven-day shifts in the trenches.

“Now it is quiet, but a moment ago one of their helicopters had appeared,” Oleg, a trucker who joined the Ukrainian forces soon after the Russian invasion, told EFE from his firing position.

Around a pallet table, four volunteer soldiers kill the time smoking, one of the most popular activities in the trenches.

One of them, who calls himself Tihon, gets up to show us the “rooms” that have been their home for months.

“Here’s the kitchen,” he says with certain pride while going down wooden stairs to the underground cabins, where several pots are lying next to a gas stove.

The passage then leads to the dormitory, where six people sleep in turns on wooden bunks.

Up at the ground level, the sound of firing is interrupted by a moment of calm.

At first Russians fire at a nearby Ukrainian position, and minutes later – a soldier explains – Ukrainians train their guns against a reconnaissance drone launched from across the border.

Along with hours of tedium, the worse of these missions is the tension according to Tihon, aged 54, who is also a trucker and fought on the Soviet side in places like Kandahar (Afghanistan), much before some of his erstwhile comrades-in-arms brought the war to Ukraine.

Enemy projectiles at times manage to do more than just scaring the birds.

A few days ago, the just-attacked neighboring Ukrainian post witnessed the death of a Ukrainian solder.

“He had just turned 29,” Oleg says in front of the trench from where they open fire whenever they see groups of Russian saboteurs or spies. Snipers are another constant threat.

Oblivious to the war-drama, a group of kittens sleep next to their mother on a brown and green mesh netting of the 113 Brigade, which has been tasked with protecting this part of the Kharkiv oblast from Russia.

After one and a-half years of war, the cats are accustomed to the din of munitions, while being equally indifferent to the prayers being offered by Zhenia, an orthodox Christian chaplain who travels to the border with a bible to provide spiritual support to the soldiers.

“In the war, there are no atheists,” he says, half in jest, to one of the journalists visiting the border, when the latter confesses to not believing in God.

A sound very different from the prayers and gunshots fills up the trenches soon after.

“It is a change of guard,” says Tihon, explaining the arrival of a mini-bus that is parked under a tree next to their position.

Sasha, 24, is one of the new arrivals.

He worked in construction and changed tires before the war, and is now set to be deployed at the border after recovering from the wounds he received in Bakhmut, a front where Tihon and Oleg also fought for months.

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