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In Photos: On a Wintry Frontline With the Army in Ukraine's Fractured East

Photographer Louis Dowse spent three weeks in December embedded with Ukrainian army units on the frontline in Schastiye and Tr'okhizbenka.
December 29, 2014, 7:05pm
Photo par Louis Dowse

A sprawling, heavily fortified line runs along the banks of the Seversky Donets River, splitting a territory that has changed hands between Ukrainian forces and the separatists of the Luhansk People's Republic multiple times throughout the last six months of fighting. This frontline in east Ukraine, nine miles (16km) from Luhansk city, has become a land entrenched in anger and paranoia.

The troops hide heavy equipment and hardware from view to prevent targeting by separatist artillery. Photos by Louis Dowse.

Here, aside from the small minority of civilians who have not been able to flee the fighting, only men and women who will freely kill and die for a monthly stipend of 1000 hryvnia ($63) remain. But while there has been much media coverage and focus on the strategic frontline town of Schastiye, or "Happiness" as it translates in Ukrainian and Russian, it is in villages such Tr'okhizbenka where the realities and stories of this war are too often ignored.

Running for cover under sniper fire at the first line of defense in Tr'okhizbenka.

From their outpost overlooking enemy positions, a rag-tag band of commandos watch their prey; brutally striking a counter-insurgency against separatists they view as terrorists, and more recently, observing the movement of artillery positions, as mechanized divisions skillfully attempt to catch out their opponents in a deadly game of cat and mouse.

In the frontline village Tr'okhizbenka, shelling from separatist tank positions heavily bombarded the civilian population.

Prior to the ceasefire, shelling would start at 10am. By late afternoon and with the last gasp of daylight, Grad missiles were brought into play. The nights were filled with endless, earth-shaking hammer blows of set-piece explosive thunder; blinding bursts of fire momentarily piercing the suffocating darkness.

One of the soldiers, nicknamed "Communist," sleeps between patrols.

Despite the current period of calm, credited to a renewed attempt to adhere to the September ceasefire accord, members of the commando platoon stationed near Tr'okhizbenka operate a skeletal and ruthlessly spartan operation. There are no appeals, no second chances for mistakes or misdemeanours. A curfew or "commandant's hour" starts at 8pm. Those found beyond the safety of the outpost's perimeter after that will be shot, regardless whether they are friend or foe. Orders are simple: kill first and ask questions in the morning. Always.

Portraits of Lenin used for target practice. Since the beginning of the war, there has been a widespread rejection of Russia and the echoes of the former Soviet Union.

For them, there has been no ceasefire — no orders to hold back, beyond an official ban on active offensives. Until there is clarity, they continue to aggressively defend their homeland.

Going out on patrol in Tr'okhizbenka.

These commandos were specially selected for their ability to perform multiple roles and functions: the chef operates the APC gun turret; the mechanic is a sniper; one soldier trains the others to improve their hand-to-hand combat; there are medics, chaplains, explosive specialists and a martial arts expert. All of them thrive as hunters.

Commandos often hunt as a means of supplementing their diet.

Firewood is stacked beside crates of ammunition — two of the most vital commodities on the frontline, closely monitored as winter encroaches and bitter winds penetrate bone and spirit.

Two soldiers practice their hand to hand combat.

The soldiers take turns to collect and cut the wood, each one knowing that despite temperatures already reaching an average -14 ºC at night, the weather will only get worse.

 "Bachar" — Pashtun for "Young Man" — is a veteran of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In the years prior to the war in East Ukraine, he protected NATO supply convoys in Afghanistan's Kandahar province.

Smiles spread across faces as they proudly explain and deconstruct their winter attire. They are grateful for the donations of clothing that are delivered with their weekly supplies: boots from Canada, jackets from Germany, base layers from their families back home. Above all else, without the support of their families and countless other households across Ukraine, they would simply not survive.

"Chornee" (Black) is from Luhansk city. His home now occupied by separatists, the frontline has become his home.

Over the last six months, these men have fought together, lived, eaten and mourned as one entity. During the quieter moments, they occupy their time with sports, artful games of chess and continuous training. To do otherwise would be to surrender their minds to the madness of conflict, one artillery shell at a time.

In Tr'okhizbenka, some soldiers occupy their free time with a game of volleyball.

But once you look beyond the brutality of their war, become accustomed to the fact that they all keep a grenade close at hand — the eastern European equivalent to a jihadist's suicide belt — and overcome the fear of going to the toilet while tank shells whistle overhead, you see true emotional interaction and an expression of a tenderness that is often ignored under such circumstances.

 Entrance to the barracks in Tr'okhizbenka.

These soldiers are, after all, simply human. They love their food, love to laugh and share stories of loved ones waiting for them back home. Making tea is an honored event and discussing the future a sobering reminder of why they are here.

Soldiers still sleeping early in the morning in Tr'okhizbenka.

There are veterans from almost every war since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and veterans of conflicts closer to home, football hooligans from the west of Ukraine and homeless men from the war-torn east.

"Fox" joined the commando platoon early in the conflict. Like many others, his plan is to work as a mercenary once peace has returned to east Ukraine.

Akin to Peter Pan's lost boys, men and women of all ages, shapes, sizes and nationalities have flocked to this war. They are pulled from various forms of ostracization, rejuvenated by nationalistic causes and driven by the ideal of fighting for a utopian motherland. The best of them find their way to Tr'okhizbenka.

Follow Louis Dowse on Twitter: @DwseL