The 58th Brigade of Ukraine in the heart of the Bakhmut Swamp

The 58th Brigade of Ukraine in the heart of the Bakhmut Swamp


An artillery unit is waiting for the signal in the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, 15 kilometers from the positions of the Russian armed forces.

“Ready!” The four soldiers duck and cover their ears. “Fire!”

The shell bursts out of the cannon towards the Russian forces in flames and smoke.

“According to the coordinates we received, the target is infantry,” says Oleksandr, 37, between two radio commands.

Oleksandr commands this small artillery squad, which is part of the Ukrainian Army’s 58th Motorized Infantry Brigade.

About 30 seconds later, the 50-kilo (110-pound) “fragmentation” shell, recovered from the Russians after they withdrew from a nearby town, explodes over the Moscow troops’ position, showering them with its payload.

A Ukrainian drone supports the operation “in real time”, monitoring the effectiveness of the hit of the old Soviet D-20 cannon in order to better calibrate the next one.

Bakhmut in Donbass has been the scene of active fighting for the past four months. It is said to have been one of the longest and deadliest battlefields for either side since the Russian invasion began in February, although there is no estimate of exact casualties.

The front here has hardly moved since the beginning of October, despite some small gains by one or another enemy force, only to be lost again soon.

Moscow is pushing on the Russian side, supported by mercenaries from the paramilitary Wagner group, who are sent to their deaths on the front lines and are described by the Ukrainians as “disposable soldiers”.

For their part, the Ukrainians are holding their lines as they focus on a counteroffensive in the south as they try to limit losses in the Russian-led war of attrition.

“As the military proverb says: the sweat of artillery spares the blood of infantry,” says Oleksandr, who after another deadly attack on the enemy hopes to have saved the lives of some of his comrades.

The artillery unit now has a few minutes to move ahead of the Russian counter-response. Meanwhile, they open a packet of sunflower seeds and hand them out to celebrate the strike.

– ‘The Limousine’ –

Only five kilometers from the Russian position, in the war-ravaged districts of the city, the basement of an apparently anonymous building houses the brigade’s command post and garrison.

It’s “the Monday rotation,” and about 15 new soldiers have just arrived and are making their way through the underground passages by the light of their cell phones.

The infantry wear grave expressions. Bakhmut Swamp has a bad reputation.

The 58th, whose motto is “Together to Victory”, fought the first part of the war on the Southern Donbass Front in Pisky before being transferred to Bakhmut.

In the smoky room, which is lit by candlelight when the generator isn’t working, one soldier sits in a chair loading ammunition, another fetches a barrel of borscht soup, while one still takes a nap in his chair, still in his gear.

What is she expecting? “The less we know about it, the better,” says a 25-year-old volunteer soldier nicknamed Bullet.

Above ground, the morning bombardment intensified. From here the approach to the front is carried out with an armored vehicle.

Outside “the limousine” has arrived.

In the BMP-1, a Soviet-era vehicle with somewhat outdated armor that’s sometimes referred to as “our brothers’ graves,” a mixture of superstition and common sense causes soldiers to sit on the side of the vehicle that doesn’t exposed Russian positions.

The tracks of the BMP-1 cross the river towards the north-east sector of Bakhmut where the 58th Brigade is on guard.

– ‘Total war’ –

A kilometer and a half from the line of contact is the last covered Ukrainian position northeast of Bakhmut in an old industrial area.

In this hideout, the last one before the “zero line”, five soldiers are deployed daily with high-risk patrols to supply ammunition and logistical support to the contact line and to evacuate the injured or dead. AFP is not authorized to go further than this.

“We drive out in two (armoured) vehicles. One covers the other,” says “Demon,” 29, his hair taped to his face as he removes his helmet.

All actions of the 58th are carried out under Russian fire and are covered by RPG rocket launchers aimed at the enemy.

“Our mission is to go as fast as possible and not lose anyone,” says Demon.

“Petrokha”, their sergeant, smokes a cigarette at the entrance to the hangar and keeps an eye on the sky in case Russian drones might be lurking.

“It’s total war,” he says.

“Totally because we use everything. Artillery, aviation and…” he says, before his voice trailing off as he gets to the last item: his men.

“[The Russians]are pouring human flesh into it, men they no longer consider men but ammunition,” he says. “It’s been 70 years since we’ve seen anything like this.”

More to explorer