Ukrainian military shields key city of Avdiyivka from Butovka mine stronghold

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A Ukrainian serviceman on patrol near the city of Avdiyivka in the Donetsk region on May 12. 2017
Photo by Volodymyr Petrov

AVDIYIVKA, Ukraine — Battles continue to rage in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, with Ukrainian military forces coming under attack from Russian-backed separatists.

Overnight into May 12 Ukrainian army positions near Avdiyivka, a city 700 kilometers southeast of Kyiv, were relentlessly shelled by Russian-backed forces. Dozens of 82 millimeter and 120-millimeter mortar mines poured down on the 72nd Mechanized Brigade in their trenches at the Butovka coal pit, which also came under tank fire.

Situated in a lone steppe some 3 kilometers from Avdiyivka, the pit has become one of the most important strategic points in the war in the Donbas.

“We are protecting the city from the southwest”, soldiers in the trenches told the Kyiv Post. “If we fall, the enemy will have an open gate to the city.”

Heavy fighting for the pit has raged since summer 2014. Casualties in the ranks of the Ukrainian military are recorded there almost every week, but the position has remained under its control.

“Welcome to hell”

Once a thriving mining enterprise, the Butovka pit is now virtually a wasteland. Months of endless shelling by Russia’s proxy forces has left buildings little more than heaps of concrete and rusty twisted metal. Not a single wall in the complex has been left untouched by the fighting.

The entire surrounding area is a moonscape of impact holes. A nearby highway which splits Avdiyivka from the now occupied city of Donetsk stands empty apart from bullet casings which litter the ruined asphalt.

The frontline positions of the Kremlin-backed militants are just a kilometer away. Ukrainian soldiers here, ever vigilant, cautiously take up their posts. They know that a stray bullet from the other side could rip through the air at any moment.

The road from Avdiyivka to the Butkova pit is lined by Ukrainian army checkpoints. On the wall of one of them is a handwritten note. It reads: “welcome to hell.”

Quiet by day

Daybreak at Butovka is relatively calm; before 6 p.m. the silence is shattered only by the sound of sporadic gunfire. Ukrainian soldiers have a moment to take stock of the situation.

“The most terrible thing here is tank shelling,” a sergeant going by the name of Kovpak told the Kyiv Post.

“The militants always have three to five tanks in (the occupied city of) Spartak, so they keep pounding us, sometimes from near a local kindergarten building – we see them through our optic devices. Sometimes their tankmen fail when shooting – and 125-millimeter rounds miss our positions and fly straight at residential houses in Avdyivka.”

On the morning of May 12 the fresh signs of recent shelling were clear. Although no one was injured, artillery rounds targeting the Butovka pit overnight had left an impact hole at least two meters deep.

“Try to imagine a power of weapons which are capable of doing that,”  Kovpak said.

Stalemate war

The latest attempt at a ceasefire in the Donbas came on April 1. But as with all such efforts in the past, it has failed. Hostilities have been recorded all along the frontline, with two Ukrainian soldiers killed at the Butovka pit and at least 10 more wounded since the truce was announced. Both sides blame each other for the breakdown. Ukraine says its forces fire only when attacked.

“Well, we are not underdogs,” said a Ukrainian soldier who gave his name as Viktor. “We are standing on our own land, defending it and fulfilling our missions. If we are attacked – our command entitles us to suppress the enemy with appropriate fire.”

The Butovka pit was a key battleground in February, during an upsurge in fighting for Avdiyivka between the Ukrainian military and the Russian-backed separatists. The pit had gained fame for its metal tower, atop of which flew a 3.5-meter high Ukrainian flag. The structure eventually fell after being targeted by artillery fire, but for the soldiers it is still a moment of proud remembrance.

“The (Russian-backed) militants used to go nuts about our high-flying flag,” they told the Kyiv Post. “We often heard them talking via radio scanner that they had been ordered to destroy it.”

A number of the soldiers and officers who have served in the area for a long period of time wear special arm patches bearing the signs of “The Butovka.” The coal pit and its more than 100-year history has become a symbol of pride among the Ukrainian men the Russian-backed separatists.

“Good men with guns”

When not on combat duty the soldiers rest, eat, cook and sleep in underground shelters.

“We don’t have much fun here,” said soldier Leonid Tsymbal. “The internet is slow and laggy, cellphone connection is weak.  Until we take leave and go home, we have almost no idea what’s going on in the rest of the country.”

But big news still somehow reaches the war trenches at the Butovka pit, with soldiers in recent days debating who will win the Eurovision song contest being held in Kyiv.

“Here at Butovka, we have a very good company.” said officer Olexander Dubovsky. “The positions we hold are extremely important, so we can’t let anyone with the wrong attitude serve here, with weapons in their hands. Those who aren’t mentally stable or who can’t get along with others, if they don’t share our frontline fraternity we usually try to transfer them to other units.

“We are all soldiers here – good men with guns.”

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