Yuriy Korpan is 39 years old but looks a decade older, his face worn as he returns from a week of combat near Bakhmut.

The Ukrainian infantryman, a father of three, was fighting to retake Bakhmut, a city which fell entirely into Russian hands in May after a battle that lasted nearly a year.

On his last day on the frontline before a week's rest, Korpan remembers "the bombing started at four in the morning with mortar and artillery fire.

"Then it calmed down a bit. Then an hour later, the enemy attacked," he told AFP.

"We fought back with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, grenade-launchers, mortar fire," said Korpan, who used to work in the construction industry before being mobilised in August 2022.

Since the start of a counteroffensive in June, Ukrainian forces have been advancing slowly to the north and south of Bakhmut in an attempt to surround Russian forces there in a pincer movement and eventually re-take the city.

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Ukraine's defence ministry frequently refers to fighting there as "fierce".

- 'Adrenaline starts pumping' -

In the fighting "the adrenaline starts pumping and you are kind of excited.

"You are as tense as a rope and obsessed with a single idea -- destroying the enemy who came onto our lands," Korpan said.

"On the battlefield, you have to kill."

Korpan said he does not keep track of the number of Russian soldiers he has killed as there is "no sense", adding that "only beginners do that".

Asked if he feels afraid, he replied: "Of course you are afraid but you pull yourself together.

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One person was injured in the attack, which also damaged the church and about a dozen houses and shops.

And when you are fighting the fear disappears. In the actual fighting, you cannot be afraid, you have to overcome that and fulfil your task. Fear is also an enemy," he said.

On the southern flank of Bakhmut, Vitaliy Stolyarchuk, 31, heads up an infantry unit that has been fighting and advancing around the village of Klyshchyvka.

"Of course it is scary, only a fool would not be afraid," said the bespectacled Stolyarchuk, who worked as a barman in the port city of Odesa before the war.

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"I believe in God and I always pray that my brothers and I come out alive from the battle. You have to keep a cool head and a 360-degree view," he said, calling the Russians "formidable adversaries".

Stolyarchuk pointed out the particular danger posed by anti-personnel mines laid by retreating Russian forces.

"The (Ukrainian) soldiers are inexperienced and fall into the trap."

Volodymyr Veselovsky, a volunteer medic at a first aid point for wounded soldiers, said he had noticed more mine blast injuries recently but most wounds were still from artillery fire.

"For several weeks, we have had more traumas caused by landmines. There are injuries to the feet and legs. One day we had five injuries that had to be amputated," he told AFP.

- 'Everything burns and explodes' -

The main threat to soldiers' lives however still comes from artillery strikes, particularly from Soviet-era Grad rocket fire, employed by both sides.

Grad launchers can shoot up to 40 rockets in 20 seconds, covering a square of 400 metres (1,312 feet) on each side.

"It's a square in which everything burns and explodes. It has a huge psychological impact (on the soldiers)," said "Yary", the head of a Ukrainian battalion using the Grad launchers.

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"After several attacks like this, they sometimes throw down their weapons and run," he said.

Less than two kilometres from Russian positions, Masik, a 27-year-old drone pilot, is also doing his bit to aid Ukraine's counteroffensive.

"There is often enemy artillery flying around here," said Masik, as he hid in a trench sheltered by some trees.

The path next to a field to reach his position is pockmarked with craters.

But Masik said he was "optimistic" about Ukraine's chances of succeeding.

"Bakhmut will be ours," he said.

Stolyarchuk said he hoped to "go home to Odesa on the sea as soon as possible".

Korpan, who speaks with his family in calls or chats as frequently as possible, said he would like to be able to go on holiday with them, maybe after the summer.

"I hope we will chase off evil from our lands... Husbands can go back to their wives, children can have their parents again, and we can re-build our country."

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