In a near pitch-black home set back from fierce fighting in Donbas, Ukraine soldier Volodymyr relishes a few moments of calm before deploying again to the front.

"We never know how long we'll get," the 29-year-old, who declined to give his last name for security reasons, told AFP.

"We get called on the radio and then have one hour to get packing," he said, still wearing his mud-covered uniform.

He and several other Ukrainian soldiers -- who were on the frontline a day earlier -- are finding some reprieve in the war-battered town of Lyman -- now about 30 kilometres (18 miles) from fighting.

It was recaptured from Russian forces -- who had held the town for four months -- during a lightning counter-offensive in October.

But the buildings in the deserted railway hub are still scarred by the combat.


Volodymyr has to search for an open shop to get food for others in his unit waiting in the home's kitchen.

They are warming themselves around a wood-burning stove, napping, scrolling through their phones or passing around canned food or vodka "to relax and destress".

"The fighting is hard. We are constantly moving from one place to another... always on the frontline. It's physically demanding," Volodymyr said.

- Hours through the mud -

Since Ukraine captured the Black Sea southern coastal city of Kherson last month, the focus of Russia's nearly 10-month invasion has shifted again to the eastern industrial Donetsk region.

Kyiv said this week that the cities of Bakhmut and Avdiivka -- both south of Lyman -- were now the "epicentre" of the war.

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SSO operators inflicted fire damage on Russian positions and personnel using FPV drones and a 122 mm D-30 howitzer.

Volodymyr said he and his unit need to haul weapons and ammunition several kilometres (miles) through mud, which takes hours -- before the shooting even starts.

"We're already tired by then," Volodymyr said.

"The Russians are strong. They make very good trenches and bunkers," he added.

Petro, the head of the unit who also declined to give his full name, agreed.

"This is a tough enemy to beat," the 35-year-old said.

"Remaining on the frontline is very difficult. They sustain heavy losses but so do we," Petro said.


"It's complicated but we're doing our best to win," he added.

Also under Petro's command is an exhausted medic, who worked in a civilian hospital before the war.

Now he's worried about tanks -- when they're a safe distance, you can hear them fire, the whistle of the shell, then the explosion, he said.

"But when they're close, that's when you're in the shit. You'll only hear the explosion."

- 'Covered in colleague's blood' -

"Before, I was just doing my job, I didn't really care about a patient's personal life," he said.

"Now, when I hear that a comrade has been shot over the radio, I drop everything... and I rush there."

"It's hard when my hands are covered in my colleague's blood," he added.

The injured are brought from the frontline by ambulances chartered by an NGO, which also operates a medical facility in Lyman.

Lieutenant Oleksiy Nazarichyn, the chief doctor of the 66th motorised brigade who also works at the facility, says nearly everyone brought in from the front has been injured by shelling and shrapnel.

Svitlana Druzenko, the head of the NGO that runs the medical centre, says they do their best to treat injured soldiers before they are sent to hospitals that can provide comprehensive care.


"We do everything we can to stabilise them so that they stay alive," she told AFP, as two Ukrainian Sukhoi fighter jets roar towards the frontline.

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