World

Shelling ramps up on Ukraine’s frontline as hostilities intensify

Even as we arrived at the command headquarters about four kilometres from the frontline proper, we could hear the sounds of outgoing rockets from the Ukrainian military, which they maintain is a response to incoming fire from Russian-backed separatists.

The frontlines near Popasne have been kinetic for the past two days – an intensification in the fighting after months of mere exchanges of fire.

Now there are protracted volleys of rockets and mortars between the positions of both sides, along the 300-mile demarcation line.

Ukrainian defensive positions near Popasne
Image:
Ukrainian defensive positions

We were told we couldn’t advance until the intensity of the fighting subsided. After a few hours we were taken to the frontline.

Through the mist we could see the first Ukrainian position appear, guarding the main road that leads to the separatist held part of Ukraine.

Fresh debris littered the road, soldiers milled around outside their protected bunker, never straying far away. They said that for two days they have faced a barrage of incoming fire.

The mist adds to the sense of foreboding. And this feels like a scary place – a 10ft wooden cross overlooks the Ukrainian position, surrounded by twisted metal and pot marked concrete signs welcoming visitors to the nearby town, damaged from years of fighting.

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It’s eerily quiet and the soldiers don’t like it.

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Ukraine: ‘It’s a little bit scary’

“It’s a little bit scary, because when it goes quiet it means they are getting ready for larger-scale fight,” 24-year-old Lyubomyr Chipko told me from his guarding position.

Bits of rocket lie next to holes in the punctured tarmac. He tells me the separatists targeted their road barriers for the first time.

A 10-foot wooden cross overlooks the Ukrainian position near Popasne
Image:
A 10ft wooden cross overlooks the Ukrainian position

The soldiers are worried that this tactic is a precursor to a ground invasion.

We moved forward through the mud and snow of the frontline trenches to the nearest points to the separatist positions.

Some of the trenches are lined with wooden planks to stop the trench walls collapsing.

A sign reads 'Sniper is watching you!' on the frontline near Popasne, eastern Ukraine
Image:
A sign reads ‘Sniper is watching you!’ on the frontline

Every visit, every day, feels more like World War One now.

At the front, duty soldiers keep a constant watch of their enemy’s lines.

At times they listen to the firing at other positions trying to identify the calibre of the incoming rounds.

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Ukraine: Living on the frontline

Across this long battlefield, the soldiers all agree that things are ramping up, things are different now.

Everything is more intense.

“There is a lot more shelling than before. It has been calm for probably two months, but since yesterday fierce shelling has begun. They were using a large-calibre mortars yesterday,” Petro Savelyan, the soldier on duty here, told me.

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Inside Ukraine’s bomb shelters

A short distance away in their protected bunker, other soldiers wait for their turn to once again take up guard duty in the trenches.

But the bunkers are where they retreat when the rockets are falling, and in recent days they have spent a lot of time here.

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