Bakhmut's hell, according to a Czech who fights at the front: "You take everything, a knife, a shovel, a shoe to save your life" | International

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Fighting in Bakhmut takes place street to street, house to house, and even hand-to-hand. “These last moments are hard. The Russians lose at least 800 soldiers every day. Wounded I don't know, but dead, 800. And the Ukrainians too, many, many, many”. Milos, a 54-year-old Czech soldier who lived in Gran Canaria until the invasion began last year, draws an almost apocalyptic atmosphere from the Battle of Bakhmut, the bloodiest and most entrenched in Russia's war in Ukraine. There he was lightly wounded a few weeks ago. His bulletproof vest stopped a projectile and the impact broke two of his ribs.

Thousands of soldiers from both sides have been fighting for control of Bakhmut, in the eastern region of Donetsk, for eight months. The figures that Milos offers during this interview with EL PAÍS, carried out in a place that he prefers not to reveal, are not endorsed by the authorities. In fact, neither kyiv nor Moscow detail their casualties, but both governments let it be seen that they are suffering a real carnage. Bakhmut, which before it became the scene of the war was home to 70,000 residents, is now the entire front line. The presence of civilians is barely limited to a few thousand who have not been able to be evacuated or who refuse to leave their homes.

“In Bakhmut you work house by house. Here we are, one street, and another house with Russians, ”she explains with hand gestures on the table. “On the front line too. Many times the Russians come to our positions and the fight is also hand-to-hand”, he adds. He assures that she has had to be in that first line “many times”. And, when the firearm is not enough, “you take out everything you have: a knife, a shovel, everything is important to save your life. When you have nothing, you take out a shoe and kill with a shoe, because my life is better than theirs.

Milos assures that a few weeks ago he survived by a miracle after a bullet hit the plate of his vest. “A month ago, I was walking down the street and I think a sniper shot me and I was saved by my bulletproof vest. When he hit me, it was like a blow from a horse and it broke two of my ribs. I was four or five days in the hospital, ”he recounts. “If he had given me two fingers up or two fingers to the right or to the left, I would be dead. I thank God that I am here ”, he thanks. “At the front, there are no good moments, there are only bad ones. You never know".

Bakhmut's victory will not give the victor control over any particularly strategic site, since it is not an enclave of the importance of others such as the cities of Mariupol (the main Russian conquest in this war), Kherson (the only regional capital won by Moscow in 2022 and that in November he recovered Ukraine) or Kiev (the capital of the country and the first objective in which Russia failed). Milos, however, has a theory with which he tries to explain why they continue to hold their positions despite the high price they are paying. “The person who can see the battle of Bakhmut, thinks: 'For what and what is Ukraine fighting for?' It is not a strategic site, it is nothing. But we kill all the Russians we can; because if we kill them in Bakhmut, they won't be able to attack other places anymore. That's what our bosses think."

Wagner's Parallel Army

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Milos also talks about the prominence that the parallel Russian army has acquired in recent months, which has become the Russian mercenary company Wagner. “Wagner's front lines are prisoners who have no other choice. They come against us and we kill them. When they want to go back, they are killed by a second group of Wagner's. They are dead meat. They don't have the option of saying 'I don't want to fight today'.

Wagner has tens of thousands of fighters. Thousands of them are convicts whose sentences have been promised to be annulled if they survive six months waging war in the Ukraine. They are used in hot spots like Bakhmut as cannon fodder when they are thrown almost bare-chested and with hardly any experience towards Ukrainian positions, as the Czech soldier describes in the interview. Milos also emphasizes the contempt that reigns in the Russian ranks for the lives of these mercenaries: "You see that if a Russian has three white stripes on his arm, it means that a fucking doctor is not going to come to save his life."

The removal of the wounded and the dead from the battlefield is one of the tasks they do not neglect, says Milos. "The Russians, no," he adds. "For example, in Bakhmut they attack us, we kill them and they jump on these corpses and raise them as protection to continue attacking us."

A Ukrainian tank, Monday on the Bakhmut front.Evgeniy Maloletka (AP)

Milos, who is currently waiting for a new assignment, tells how he has experienced the fighting firsthand and how he has been hardening on different fronts. He arrived at the Polish-Ukrainian border a year ago, driven by a desire to help with humanitarian efforts, but ended up dressed in camouflage and holding a gun despite having no military experience. He does not hide that some colleagues made fun of him. "No, I didn't have before. [experiencia como soldado]. I was driving a humanitarian car, coming to the lines [del frente] and talked to the Czech soldiers. There I touched the weapons for the first time, I put on the bulletproof vest and the helmet. I wanted to try and everyone laughed because I'm clumsy for these things”.

Milos's baptism of fire took place in the counteroffensive that local troops carried out in the Kharkiv region in September. Later he was deployed to the neighboring area of ​​Donbas, which brings together the most active fronts. In his curriculum, in addition to Bakhmut, there are fronts in areas such as Izium, Kupiansk or Stavove, all in the punished eastern Ukraine. There are some cities there that have been almost wiped off the map in the midst of fierce fighting and bombing. But he assures that as soon as he enlisted as a member of the International Legion (a body in which he is no longer integrated), he was sent to fight the Russians.

He does not give details of the salary he receives, but he does admit that, as a foreigner, he can terminate the contract whenever he wants, something that does not happen with the Ukrainians, forced by martial law to go to the ranks and remain in the army if they do so. required by the authorities. “As a foreigner, you can have a contract today and if you don't like it tomorrow, this week or next month, you go directly to the boss and tell him that you want to break it and not work anymore. But the Ukrainians can't."

Milos fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin will get away with it and control all of Ukraine, which, according to the Czech soldier, would lead him to want to advance through other European countries such as Poland, his country's neighbor, the Czech Republic. What he has seen in Ukraine he does not want for Warsaw or Prague, he points out. For this reason, he does not plan to leave the Ukrainian troops until the armed conflict ends.

Meanwhile, he maintains contact with his wife and 14-year-old daughter, who are still in Maspalomas (Gran Canaria), where Milos worked in a restaurant until he decided to turn his life around. In the front areas it is not easy for him to talk to the family on a daily basis. He sends signs of life every three or four days. “I have an agreement with the family. Since I don't have time to talk, I connect Messenger or WhatsApp and put on 20 seconds on-line. So they know I'm alive because if I were dead I couldn't do it. All of us who are here know that ”, he adds.

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