“Of course they’ll come,” says Maxym. “There are many more than us.”
They are dug deep in this dense eastern Ukrainian forest, not far from Slovyansk, and are part of the territorial defense of Ukraine – non-professional soldiers, most of whom showed up during the first days of the Russian invasion in February.
So far they have avoided contact with the enemy, spending the days under camouflage netting, next to giant pyramids of bottled water. But every moment of every day they live with the drone of artillery. Their wooded encampment is regularly overloaded with cluster munitions. Shortly after CNN’s visit, a number of soldiers were seriously injured in a cluster strike.
And while they are well stocked with the anti-tank weapons that have proved so decisive in stopping Russia’s first invasion, they are not the weapons they need at this stage of the war.
“You can hear it,” says Maxym’s comrade, Mykhailo, as heavy weapons thunder in the distance. Like others in this story, he requested that only his first name be used for privacy reasons.
“For each of our heavy shots they make 10 or 20. That’s because we have no artillery.”
Donbas is where the conflict with Russia started in 2014. And after Ukraine thwarted Russia’s attempt to behead the government in Kiev earlier this year, Donbas is once again at the center of the war.
Their enemy is advancing, albeit slowly. Further east, Russian forces captured the industrial city of Severodonetsk and appear to be closing in on Ukrainian forces in neighboring Lysychansk.
That puts pressure on Ukraine’s main remaining population centers in the Donbas – Bakhmut, Slovyansk and especially Kramatorsk. The territorial defense unit is just one in a network of corks that the Ukrainian military uses to plug holes in its defenses.
If and when they have direct contact with the enemy, it means that the artillery has not been able to stop the Russian advance and that Sloyansk is in real danger.
Mykhailo peers over the edge of a trench to show why his unit has been placed here. He gestures to the road. “If a convoy comes,” he says, “our job is to stop it.”
The civilians they hope to defend are already, and increasingly, suffering from Russia’s advance.
Rockets unleash their deadly cluster charges over condominiums, supermarket parking lots and suburban homes. The bombs rip through windows and doors and every unlucky person gets caught.
Igor, in his late thirties, was one of them. He said goodbye to his wife on Monday and walked from their first-floor apartment in a Soviet-era building to the taxi he drove for a living. He never made it.
“I was standing here crying,” said Valentina, 76, his neighbor. “He was such a good guy. His name was Igor. And my husband’s name is Igor too.’
The explosions scattered debris all over her bed and now her husband, a former builder, is sawing a piece of particle board to cover a broken window above their building’s door.
“It’s very scary,” she says. “At night I cover myself with a pillow.”
Slovenia has been hardest hit by Russia’s advance from the north. In the south, Bakhmut has paid an even heavier toll.
Marina stands in the yard of her building, scraping glass that had been shattered by a Russian bomb a few hours earlier.
“We haven’t hurt anyone,” she says with a heavy heart. “We are just simple people. My husband has been an ambulance worker for 45 years and has saved lives.”
It is mainly older people who are left behind in this street. Many sons and daughters have long since left, unable to convince their parents to join them.
“We have no gas, we have no electricity, we have no water. But we just want the shooting to stop.”
Back in the forest, waiting for the Russian troops, Maxym often thinks of his pregnant wife, in their hometown of Kharkov, and their unborn son.
“We’ll kick them out of here, and he’ll know: that we haven’t just been standing here nothing. It’s our country, and they have no right to come here.’