Battling the cold in the trenches of eastern Ukraine


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Donetsk region (Ukraine) (AFP) – With “tactical socks”, standard NATO sleeping bags and even a sauna, a unit of soldiers of the 5th Ukrainian Brigade prepares for winter in a trench on the Eastern Front.

One of the soldiers, Yuri Sirotyuk, said, “Winter in the Donbass is hell. It’s a steppe climate with icy nights and temperatures can drop to minus 30 degrees Celsius (minus 22 Fahrenheit).”

“There is no forest, the wind is blowing everywhere. I was here in 2014 and the situation was unbearable,” the 46-year-old said.

This part of the front has remained relatively static in the conflict but Russian forces are only 700 meters away and there is frequent artillery fire.

However, life continues in the maze of trenches.

Soldiers’ unit and their cat John are deployed in the trenches for a week at a time before being rotated.

After an online tutorial, they built a sauna that could also function as a bath one meter (three feet) underground.

The sauna is only 2 meters in size and heated by a wood-burning stove.

The opening and the insides are covered with silver-coloured insulating material.

A Ukrainian soldier displays a sauna, being built in a trench on the front line in Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine
A Ukrainian soldier displays a sauna, being built in a trench on the front line in Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine Dimitar Delkov AFP

An ammunition box at the entrance serves as a changing room for soldiers who enter the sauna naked and bathe inside.

Water or ice in a bucket generates steam.

“After living in the mud, you come out as a new person,” said Sirotyuk, a bearded former local official from the capital Kyiv who has been at the front since February.

Fear of “trench feet”

The camp underground, covered in camouflage nets, is a sea of ​​mud sticking to the soles of soldiers’ boots.

Before entering the trench used in the living quarters and the kitchen, soldiers have to wash their shoes on a metal pipe.

Inside, the most valuable thing is the “burzhuyka” – a small wood-burning stove with a chimney that keeps everyone warm.

Soldiers put their hands near him and then put them between their chests and their flak jackets to warm their bodies.

Another home comfort is a gas heater used to make hot tea and coffee.

Before entering the secluded sleeping area, where the soldiers lie on wooden crates, everyone has to take off their shoes.

A decorative plastic thermometer with pink flowers inside shows 22 degrees Celsius, while outside 5 degrees on an autumn morning.

The unit commander, who goes to Lucha, said the soldiers received sleeping bags from volunteers, which are supposed to be good to minus 30 degrees Celsius.

“With these you can sleep on the snow,” he said.

A Ukrainian soldier stands next to a mortar crater in a field in Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine
A Ukrainian soldier stands next to a mortar crater in a field in Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine Dimitar Delkov AFP

Raincoats, special undergarments including leggings and “tactical stockings” were also sent to soldiers to avoid “trench feet” – anathema to soldiers in World War I.

“But what warms us even more than standard NATO socks or sleeping bags are the words, the pleas and the little drawings of our loved ones,” Sirotyuk said with a smile.