In a buried and heated shelter, near the eastern front of Ukraine, soldier Dmytro shows a mouse which points its nose then disappears under a black plastic sheet plastered to the walls and ceiling. “I don’t remember seeing so many last winter, this year there are a lot“, remarks the 36-year-old man, driver and loader of a BM-21 GRAD multiple rocket launcher.
His unit is stationed near Bakhmut, one of the most active fronts of the war after 22 months of Russian invasion. Dug deep in the undergrowth, their basic shelter of barely 20 m2 has bunks, a kitchen but above all a small diesel car heater, and electricity, thanks to vehicle batteries.
It’s around 20 degrees there. Outside, it was around zero that day. The sky is gray, the cold damp, the rain daily in recent days. And on Sunday evening, the first snows fell, a signal that winter is de facto here, the second in a row on the front for Dmytro and his comrades.
The first one was tough, but since then, they have learned and are better organized, especially with the installation of heating.
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A hiding place safe from bombs and explosives
Last year, “I froze like a dog. When I came back from the front, I put on everything I could, three pairs of pants, a bunch of jackets“, recalls the GRAD driver, a blue cap covering his ears. “We were always ready for combat, we were shooting constantly, all day long. It was very cold”he said.
At the time, they remained at their post for 24 hours, with no other shelter than muddy or frozen trenches. A year later, Bakhmout fell to the Russians after a long bloody battle, the unit changed position and also fired less often, due to lack of rockets.
From now on, they stay there for three days, taking advantage of the heated shelter protected from bombs or explosive drones. They only fire on demand, at specific targets, and from a location several hundred meters from their small base.
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In the shelter, three dead mice are stuck to a glue trap. “The problem is that they chew the cables”, such as the one providing access to the Internet via the Starlink satellite network, complains Volodymyr, 45, the unit commander. In search of warmth and food, animals also nibble on clothing. “My wife just bought me this sweater last month, and a mouse has already started eating it”laughs Dmytro.
Besides the cold and rodents, winter also means bare trees, without foliage to hide from enemy drone cameras. The paths also become very slippery when driving towards the shooting position. Vehicles quickly get bogged down in the mud of this early winter.
“Now it’s muddy, later it will snow”said Volodymyr, pointing to the deep ruts of sticky black earth typical of the Donbass region, dug by armored tracks or GRAD.
A few kilometers away, not far from Bakhmout, Doctor Osmak – his military code – has also prepared himself better for winter. He runs a medical stabilization point where injured soldiers arrive. On the ground floor of a solid building, the work rooms were insulated from the cold, particularly the doors with mineral wool covered with boards.
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Increased use of chemical heaters
In addition to a wood stove, car heaters have also been installed in some rooms.
Last winter, “it was much more difficult to work, because we did not have time to equip ourselves properly, we worked in the cold”remembers the doctor.
In the treatment room, “a comfortable temperature” must be at “28, 29 or 30 degrees”he explains, wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt, like other caregivers.
Two soldiers arrive on stretchers, wounded in the thighs by shrapnel. Lying on a treatment table, one of them’s body is trembling. The caregivers wrap him in an aluminum heating blanket, under which they place a pipe connected to an auxiliary heater diffusing hot air.
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Electricity comes from a large generator outside. And with the arrival of negative temperatures, the doctor says to expect cases of frostbite of limbs. But he noticed soldiers’ increased use of individual chemical heaters.
“When the wounded arrive, even now, we often see that they have heaters stuck to their bodies, under their jackets, in their gloves“, he notes. “Last winter, there were a lot fewer. Guys didn’t use them as often. Now they take care of themselves“.
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