On the front lines with a family fighting for Ukraine
This is their first war together. Their first time as soldiers. When Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded their land, they went to the army as a family to sign up to fight.
Yaroslav is a 59-year-old grandfather. One of his sons, Nazar, 34, has two sons of his own. Another son, Pavlo, 26 has a daughter.
They left their wives and children to go the front lines but asked to stay together in their battalion.
Fighting as a family and for their family keeps their mission “very easy and simple,” Yaroslav told CNN.
“What can I say — we love our country and will stand for it till the very end,” he said.
The men acknowledge with nervous laughter that it might not be so easy for those still at home, especially Yaroslav’s wife who has her husband and sons all in harm’s way.
“Mother surely worries because of us,” Nazar said. “She’s nervous. Also, our wives and our children worry. But nevertheless, we are here, we are standing for our land.”
Russian forces are just over a mile away, officers say — not just within range of artillery range but also at risk from a sniper’s bullet. The trenches are in the farmland of the Mykolaiv district, near the Black Sea coast, and in territory the Russians are targeting.
The deputy commander of the force, also called Nazar, is just 37 years old. He said he lost four soldiers in one attack — that was his worst day of this war.
He served in the regular army and fought Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014. When the invasion began, he too signed up to serve.
“An enemy came to our country, to our home, cowardly under the cover of the night, without declaration of war started shelling our towns and villages,” he said.
He said he is fighting to secure the whole of Ukraine, including the eastern areas now under Russian control, and Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.
For now, he has to confine his troops to hiding in the narrow strips of trees that border flat open expanses of farmland and scrubland, driving along dirt roads that hug the hedgerows for cover.
If he spends much time in any village, he said he fears that might give a reason for the Russians to attack it.
Artillery strikes are already commonplace around these villages near the front lines, according to one local resident named Anatoly.
He said his next-door neighbor was killed just the day before in an attack that destroyed his home.
But as he cycles through the village he has lived in his entire life, he said he could see no reason to leave now.
Asked about the Russian forces, just a short distance away, Anatoly was sanguine. “What can I say? They do bad things.”
In another village farther from the front lines, a woman named Tatiana Bozko told CNN what happened when Russian soldiers came to her village, before beating beaten back by Ukrainian forces.
They took her husband, a pro-Ukrainian former teacher who had worked at the village school, she said. Bozko told CNN she believes some of her neighbors who support Russia singled out her husband to the invaders.
“Sirgey was a very kind and bright man,” she said, the soul of any gathering. “He was hated only by those who were for Russia.”
He was taken from their home, and she never saw him again.
His corpse was found days later, dumped in a ditch under a mattress. Someone in the village spotted a mangled hand sticking out, and there were other signs of torture — bruises and what appeared to be cuts.
“He was beaten up. It was so scary,” Bozko said, crying softly. “He was shot apparently when he was still alive. There were holes.”
Bozko, also a retired teacher in her 60s, now lives with terrible thoughts of her husband’s last moments. Three things give her comfort: Her son, her mother whom she helps keep alive, and the Ukrainian army.
As she tells CNN of her family, she pauses to register the deep, rumbling sound of shelling in the distance. It is mortars being fired.
She now knows the difference between incoming and outgoing. This is outgoing from the Ukrainian side against the Russians, she says and smiles. “It makes me happy to hear that.”