“Guys, leave me here. I can’t walk,” pleads a Ukrainian soldier sitting in a narrow trench under constant Russian bombardment.
His legs have been injured by shrapnel and he is bleeding through the bandages. He smokes a cigarette as he lies on the ground, the unit’s medic crouches low in the trench trying to patch him up.
Moments before, four enemy tanks passed just meters away, forcing him and his fellow soldiers to bury themselves into the black fertile earth, which shakes as the tanks roll overhead.
The unit’s assault mission was to recapture 150-meters of trenches along the tree line in the eastern Ukrainian city of Avdiivka, which has become one of the most contested spots on the Ukrainian frontline.
Avdiivka has been on the frontlines since pro-Moscow separatists seized large portions of the Donbas region, including the nearby city of Donetsk, in 2014, and has been under fire since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022.
It is seen by Ukrainian and Russian forces as a heavily fortified stronghold, with entrenchments built up over the past eight years. Fierce fighting has raged in Avdiivka for more than a month as Russian forces launch a large-scale attack with round-the-clock shelling and waves of soldiers and armoured vehicles deployed in an attempt to encircle the town.
Russian forces have been repelled by the Ukrainian troops who are heavily entrenched in the area.
Among them in Avdiivka’s trenches, the Ukrainian company’s commander Oleh Sentsov is under fire and rallying his men.
Sentsov, 47, was a famous Ukrainian filmmaker, imprisoned by the Russians for five years in 2014, and is now a soldier fighting with the 47th Mechanised Brigade, part of the Ukrainian Ground Forces.
On October 19, he and his fellow soldiers filmed a 5-hour battle on helmet and body cameras, illustrating the cruelty of war and horrors of the trenches.
“We tried to get a forest landing almost 1-kilometer long. Together with two other assault groups, we attacked three positions. Our assault group had to hold a trench 150-meters wide. We went in, took 50 meters, and could not push further because there was strong resistance by a lot of enemy infantry there,” Sentsov said in a rare interview with CNN.
As Sentsov and his unit fought to hold ground in the tree line, two Russian brigades began advancing through the area.
He and his men found themselves fighting from all sides, caught in a pincer movement by Russian troops. Sentsov and his unit came under constant fire from enemy drones, artillery, and tanks passing within a few meters of their positions.
Drone footage taken by the Ukrainian military showed four Russian tanks firing on the tree line, where three Ukrainian assault groups were entrenched, spread out over a kilometer.
Sentsov’s unit, in the middle of the grouping, were the only ones to be spared.
“Of all the operations my company conducted, this was the first time we failed to complete the mission,” said Sentsov.
Three men in his team were injured, including Sentsov. A paramedic can be seen in the video working quickly to apply chest seals and bandages to her wounded comrades.
“We were driven out of there because we were not able to hold our positions. So we retreated. Our group withdrew, with injuries but survived. But the other two groups that were attacking at the same time together with us were almost completely destroyed,” he said.