Inside a volunteer paramilitary unit on the front lines in Ukraine

entrench and fortify their positions.

“The soldiers on the ground believe that the separatists, who have suffered heavy casualties, are panicked; thinking that Ukrainian forces are preparing to move into the gray zone. Control of the zone means control of the road to Horlivka and the train station, both essential for supplies coming to Donetsk. On the other side, the city of Avdiivka is also strategically important. It is home to the only functioning coke plant. If it is lost again or destroyed, the Ukrainian steel industry will come to a halt.

An unpaid volunteer unit belonging to Right Sector maintains one of the positions and fights alongside the regular army. It is a tight-knit group who have fought together in nearly every major battle of the war and have yet to suffer a casualty. Despite benign code names like Santa, Donut, Newt, Martin, Jar and Shaman, they maintain a reputation for bravery and discipline. As the battle for Avdiivka escalates, they take shifts operating defensive weapons outside the relative safety of their bunker. Days and nights are long and restless as shells pound the area randomly. At night, they operate in complete darkness and silence for fear of giving away their positions.

Meanwhile, below ground in the basement bunker, they nervously wait out the shelling. Even indirect hits shake the foundation, and direct hits threaten the the integrity of the building. Despite the hardships, the group has made a decision to remain independent and unpaid. So, while they are free to come and go as they please, they routinely choose to man the most dangerous positions. Despite the dangers, the local army commander, inspired by their confidence, has taken up residence with the volunteers.

Their position has also become a social hub on the front line. They have a reputation for doing their jobs with a smile and for having some of the best food on the front. Soldiers from other positions come to coordinate operations that could otherwise be done over the radio or electronically in order to enjoy their company and a meal.

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