A group of Ukrainian infantry soldiers stood in a warehouse in south-western Ukraine when they were shelled by Russian artillery. Serhiy was hit in the face with shrapnel. He and his recent best friend Hennadiy took a selfie clutching part of the shell which did not hit them.
Moments later, Russian tanks appeared on a hill opposite and fired across the village in front of them, including at the warehouse. Hennadiy and the rest of the group – all natives of the Zaporizhzhia region – were also hit by shrapnel and all of them suffered hearing damage.
“They had three tanks on the hill and they were just shooting down at us. We just had rifles,” said Hennadiy. “We had some equipment that the Americans and Poles gave us, but it wasn’t enough to fight.”
They said they escaped from the warehouse under plumes of smoke and walked to the next village, from where they were taken to the Zaporizhzhia military hospital.
The Guardian was granted access to the military hospital to speak to soldiers on the condition that reporters not identify specific locations of battles or publish the full names of soldiers interviewed.
“There are plenty of people motivated to fight,” said Serhiy, speaking from a hospital ward with the rest of the company who escaped from the warehouse. “But we are underarmed and desperately trying to hold the whole mass [of the Russian army].”
“There’s also just not enough time to train everyone who wants to fight,” added Dmytro, another member of the company, who was lying on a bed in the ward.
Ukraine has criticised the west for dripfeeding it arms, with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appealing almost daily because his country cannot manufacture the weapons or ammunition it needs to fight off the Russian invaders. Equipment demanded has ranged from fighter jets and tanks, which the west has been reluctant or slow to supply, through to artillery and armoured vehicles – and most simply of all guns and ammunition.
On Thursday the US said it would supply another $800m (£620m) worth of arms, including 72 howitzers, taking the total value of its arms supply to more than $3bn since the war began, including “more than 50m rounds of ammunition” according to the US president, Joe Biden. However, even when weapons are supplied it can take a fortnight or more before they arrive in Ukraine.
Other major countries have been slower or more reluctant, most notably Germany, which has scaled back the heavy weapons it is prepared to offer Ukraine and whose chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has admitted that the stockpiles of what it is prepared to send are running short. The speed at which Ukraine’s forces are using arms and ammunition has also surprised the west, which has begun to ramp up industrial production in an attempt to help Kyiv hold out.
Ukrainian forces are currently holding a line which stretches hundreds of miles from Kharkiv in the north-east to outside Mykolaiv in the south-west.
Serhiy, whose face was cut up by the shrapnel, was happy to have his picture taken despite the risks, as pointed out to him by a military press secretary, were he to be captured by Russian forces. “We’re not afraid of anything,” said Serhiy. The Guardian confirmed once more before publication that permission was granted to use the soldiers’ images.
Earlier that day, the group had avoided fire from a Russian plane. “A plane came over us and bombed us a little bit. It was a bit unpleasant,” said Serhiy, with a smile. “Well, actually, not a bit, utterly unpleasant.”
Another member of the group who escaped from the warehouse, Mykola, said the Russians had drones and knew exactly where their positions were.
“Things are very hard,” said Mykola. “I can only speak for our situation. I don’t know what it’s like for the other [battalions].”
Out of all the cities in central and eastern Ukraine, Zaporizhzhia city feels like the one where life is closest to how it was pre-war, but Russian forces occupy more than 70% of Zaporizhzhia region. Twenty per cent of the region meanwhile makes up Ukraine’s southern front, and is a battle zone between Russian and Ukrainian forces.
New restrictions placed on movements of journalists south of Zaporizhzhia city seem to indicate that the situation on the southern front is worsening. According to soldiers interviewed by the Guardian, Ukrainian forces were pushed out of at least one of the three towns and villages an hour south of the city that the New York Times visited three weeks ago.
The military press secretary for Zaporizhzhia region, Ivan Ariefiev, said journalists were not allowed to travel to those places now, but said that this was not because the situation on the front was worsening. He said the travel restrictions were because the active phase of the war on the southern front had begun.
A group of soldiers the Guardian visited in Zaporizhzhia region were around seven miles (12km) from Russian positions. They did not expect the fighting to reach them quickly and said that the lines further south would hold – though shells were landing between two and three miles away.
They said they lacked medical equipment. Between 23 people, they had just six helmets and six tourniquets – some of them hand-sewn by civilian volunteers. They said that while the helmets were on their way from Poland, volunteers and suppliers were struggling to find tourniquets even abroad.
The injured soldiers back in the hospital said they received an overwhelmingly warm welcome from local villagers, who often bought them food. On their retreat, they took the number plates off the cars they used so that the Russian soldiers would not be able to identify locals who lent them vehicles.
There have been widespread reports of local residents suspected of aiding the Ukrainian army being tortured and even killed by Russian forces.
Serhiy said he used his own car to get around the battlefield for just under two months before being injured and abandoning it. “I’ll never get [the car] back,” said Serhiy. “Although maybe it will return to me itself.”