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Kherson War Can Accurately Say Deadly Number: NPR

Ukrainian soldiers took the NPR team into the forest in the “grey zone” where they dug one of the defensive trenches used to block the Russian advance.

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Ukrainian soldiers took the NPR team into the forest in the “grey zone” where they dug one of the defensive trenches used to block the Russian advance.

Brian Mann/NPR

NEAR KHERSON, Ukraine – On a summer afternoon, NPR interviews soldiers near the front lines northeast of Kherson, showing just how dangerous this sprawling war zone can be.

Two Ukrainian fighters, who identified themselves by their first names Viktor and Serhiy, said they had detected a Russian drone overhead.

We were in a dense stand of forest, sheltered by a canopy of trees. But the drone is clearly watching our location, possibly sharing our position with Russian artillery or other units.

“It’s hovering over us as we speak,” Victor said. “It’s close, while we’re here. It’ll fly by and then we can come back.”

It was a terrifying moment. For the first time, we felt some fraction of the fear that thousands of Ukrainian soldiers felt every day after the Russian invasion.

We soon learn that danger can come in many forms in this deadly place that some Ukrainians call the “grey zone.”

The attempt to retake Kherson was Ukraine’s first major counteroffensive against Russia

That morning, NPR’s team left the fortified Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih in the east, which often comes under Russian missile fire.

Our goal was to meet and talk to soldiers participating in the first major counteroffensive against Russia: the attempt to retake the strategic transportation hub of Kherson.

Our first stop was an abandoned factory where a burly man with a thick black beard waited in the back of a Ukrainian army ambulance. Calling himself “Doc”, he whips out the medical supplies strapped to his body armor. “I carry everything I need on me,” he said.

Like many Ukrainian soldiers, Doc agreed to be interviewed only if NPR used a pseudonym.

A Ukrainian field medic identified as “Doc” was waiting to tend to wounded soldiers on the front lines. After this photo was taken, Doc helped the NPR team take care of it.

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A Ukrainian field medic identified as “Doc” was waiting to tend to wounded soldiers on the front lines. After this photo was taken, Doc helped the NPR team take care of it.

Brian Mann/Brian Mann/NPR

This day, they waited. There were no patients at this hour, only the distant rumble of Russian tank fire. When wounded soldiers arrive at this rendezvous point, Doc said, they are “in very bad shape” with injuries from the enemy’s ferocious artillery.

“We have to give them injections quickly, stabilize them,” he said.

From this remote outpost, the wounded are transported to military hospitals in their ambulances or other vehicles for further care.

Fighting on the Kherson front in southern Ukraine along the Dnipro River is already intense and brutal, according to British and US intelligence reports. For the first time, the Ukrainian army is trying to retake a major city occupied by Russia since the early days of the invasion.

Soldiers who were civilians long ago are doing most of the fighting.

Asked what he expected to happen when Ukraine’s first major counteroffensive pushed toward Kherson, Doc shrugged and gestured to the waiting stretchers.

“Of course there will be more casualties,” he said.

Why is Kherson important?

A victory here can change the course of the war.

It demonstrates Ukraine’s ability to effectively deploy high-tech Western artillery, while using ground forces to take and hold key territory.

Losing a key bridge crossing of the Dnipro River and the regional government center of Kherson would deal a major blow to Moscow’s official narrative that the war was a “limited” military operation, which Russia says it will still win.

A short drive from the ambulance station brought us closer to an active fight. The pounding of Russian tank fire often sounds like distant summer thunder.

Even Ukrainian soldiers who have been fighting here for months say the “grey zone” is a vast, confusing place. It stretches in a rugged arc from the war-torn villages on the outskirts of Krivi Rih to Mykoliv near the Black Sea, roughly 100 miles north of Kherson.

The active battle line between Ukrainian and Russian units shifts daily as troops move through old industrial sites, half-abandoned villages, agricultural fields, winding rivers and dense forests.

A Ukrainian official described the terrain north of Kherson as “very tough, it’s open ground…the enemy can track you well, so it’s tricky.”

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A Ukrainian official described the terrain north of Kherson as “very tough, it’s open ground…the enemy can track you well, so it’s tricky.”

Brian Mann/Brian Mann/NPR

Russian units are still hitting back

Our next stop was a heavily damaged bunker and observation post that had recently had to be abandoned due to incoming Russian artillery and missile fire.

“They started by hitting us with the BM-27 Uragan,” said Major Oleksandr Lytvynov, referring to the powerful Soviet-era rocket launcher known as the “Hurricane.”

“Then a missile from the other side hit this wall. When they hit us a second time, we made the decision to evacuate.”

Climbing a dozen yards across into the bomb crater, he laughed and said he was lucky to be alive. The Russians’ aim was some distance away.

Before the war, Litvinov – a man in his mid-50s – worked as a driver outside Ukraine but like many Ukrainian men he returned home to fight. He told us that he volunteered to take us closer to the fight because it was important for people to know what life was like for Ukrainian soldiers.

A Ukrainian ambulance drives to a rendezvous near an abandoned factory in the “grey zone,” where it waits to evacuate wounded soldiers from the front line.

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A Ukrainian ambulance drives to a rendezvous near an abandoned factory in the “grey zone,” where it waits to evacuate wounded soldiers from the front line.

Brian Mann/NPR

“Next place,” he said, opening the door to a battered SUV.

From this point forward, Ukraine’s military required the NPR team to ride in their vehicles as part of a two-car convoy.

Mile after mile, the countryside looks more and more eerily empty – farm buildings dotted with cannons, fields and roads torn by bomb craters. Litvinov told us through an interpreter that it’s easy to get lost here, as cars bounce and jar along rutted country lanes.

Soldiers in the gray zone face constant anxiety because of Russian spotter drones, snipers and artillery.

Lytvinov pointed to agricultural fields where bronze-yellow wheat will go unharvested this year because of the ever-present risk.

A trench held by Ukrainians against Russian tanks

After 20 minutes of driving, the vehicles turned into a parking area hidden in a line of trees. Ukrainian troops held the area in fierce weeks of fighting.

“Our company ran and fought here, our grunts lived here, and this is still our retreat,” said a Ukrainian soldier who identified himself only by his first name, Viktor.

“There was a lot of incoming. We were hit by tanks and mortars.”

On foot, Victor made his way deep into the trees, where his fellow soldiers dug their trench about 10 feet deep into the raw earth, roofed with logs cut from the nearby forest. It was a narrow space, cramped and claustrophobic.

He said that the troops are mostly stationed here for a month.

“It’s scary when you’re under fire,” said another soldier who identified himself as Serhi. “These feelings differ from person to person, there are people who are afraid, but we have men to overcome this feeling.”

In recent weeks, the Ukrainian army pushed the Russians back from this point. It is a hostile, bitter struggle. An official interviewed by NPR compared the fighting here to some of the toughest battles the US faced in Vietnam.

A Ukrainian soldier who identifies himself as Viktor points to a trench where he and fellow soldiers faced incoming Russian mortar and tank fire.

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Despite the danger and hardship, these soldiers believed that Ukraine’s counteroffensive to recapture Kherson would succeed.

“We’re moving forward and planning to move forward more,” Victor said. “So, little by little, we move.”

Russian drones and death in the gray zone

But at this moment, as the soldiers talk confidently about Ukraine’s progress pushing back Russia, an enemy drone appears overhead. After a few minutes of anxious waiting, the soldiers quickly led the NPR team through the woods to the cars.

We scrambled to the vehicles and left in a rush. Lytvinov, a former driver who had volunteered to fight and serve as our escort, grabbed the steering wheel of the SUV and sped along the ruined road.

Then suddenly it got out of control. A military SUV plowed into a wheat field and then overcorrected, swerving into the woods and slamming into a tree. Two members of the NPR team were injured in the accident. Litvinov was pronounced dead at the scene by the Ukrainian military.

Ukrainian soldiers and doctors – including Doc, a field medic we met earlier in the day – help move us from the gray zone to a military hospital a safe distance away.

Later, Ukrainian authorities investigating the incident said they believed the crash occurred after the SUV was hit by Russian mortars or artillery.

NPR’s team did not hear or see hostile fire. We’ve seen firsthand how quickly things can change in this chaotic, often terrifying war zone. A summer afternoon, a forest or farm field or a village road can turn deadly without warning.

We have seen Ukrainian soldiers like Oleksandr Litvinov pay a terrible price as they struggle to drive Russian troops from their territory.

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