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Urgent Communications Amidst Chaos: Injured Ukrainian Soldiers Share Stories from Avdiivka’s Enemy Takeover

Avdiivka has been a critical battleground in the conflict between Kyiv and Moscow for nearly a decade, enduring intense combat for months after Russia escalated its aggression against Ukraine almost two years ago.

The retreat from the town was swift and severe. The Ukrainian forces’ departure on Saturday marked a significant triumph for Russia, achieved quickly and decisively.

Orders were stark: “Leave the 300 (wounded),” one soldier was reportedly commanded, “and destroy everything.”

Shortly after Russian forces hoisted their flags in Avdiivka, a chilling account surfaced about several wounded soldiers who couldn’t flee in time and were subsequently killed as Russian soldiers overran their location.

Ukraine’s National Guard Omega Special Purpose unit engaged in combat in Avdiivka, firing an SPG-9 anti-tank grenade launcher at Russian forces, as part of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine’s Donetsk region on November 8, 2023.

These Ukrainian troops belonged to the 110th Separate Mechanized Brigade, holding a position known as Zenit. With Russian military pressing forward through Avdiivka, Zenit faced intense bombardment.

Viktor Biliak, a soldier stationed there, recounted their harrowing escape attempt from the devastated town in a detailed and somber Instagram post. He described the perilous journey they faced.

“Visibility was non-existent. It was purely about survival. A kilometer across the field. Like blind kittens led by a drone. Enemy artillery everywhere. The path to Avdiivka was strewn with Ukrainian bodies,” he shared.

Eventually, a commander relayed to him via radio that the wounded would be left behind. Six soldiers were abandoned. The messages they left were heart-wrenching, according to Biliak.

“Their despair, their sense of abandonment. It’s something that will haunt us forever. The bravest are often the ones who perish,” he reflected.

The Soldiers Left Behind
Since pro-Moscow separatists took control of significant parts of the Donbas region, including Donetsk, in 2014, Avdiivka has been a focal point of the conflict. Continuous warfare has transformed the town into a heavily fortified bastion, with defenses built up over eight years.

Over the weekend, Ukrainian forces made the strategic decision to withdraw from the town, conceding a major victory to Russia for the first time since it seized Bakhmut the previous year.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that the withdrawal was a strategic move to “preserve the lives of our soldiers.”

Among those caught in the encirclement was a 30-year-old junior sergeant and combat medic named Ivan Zhytnyk, known by the call-sign “Django,” from the Dnipropetrovsk region. He had been engaged in the battle for Avdiivka for nearly two years, alongside the 110th Brigade.

Severely injured and immobilized, he managed to make a poignant video call to his sister Kateryna and other relatives on Thursday, a conversation that has since been widely shared and discussed on Ukrainian and international social media platforms.

During the call, Kateryna inquired, “So, what, they’re not coming for you? Are your comrades with you, or are you alone?”

Zhytnyk responded, “Everyone’s gone, they’ve all pulled back. They said a vehicle would come for us. My legs are broken, and I have shrapnel wounds in my back. I’m helpless…

He mentioned that there were six soldiers at the Zenit position, including four, like himself, who were unable to walk.

Overwhelmed, Kateryna said, “I don’t know who to contact,” as she broke down in tears. “I can’t figure it out. Who’s going to rescue you?”

But help never arrived.

Ukrainian journalists from Slidstvo.info later spoke with the family members of three soldiers who were left injured at the site.

Kateryna shared with Slidstvo.info, “They waited for the evacuation vehicle for a day and a half. When they realized no one was coming for them, they started making calls. Ivan was in agony when he called me; they had used up all their medical supplies and were running out of food.”

On the same day, another family member managed to contact Zhytnyk via video, Kateryna recounted.

“My brother mentioned that the command had arranged for the Russians to evacuate them because our forces couldn’t reach them,” she explained. During their conversation, she witnessed Russian soldiers entering the area where the men were stranded through the video feed.

Another soldier trapped at Zenit, Andrii Dubnytskyi, was in contact with his wife Liudmyla. She told Slidstvo.info, “We spoke at 10 a.m. on Thursday. He had a groin injury, was in pain, tried to make light of the situation, then broke down crying. We continued texting…”

“The last message I received was at noon, saying he was about to be captured,” she recounted.

 

Data as of Feb. 15, 2024 at 3 p.m. ETNotes: “Assessed” means the Institute for the Study of War has received reliable and independently verifiable information to demonstrate Russian control or advances in those areas. Russian advances are areas where Russian forces have operated in or launched attacks, but they do not control them. “Claimed” areas are where sources have said control or counteroffensives are occurring, but ISW cannot corroborate nor demonstrate them to be false. Sources: The Institute for the Study of War with AEI’s Critical Threats Project; LandScan HD for Ukraine, Oak Ridge National Laboratory Graphic: Henrik Pettersson and Renée Rigdon, CNN
Data as of Feb. 15, 2024 at 3 p.m. ET Notes: “Assessed” means the Institute for the Study of War has received reliable and independently verifiable information to demonstrate Russian control or advances in those areas. Russian advances are areas where Russian forces have operated in or launched attacks, but they do not control them. “Claimed” areas are where sources have said control or counteroffensives are occurring, but ISW cannot corroborate nor demonstrate them to be false. Sources: The Institute for the Study of War with AEI’s Critical Threats Project; LandScan HD for Ukraine, Oak Ridge National Laboratory Graphic: Henrik Pettersson and Renée Rigdon, CNN

On Friday, a distressing video surfaced online, shared by a Russian military blogger, displaying the lifeless bodies of several soldiers. This video bore the insignia of the Russian Army’s 1st Slavic Brigade, which, according to various reports, had moved into the Zenit area in the southern part of Avdiivka two days prior.

The footage, claimed to have been recorded on Friday in Avdiivka at a military facility, labeled the Ukrainian soldiers as Nazis and ominously stated, “only death awaits you on our soil.”

Kateryna, upon viewing the video, immediately recognized her brother by his attire and the water bottle he clutched when captured at the Zenit position.

Similarly, the soldier who had shared his ordeal on Instagram, Biliak, identified Andrii Dubnytskyi by a distinctive cross-shaped tattoo on his arm.

Dubnytskyi’s wife, Liudmyla, stumbled upon the video late at night and recognized her husband by the same tattoo, saying, “At 10:30 p.m., I found this video, I recognized him by his tattoo.”

She recounted to Slidstvo.info, “He was conscripted on March 8, 2022, and had been stationed in Avdiivka ever since… My daughter was just 4 months old when he was mobilized.”

Another soldier’s mother made a similarly grim discovery. Inna, the mother of Heorhii Pavlov, known as “Panda,” who had been a contract soldier since 2015 and served at Zenit for the last year, shared her anguish.

“After waiting three days for an evacuation vehicle, on the 14th, he was wounded, sustaining shrapnel injuries to his back… I pleaded with him to surrender, emphasizing the importance of his life, especially since he has a young child, only 5 years old.”

His response to her plea was, “Mom, I am a warrior,” as recounted by Inna to Slidstvo.info.

Holding onto hope, she expressed a desire to believe they were still alive, her primary wish being to locate her son. However, her hope was shattered when she recognized her son among the deceased in the Russian video.

The 110th Brigade, when contacted by CNN, stated they were unable to confirm any specifics of the incident and were in the process of investigating what had occurred.

Yurii Butusov, a prominent Ukrainian military blogger, later published the names of all six soldiers left behind at Zenit, highlighting their inability to move independently and the lack of available evacuation vehicles due to Zenit’s complete encirclement.

The circumstances of the soldiers’ deaths remain unclear, but Butusov accused the Russian military of executing these defenseless, unarmed, and immobile wounded soldiers.

The Prosecutor General’s Office in Ukraine has initiated an investigation into the incident, treating it as a “violation of the laws and customs of war, combined with premeditated murder.”

The 110th Separate Mechanized Brigade issued a statement on Monday, revealing attempts to negotiate with Russian forces for the evacuation of the wounded from the encircled Zenit position, with promises from the Russians to provide aid and facilitate a prisoner exchange. However, it was later discovered through the video released by Russian forces that the soldiers had been killed.

Acknowledging the harsh realities of war, the brigade’s statement emphasized the high cost of fighting for freedom.

CNN has sought a response from the Russian Ministry of Defense regarding the allegations made against its forces in Avdiivka.

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