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KYIV, UKRAINE —A Ukrainian colonel and his team of volunteers have destroyed three attack drones that Russia launched on Kyiv, shooting them down with ancient Red Army machine guns.
"The first drone was in October. It flew during the day, so it was clearly visible. We opened fire on it when it entered our sector," said the colonel, whose call sign, "Smak," means "zest."
Russia has been sending waves of Iranian Shahed drones across the country in recent months, many targeting power networks. Unlike cruise missiles, they fly relatively slowly, and their small engine is noisy, so soldiers can track them by sight and sound.
"The other two flew on the night of January 1, after New Year's. It was dark, but our colleagues shone spotlights and used thermal imaging cameras, so we spotted them and shot them down. I personally shot at them with a machine gun," said Smak, a gray-bearded 49-year-old.
He leads a team of 80 civilian volunteers, some retired and others working, who keep watch for drones day and night. There are around a dozen such units monitoring the sky above Kyiv as part of the territorial defense force.
Smak's team is based in a small, ground-floor room in a building under construction on the outskirts of Kyiv. At 8 o'clock local time each night, a fresh group arrives for a shift change.
If the air raid sirens sound, they jump in cars and race to a nearby hill, where they take up firing positions to try to shoot down any drones approaching the city.
The group is equipped with Kalashnikovs and two Degtyaryov machine guns, originally used by the Soviet Red Army in the late 1920s, which have a distinctive, large round magazine and are featured in the hit video game "Call of Duty."
Deputy commander Mykola, 50, said many units across the country monitor drones entering the country's airspace and pass on the information.
The drones are being fired from the Black Sea to the south or from the Russian border to the east.
Since October, Ukraine has been building up its air defenses, with Western allies pledging and supplying modern anti-air missile systems capable of shooting down numerous missiles and drones. Russia's attacks also have become less frequent and heavy.
"At the moment we aren't getting that many alerts. It's a more or less calm period," Mykola said.
During this lull, he used a tablet to keep an eye on an electronic map that showed drone attacks in real time, while a walkie-talkie crackled on his desk.
"Two Shaheds destroyed in Dnipro," he announced at one point, referring to the eastern Ukrainian city.
Sitting on a sofa, a 19-year-old computer science student, who gave his name as Valdemar, was taking apart and cleaning one of the unit's Degtyaryov guns, while his 56-year-old father, "Customs," cleaned a Kalashnikov.
The nightly curfew begins at 11 o'clock local time. On this recent night, it was quiet in Kyiv, with no sirens sounding.
'Fog is the worst'
To kill time, Smak moved miniature figures around on a board, playing a British strategy game called "Blood Bowl" online with his 13-year-old son in the Netherlands.
Volunteers slept on beds and in chairs, while Mykola stayed on watch until 5 a.m., when the team woke up with coffee in the freezing cold.
To stay sharp, some of the team went up to the hill with their guns and took up positions as practice.
In a dugout, Valdemar aimed the long barrel of the Degtyaryov machine gun toward the south.
"The worst thing is the fog," he said, "when you can hear the drone flying but you can't see it, and then you hear it hit a target."
"We are the last line of defense," said Mykola, binoculars around his neck.