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CHASIV YAR, UKRAINE —Standing in mud, a group of Ukrainian soldiers armed with military kit and rations wait nervously be to sent as reinforcements to the eastern town of Bakhmut.
Ages 25 to 52, they are bound for the scene of the longest and bloodiest battle of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a town described by one front-line soldier as "real hell."
NATO has warned Bakhmut could fall to the Russians within days. The Russian mercenary Wagner Group claims to control the town's eastern side, but Kyiv has ordered Ukrainian troops to bolster defenses.
As the group waits in Chasiv Yar, about 5 kilometers to the west, to be taken into the trenches, the dozen men adjust their gear, not knowing exactly where they will be sent.
"It's classified," said one soldier who uses the call sign Kit. "We infantry soldiers are told right before the move."
Months into the battle and after a bitterly cold winter, Ukrainian forces are exhausted.
The main aim now, soldiers say, is to prevent a complete Russian encirclement.
The men are armed with Kalashnikovs, traditional RPG-7 rocket launchers and more modern Swedish AT4s.
They are kitted out with sleeping bags and floor mats, as well as cans of food, fruit juices and energy drinks.
"The most important part is interaction within one unit. ... When you know what to expect from your mates during combat," said Kit.
Both Ukraine and Russia have conceded heavy losses in the battle for Bakhmut, a salt-mining town with a prewar population of just more than 70,000, but neither side has given fatality numbers.
A driver of an armored vehicle ferrying soldiers to and from the front, Sergiy, said he regularly picks up depleted soldiers.
"They are motivated, but they are tired," the 34-year-old said, dressed in military fatigues.
"Every day it's snowing or raining," Sergiy said. "People are very tired but still fighting."
The men climbed on top of the armored vehicle, and Sergiy drove them off to the front through the dirt roads of Chasiv Yar.
The town had 14,000 residents before the Russian invasion and is now a regular target of Moscow's strikes.
On its eastern edge, close to the front, most residential buildings have no intact windows. Artillery fire from nearby Ukrainian positions reverberates around the town constantly.
'Hard to see young boys die'
Recent rains have reduced most of Chasiv Yar's streets to mud.
Going to and from the front, Ukrainian Soviet T-80 tanks regularly pass through the roads, making them even muddier.
Ambulances also come and go.
In one, two medics in military fatigues sat near a black plastic body bag containing a soldier's remains.
"It's very hard to see young boys die, I hope it is not in vain," one medic said. "They deserve to be buried like humans and not simply in the field."
They also said ambulances have often been a target by Russian troops.
"It's dangerous if you are new in a position and you don't know where to hide or where the enemy is," he said.
Outside Chasiv Yar, a 22-year-old Ukrainian soldier named Andriy concentrated over an American M119 howitzer, waiting to receive coordinates for his target.
As he waited, a Russian shell exploded nearby.
'Don't need this war'
He took AFP to shelter in a freshly dug narrow trench where the damp earth stuck to his shoes. Two other Russian strikes followed several minutes apart.
"Our main objective is to stop the encirclement of Bakhmut," he said. "We believe in our infantry over there, even if it is real hell."
After waiting several hours, he receives the coordinates.
After firing around 15 rounds in under an hour, his superiors told him that he had "hit the target."
An unused shell lay nearby, carrying the name "Da Vinci," a nom de guerre used by a prominent Ukrainian commander killed in the battle for Bakhmut.
His real name was Dmytro Kotsiubailo, a national hero who fought for Ukraine since the conflict with Moscow-backed separatists in 2014.
"We will avenge him, and they will regret it," Andriy said.
But for the soldiers going into Bakhmut, the future looks bleak.
"We don't need this war," one said. "The Russians also don't need it, I think."