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‘Ghosts of Bakhmut’: Ukraine’s snipers on the ‘zero line’

Kuzya, a sniper with a Ukrainian elite unit, selected one of a series of long rifles laid out on the living-room floor. He was due to head out in several hours on a mission to the frontline in eastern Ukraine, just a few hundred metres from Russian troops. His team of around 20 snipers are known as the “Ghosts of Bakhmut” because they have spent months battling Russian forces around the town destroyed by a year of fierce fighting. Russia’s invasion has morphed into grinding conflict of long-range artillery duels and trench warfare, but Kuzya believes snipers are vital to helping Ukrainian troops advance. He declined to say how many Russian soldiers he has killed. “I don’t count targets for myself — for me there’s no point,” he claims. But the unit’s commander in a “Ghosts of Bakhmut” T-shirt gives the group’s total as 558. Kuzya, a tall and broad 31-year-old with blue eyes, says he has no problem killing a man in his crosshairs. “Hell, as far as I’m concerned, he’s the enemy! He came to my home. I didn’t go to his.” – ‘US, Russia train best’ — He works in a close-knit team, formed from a prestigious presidential brigade. Kuzya trained at Ukraine’s sniper school under experienced fighters, but said he was always learning on the job and praised his Russian counterparts. “Let’s be honest, the best snipers train in America… and in Russia they’ve been fighting wars all their lives… in Afghanistan and in Chechnya,” he said. “You can’t say the enemy is weaker”. But newer Russian snipers, trained on the battlefield, are much less effective, he told AFP. Kuzya’s all-male team smoked cigarettes and honed plans in a garage before donning balaclavas, grabbing rifles and jumping into their vehicle. They first headed to another house close to the frontline near Bakhmut, where they can wait, rest and cook. Then the driver dropped off Kuzya near what the soldiers call the “zero line” — the nearest point of contact with their Russian adversaries. Unlike in movies, snipers do not always wait in tall buildings, far from their targets. In eastern Ukraine’s hilly terrain, this is often impossible, Kuzya said. Instead he spends much of his time crawling slowly at night, looking through infra-red sights and getting information from reconnaissance drones and walkie-talkies. He must be the main “eyes” of an operation, to see threats that infantry cannot. – ‘I cover them’ – “I help them go in as safely as possible. I cover them,” he said. His orders are to eliminate any Russian infantry in a given area, regardless of rank. Kuzya’s team was composed of his driver — call sign “Kusch” — and a third man to take over if Kusch is killed and cannot reach the pick-up spot. They have several pre-arranged meeting places in case communications break down. “Usually, thank God, everything is clear,” said Kusch, who used to work in footwear near Kyiv. Yet the team’s armoured vehicle testifies to the risks they run. It had a shrapnel hole from the roof that went down through the dashboard. There were also chips from bullets in the reinforced glass. Kusch also accompanies the sniper on foot when they are checking out a new location, he said. “I have to know even more than any of them: the geography of the location, all the approach roads,” he said. “The road is always dangerous.” “If anything goes wrong, I’m the messenger, a very important person.” – ‘Fractions of a second’ – Kuzya said the commander who put together the sniper group chose them on the basis of psychological and mental strength, gauging “If you were a resilient person, if you can take psychological pressure.” It was also important that “we could work with one another and understand each other”. A reservist, he went to fight immediately after Russia invaded, joining a special forces platoon and fighting near Kyiv. He became a sniper “by chance”. He admits he suffered from nerves the first time he fired a sniper rifle for real, only succeeding on the third shot. But he has not had this problem since. “There can’t be any doubt about pulling the trigger.”

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