On the front lines, near Mykolaiv, Ukraine
In a shallow ditch in a narrow strip of trees that provides the only cover in this Ukrainian landscape in the district of Mykolaiv, stands a man with his two grown sons.
This is their first war together. Their first time as soldiers. When Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded their country, their family went to the army to enlist to fight.
Yaroslav is a 59-year-old grandfather. One of his sons, Nazar, 34, has two sons of his own. Another son, Pavlo, 26 has a daughter.
They left their wives and children to go to the front but asked to stay together in their battalion.
Fighting as a family and for their families keeps their mission “very easy and simple,” Yaroslav told CNN.
“What can I say – we love our country and will stand for it to the end,” he said.
The men acknowledge with nervous laughter that it may not be so easy for those still at home, especially Yaroslav’s wife, who has her husband and sons all in danger.
“Mother is no doubt worried about us,” Nazar said. “She’s nervous. Our wives and children are also concerned. But still, we are here, we stand for our country.”
Russian troops are just over a mile away, officers say — not only within artillery range, but also at risk from a sniper bullet. The trenches are located in the farmland of the Mykolaiv district, near the Black Sea coast, and in the area targeted by the Russians.
The deputy force commander, also known as Nazar, is only 37 years old. He said he lost four soldiers in one attack – that was his worst day of this war.
He served in the regular army and fought in eastern Ukraine in 2014 against Russian-backed separatists. When the invasion began, he also volunteered to serve.
“An enemy came to our country, to our house, cowardly under the cover of night, without declaration of war, began to shell our towns and villages,” he said.
“They went all the way to Kiev and entered the suburbs of Bucha and Irpin. We have no other choice. We defend our country. We didn’t come to anyone else’s house. We are not Russians breaking into someone else’s house. We protect our families, our children, our parents.”
He said he is fighting to secure all of Ukraine, including the eastern areas now under Russian control, and Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.
For now, he must lock his troops in the narrow swaths of trees that border flat open expanses of farmland and undergrowth, riding dirt roads that surround the hedges for cover.
If he spends a lot of time in a village, he said he fears that could be a reason for the Russians to attack it.
Artillery strikes are already common around these villages near the front lines, according to a local named Anatoly.
He said his neighbor had been killed the day before in an attack that destroyed his home.
But as he cycled through the village where he has lived all his life, he said he saw no reason to leave now.
Asked about the Russian troops, at close range, Anatoly was optimistic. “What can I say? They do bad things.”
Woman describes atrocities that Russian soldiers carried out on her husband
In another village further from the front, a woman named Tatiana Bozko told CNN what happened when Russian soldiers came to her village before she was beaten back by Ukrainian troops.
They took her husband, a pro-Ukrainian former teacher who had worked at the village school, she said. Bozko told CNN she believes some of her neighbors who support Russia choose her husband over the invaders.
“Sirgey was a very nice and smart man,” she said, the soul of every gathering. “He was only hated by those who were for Russia.”
He was taken from their home and she never saw him again.
His body was found days later, dumped in a ditch under a mattress. Someone in the village saw a mangled hand sticking out, and there were other signs of torture – bruises and what looked like cuts.
“He got beat up. It was so scary,” Bozko said, crying softly. “Apparently he was shot while he was alive. There were holes.”
Bozko, also a retired teacher in her 60s, now lives with terrible thoughts of her husband’s final moments. Three things give her comfort: her son, her mother whom she helps to keep alive, and the Ukrainian army.
As she tells CNN about her family, she pauses to hear the deep, rumbling sound of shelling in the distance. They are mortars being fired.
She now knows the difference between inbound and outbound. This is extroverted on the Ukrainian side to the Russians, she says and laughs. “It makes me happy to hear that.”