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Inside the Battle for a Bunker in Avdiivka, Ukraine

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The two Ukrainian soldiers were trapped. After repelling waves of Russian attempts to storm their small bunker in a cellar near an abandoned house, the enemy was on top of them.

“They surrounded us and started throwing grenades,” said Pvt. Vladyslav Molodykh, 39, whose call sign is Hammer. “They were shouting, ‘Surrender and you’ll live.’ There was no point in surrendering because they would have torn me apart.”

It was around 10 a.m. on Dec. 14.

Private Molodykh would emerge from the freezing, cramped cellar 41 harrowing days later — alone but alive.

The battle for the bunker in Avdiivka, in eastern Ukraine, was only a small part of one of dozens of clashes raging along a 600-mile front. But it highlights how hard it is to both defend and attack in a war increasingly fought in bloody, close-quarter combat, with Ukrainian forces running low on shells and Russia seeking to barrel forward with brute force.

A member of the 71st Jager Brigade, Private Molodykh recounted his story from a hospital bed where he was recovering from frostbite and other injuries. His account was supported by his commander, the soldiers who rescued him, medics who treated him and unedited drone footage viewed by The New York Times.

Private Molodykh, a divorced father of two, joined the army as a volunteer six months before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. By the time he was deployed late last year to Avdiivka, the scene of months of fierce fighting, he was no stranger to the “zero line,” where the enemy can be fewer than 100 feet away and drones are a constant threat.

On Dec. 13, Private Molodykh and three other soldiers were deployed to a position at an abandoned house in the south of Avdiivka that had a nearby root cellar, normally used for keeping vegetables and other food in the winter. It was in that cellar, a two-room space without windows and with access to the house only via a narrow tunnel, where the soldiers would engage in a desperate fight for survival.

Taking a bunker — even one that is only minimally fortified, like the cellar — is bloody work. While Russia has stepped up aerial bombing to ravage Ukrainian fortifications, it needs the infantry to storm positions like bunkers, where defenders have the advantage.

The house where Private Molodykh was stationed was being used by Ukrainian forces as an observation post, and they had established fortified firing positions there to target Russian forces moving in their direction. They also had firing positions inside the bunker.

But when Private Molodykh and his unit arrived at the site, the area had been blanketed with a thick fog for days, allowing Russian forces to approach undetected.

They attacked the morning after.

“We repelled the first assault immediately,” Private Molodykh said.

Thinking they had time to rest, one of the soldiers, Pvt. Ihor Tretiak, 38, whose call sign is Terminator, went to the bunker to warm his feet and Private Molodykh joined him to make tea. The two other members of the team, who stayed outside, suddenly raised the alarm.

The snow-covered streets around the house erupted in a storm of bullets and grenades. The two privates said that they had been pinned down in the bunker, firing back at about 15 to 20 Russian attackers. One Russian soldier who charged the bunker was shot dead by Private Molodykh, and he tumbled down into the tunnel entrance, they said.

The two men in the bunker said they heard one of their comrades outside begging for his life after he had been captured by Russian soldiers.

“‘Don’t shoot. I want to live,’” Private Tretiak, speaking in another hospital, where he was recuperating, said he heard the Ukrainian soldier saying. “But they just shot him, and I understood that I wouldn’t surrender.”

Both soldiers outside the bunker were killed in the fighting on Dec. 14, and for the next three days, Private Molodykh and Private Tretiak held off the attackers. Private Tretiak, with shrapnel wounds in both legs from grenade explosions and his right hand ripped apart by a bullet, reloaded magazines for his comrade.

On the fourth day, the abandoned house was blown up, blocking the entrance to the cellar and trapping the two Ukrainian soldiers.

“The Russians completely buried it to prevent us from getting out,” Private Molodykh said.

Inside the cramped bunker — one of the rooms was about 12 feet by 12 feet and the other was smaller — the Ukrainian privates soon ran low on food and had no means of communicating with the outside world.

“We ate once a day,” Private Molodykh said. “Half a can of canned meat or some porridge.”

After two weeks, Private Tretiak decided that if he did not make a run for it, he would die from his wounds.

“I made a decision for myself: Either I leave now, or we both die,” he said. “I even thought that if I came out and they shot me there, at least it would be quick rather than dying of hunger or thirst.”

Private Molodykh decided to stay.

Private Tretiak found a weak spot among some collapsed ceiling beams. He pushed them aside, cleared the soil and climbed out.

Soon after, Private Molodykh heard “several bursts of automatic fire” and feared the worst.

“I thought he was killed,” he said. He would not know that his comrade had survived until more than three weeks later, when he left the bunker.

As Private Tretiak emerged into the sunlight, he said he felt a brief moment of euphoria, breathing fresh air for the first time in weeks. Then he heard gunfire. He dashed for a nearby quarry, dislocating his shoulder as he dove for cover.

He wandered through the devastated streets of Avdiivka, hoping to find Ukrainian soldiers before Russian troops found him. He recalled how he had played dead when a drone circled overhead. The drone swept in close, but he said he did not flinch.

When the whir of the drone faded, he kept walking, scavenging for food and water in abandoned homes.

On the second day, he saw a soldier approaching. “In the first seconds, I didn’t understand who it was,” he said. “I thought it was a Russian and it was the end.”

But it was a Ukrainian from a different outfit. Private Tretiak was safe.

In the bunker, Private Molodykh huddled in the dark after his comrade left as the earth around him shook with near-constant explosions.

One night, he heard Russian forces discussing his fate. They could set fire to the position, he said he heard them say. And they weighed the risks of digging him out to kill only one person.

Private Molodykh eventually ran out of food, and then had to reach his emaciated arm out of the hole Private Tretiak used to escape to gather snow for water. He prepared to die.

“There was darkness in front of my eyes,” he said. “I almost lost consciousness.”

Then things got eerily quiet. For two days, he did not hear the Russians. The explosions outside subsided.

At 8 a.m. on Jan. 23, he heard someone calling his name.

A 21-year-old Ukrainian private, who asked to be identified by only his call sign, Gerych, in accordance with military protocol, said the Russians had been pushed from the area after a brutal fight. The Ukrainian soldiers had been told that one of their comrades might have been alive at the position, but it had been weeks since Private Tretiak’s escape.

When his unit reached the bunker, he called out: “Hammer, Hammer, this is Gerych. Are you there?”

“Yes, it’s me,” came a weak voice from under the debris.

Sergeant Anatolii, 37, a medic who treated Private Molodykh, said the man who emerged was just flesh and bones, mentally exhausted and barely alive.

“How much can one person endure?” the sergeant wondered.

But, Gerych said, “His eyes were shining with happiness that he had finally reunited with his own people.”

Private Molodykh tried to make sense of what he saw around him. When he went into the bunker, there had still been a neighborhood above ground.

“Now, there was only one house left at the end of the street,” he said. Russian corpses were everywhere, he added.

The fight for Avdiivka was intensifying. Soon after Private Molodykh was rescued, the defense of the city collapsed and Russia captured the ruins of the bunker where he and Private Tretiak had holed up. Both soldiers said they expected to return to the fight.

“If we don’t hold them,” Private Molodykh said, “they’ll be everywhere.”

Liubov Sholudko contributed reporting from across Ukraine.

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