We are told to run. We run through the undergrowth, the mud, and scrub until we reach the shelter of the trees. For now, we are out of danger, out-of-sight, and out of breath.
This area is home to mud, weapons, and nervous energy. This is the point where Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine meet. This area was once an anomaly on a map. Russia might be launching its next attack on Ukraine through this territory.
We support the Ukrainian Border Force who guard and monitor the frontier. These people were concerned about customs controls on the hundreds of lorries passing through each day, as they traveled between Turkey and Russia. Barack, a broad-shouldered, smiling guard, said that it was “good work – interesting, but not too difficult”.
The guards are now the first line of defense. There are no lorries. These men and women will greet the Russian troops at the border if they do come through again – which there is a growing suspicion. So, the border guards are adapting to a new and more dangerous world.
One of them tells me, “I don’t want to do that.” But I do it because my country and my land are important to me. I will fight if I have to. It’s work.
It’s not “just work”, but it’s certainly more than that. You can see Belarus from the sight of a heavy machinegun, which is only a few kilometers away. You can see the Russian border from just a few kilometres away and shells are regularly fired at it. As they land, we can hear regular booms.
Many have fled this area. Many people have left. Those that remain are used to the violence. They now ride bicycles, as bikes are less likely to attract drones.
Bonhomie and adrenaline
A small village lies just beyond the border. It is isolated from the rest of the world. The village was home to about 100 people once, but it has almost been completely destroyed. It is now home to ten people, which makes it almost impossible for them to reach.
This is the first time that foreign journalists have visited this area and spent time with these guards. We find a mixture of determination, bonhomie and adrenaline. They fear another Russian invasion.
To defend the border, thousands of Russian troops were mobilized and sent to Belarus in this month’s “regional force”.
Although it may seem like a collaboration between them, few outside the Kremlin and Minsk take this at face value. It is a tool to strengthen the Russian presence in Ukraine ahead of an attack.
Of course, there is precedent. In February of this year, Russian troops crossed the border and seized control of the area. They assembled a large convoy of vehicles and set off towards Kyiv. Then they retreated in April.
The border guards have been working hard since then. You can walk in mud in darkness and think of World War One as you pass through the long trenches dug by them. Yet, one of these underground rooms houses computer terminals that are linked to Starlink satellite systems.
In a room made from the trench, I speak to Barack. The floor is covered with wooden boards and there’s a bunk bed in one corner. He giggles when I tell him it feels like we have gone back a century. But he agrees. I ask him about the Russian troop building-up just a few miles away.
“They are becoming more aggressive but our Ukrainian forces give a bloody nose!” He laughs again.
“We need more weapons”
There are many weaponry options available to them, including heavy machine guns, antitank missiles and rifles as well as ammunition. There are many hidden look-out points and minefields. It is a daunting task to prepare for an invading army. They’ve learned to embrace the challenge, even though it’s not something they are really trained for.
The problem is that the spirit can be unlimited, but the resources cannot.
We need more weapons, because we don’t know how intense an attack might be. “We don’t know how long it will take to defend the border,” Halyna, spokesperson for the Chernihiv Border Guard Unit, says.
“We are responding to the rising risk of invasion by increasing our preparations, more fortification. We want to stop them at their border.
Heavy weapons are essential. You can use machine guns and assault rifles if they send infantry. When tanks and armoured personnel carriers arrive from their side, the problem starts.”
I wonder what lessons were they able to learn from the February attack.
“They are unpredictable. This is the first lesson. They are not our friends.”
This is a shocking lesson for many in the region where Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Russians have lived together for so many decades. Horodnia is the closest town to the border. It was taken first by the Russians, and then abandoned.
Although they have rebuilt and repainted the buildings, you still see the scars. We found burned out trucks, shell casing, shell casing, and even an unexplored rocket in the woods a little further out of town.
“No more brotherly Belarus, No more good Russia”
These houses are witnesses to the violence. Oleksander, Olga and Olga still remember the incident. Their house was shaken so violently that the ceiling collapsed on top of them. Oleksander says, “There are relatives of mine in Russia and all over the world. But now we cheer only for our country.”
“There is no friendly, brotherly Belarus or a good Russia anymore. It is just us and them, – enemies. This is it.
This bravado can be tempting to get carried away. Ukraine is a country where resilience is strengthened by the sense of grievances and the support from so many people around the globe. It is also a nation that has experienced heartbreak.
The house at the street’s end is now completely burnt. It was set on fire, bombed and then destroyed. Nadia, who was terrified as all this happened, watched it from across the street. She raised the alarm and brought water. Then she began to cry.
Her mother passed away not long afterwards.
Nadia, a Belarusian, arrived in the United States many years ago. She is now fragile and afraid, ready to flee from another Russian invasion. She fears that it will collapse and seal her in.
“There is no place for us to rest here. My nerves have completely disappeared. What has Ukraine done? They are such wonderful people. They are peaceful.
“So many people were murdered. There were so many children. So much grief.” She weeps.