Japanese Volunteer Soldiers Fighting on the “Front Line of the War in Ukraine” Fighting Next to Decomposing Bodies | FRIDAY DIGITAL

Japanese Volunteer Soldiers Fighting on the “Front Line of the War in Ukraine” Fighting Next to Decomposing Bodies

A year and a half after the invasion, I was sleeping with corpses in a trench in Bakhmut, a fierce battleground in the east of the country.

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The 24th Brigade of the Ukrainian Regular Army. Firing mortars toward Russian positions on the outskirts of Bakhmut, a fierce battleground.

In July, I went to Donetsk Oblast to cover the Ukrainian regular army fighting on the eastern front and the Territorial Defense Corps, which includes three Japanese volunteer soldiers. This was my fourth visit since the beginning of the war in Ukraine.

The 24th Brigade of the Ukrainian Regular Army is deployed in Toretsk, Donetsk Oblast, south of Bakhmut, where the fighting was fierce. We are driving in military vehicles to a mortar position about 20 km from the Russian positions. The soldiers at the front of the line drive their vehicles at speeds in excess of 100 km/h, constantly on the lookout for drones in the sky above. Driving at high speed is the only way to protect themselves from shells and suicide drones.

The command center had seized and used a private house that had become unoccupied. When we entered the house, we saw five monitors in the room, the screens showing real-time images taken by drones from above the Russian positions. We spoke to Oleksander, the 35-year-old commander of this unit.

Our unit has been in this position for a month now. The fighting situation near Bakhmut is very difficult, but we are gradually retaking the area. We have enough weapons, shells, and other equipment, but what we need most is rest.”

After leaving the command center, we headed for the mortar position. The position was in a residential area. Here, too, the mortars were covered by a makeshift roof disguised with grass and trees as a precaution against drones.

When radio contact is received from the command post, the roof is removed and preparations are made. When a large 120mm shell is dropped into the tube, “thud! and the shells are fired with a gut-wrenching explosion. After firing four shells in rapid succession, the roof is immediately covered. Most of the soldiers in charge of the mortars are in their 40s or older. They must be physically too old to fight in the harsh frontline conditions.

Before the war started, I was in the construction business. I didn’t think the war would last this long, but this is my country and it is my duty to fight.

A veteran soldier in his 40s replied. I could sense the enthusiasm and high morale of the people of the country as a whole to take back their territory from the Russian army.

The 28th Brigade, 10th Tank Battalion had survived many fierce battles in the south, including those near Herson and Bakhmut. Two T-64 tanks were hidden in the woods of a tank position on the outskirts of Yabluniuka, Donetsk Oblast; the T-64 is an obsolete tank developed in the 1960s, but its 125 mm gun is effective against the Russian T-90 tanks, and even today it is the used as the main tank in the Ukrainian army. A defensive net is stretched overhead to guard against drone attacks. The Russians have yet to discover this position. the T-64 was operated by a crew of three, with the commanding captain in his 30s and the other two in their 20s.

I was allowed to interview inside the tank and entered through the upper hatch of the turret and sat in the gunner’s seat. At 170 cm tall, I could just about fit in, which explains why many tank soldiers are of small stature. In front of me was a scope like a telescope at a tourist attraction, which the gunner uses to aim and shoot.

There are switches and gauges all around. The T-64 is equipped with an auto-loading system, which automatically loads ammunition from a circular magazine at the bottom of the vehicle. What does it feel like for a tanker to fight in such a closed room, a tank with extremely limited visibility?

This tank is a T-64BV, an improved version of the T-64. It is old, but I can fight with it. During a battle, I may not be able to go outside for three days. There are so many threats to tanks, such as anti-tank missiles and mines, that it is terrifying.

said a tanker in his 20s. The Territorial Defense Force is composed of civilians and reservists, and includes foreigners of various nationalities. Originally, the Territorial Defense Corps was supposed to provide logistical support to the regular army, such as guarding at checkpoints, but now it is engaged in front-line combat missions.

The 204th Independent Territorial Defense Battalion is staffed by three Japanese volunteer soldiers, all of whom differ in age and background in Japan, but all three share the common denominator that they have no experience in the Self Defense Forces. After only a month of basic training in the outskirts of Kyiv, they were deployed to the fierce fighting on the eastern front of Ukraine.

From a rear base in Kostiantyniukha in the east, they are on a three-day rotation to the front lines. Mr. Suzuki (pseudonym), 26, who worked in construction in Japan, came to Ukraine last May to become a volunteer soldier without telling his family.

The T-64 was developed in the former Soviet Union during the war in Kharkiv, which was a fierce battleground in the current war.
Ukrainian tankmen moving tanks. Many soldiers prefer the T-64, which they are accustomed to handling, to tanks provided by Western countries.

Sleeping Next to Decomposing Bodies

Although he had no military experience, Mr. Suzuki experienced horrific trench warfare last year as a soldier in another territorial defense unit in Ijumu, in the eastern part of the country. He said that they ran out of food and water, so he drank water from the river filtered through a T-shirt.

He is currently an artilleryman with the 204th Independent Territorial Defense Battalion, in charge of AGS-17s (automatic grenade launchers), and was sent with Hal (a pseudonym) to help defend a position that had just been recaptured from the Russian army due to a lack of manpower. Mr. Hal is also a Japanese volunteer soldier with the unique background of being a former gang member. Because of the danger of the mission and the number of casualties, it is called a “suicide mission” in the unit and is shunned by the soldiers.

“We would leave at dawn and go by armored car and on foot to a front-line trench called a position. We had to fight, eat, and sleep next to the decomposing bodies, and the smell was so strong. The trench had been used by the Russians until recently and the coordinates were known. So the Russians rained down shells and used cluster bombs, and the attacks continued through the night,” said Suzuki.

He left the position after safely completing his two-day mission. Mr. Suzuki said he would like to participate in the same mission again if requested.

A year and a half has passed since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. There is still no way out.

Mr. Suzuki (right) and Hal (left) interviewed by FRIDAY. Ken (center), a Japanese volunteer soldier in the same unit, and
A Ukrainian soldier enjoys a holiday with his girlfriend. Data show that in the year and a half since the invasion, the number of casualties on both sides has reached 500,000.

Toru YOKOTA / Born in Ibaraki Prefecture in 1971. Started working as a freelance news photographer after the Cambodian Civil War in 1997. He has covered the Kosovo conflict, Afghanistan, and other conflicts. Author of “Senjo Jizoku: Sento Jizoku, Tottori ni Tsuite iru Dare to Filming” and other works.

From the September 8, 2023 issue of FRIDAY

  • Photography and text Toru Yokota, news photographer

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