NEAR KREMINNA, Ukraine — The sound of artillery launching and landing along the front line punctures the stillness of the forest just a few miles away, where combat medics are waiting to receive the wounded.
On the horizon, a military vehicle moves along a dusty road and screeches to a halt when it reaches the trees. A soldier named Valentyn parks it there for natural camouflage from Russian drones scouting for Ukrainian military positions.
A group of soldiers, visibly shaken, quickly unloads three bodies that have just been recovered from the front line, placing each one into a plastic body bag and zipping it closed. Their position was shelled and then attacked by a drone, they say.
“They’re shooting at you from all sides. You turn, you run, they hit you, and it’s impossible to get away,” said Maksym, who survived the attack. “This is a big tragedy for us.”
“One more body is left behind with the Russian soldiers,” he added.
While much of the world’s attention has fixated on the bloody urban battle taking place in Bakhmut, Russia’s campaign in eastern Ukraine is also raging in forests and fields about 50 miles north of the city, near Kreminna. Here, soldiers take positions in trenches surrounded by tall, slim trees, crouching to avoid the direct line of sight of their Russian enemies.
“People say it’s harsh in Bakhmut,” said Valentyn, who joined the army seven months ago. “But it’s harsh here, too.”
For the past month, Valentyn has been stationed at this evacuation point, traveling back and forth to the front line almost daily to rescue wounded soldiers and recover the dead. His job requires him to drive directly toward Russian forces, and he has come under fire at times.
“There is nothing good about it,” Valentyn said. “What is this war for?”
Ukrainian and Russian military officials have been reluctant to release data on casualties within their ranks, though the U.S. government and military experts estimate that both sides have suffered significant losses in the tens or hundreds of thousands.
For Valentyn, the work of responding to the casualties has been both grim and relentless.
“There is blood everywhere,” he said, while cleaning it from his vehicle. “It has a smell. Especially fresh blood.”
Bright red liquid trickled through his fingers as he rinsed out a bloodied cloth. He drained the cloth and used it again to wipe off the back seat.
“It’s difficult to see young boys die,” Valentyn said. “Sometimes I cry quietly.”
In calmer moments when there is no one to evacuate, Valentyn travels deep into the forest to transport soldiers to and from the contact line, where Ukrainian and Russian soldiers are sometimes positioned just hundreds of meters apart.
He said at least one group of soldiers couldn’t make it to their position because Russian troops had already taken it over.
“Every day is scary here,” said Viktor, a soldier who returned with Valentyn. “I feel constant anxiety, for our country and our lives.”
His stoic face reflected the fear and horror known only to those who had witnessed the fight in the forest.
“Those who haven’t been there will never understand.”
Benjamin Laffin, Oksana Nesterenko, Adam Coll and Haley Willis contributed reporting.