The target for one private participation in Ukraine’s counter-offensive against Russia is not complicated: it is a house near the beach, overflowing with flowers, the playroom overflowing with toys.
Ukrainian military strategists may be intent on driving a wedge through Russian forces and cutting supply lines, but Private Yevheniy just wants to see his home again, in the Sea of Azov port city of Berdjansk.
“I miss the sea the most,” he said, as his unit held ground in the front-line village of Tavriyske.
As a rule, soldiers go wherever they are sent, but the Ukrainian Army makes an exception: those who were driven from their hometowns after Russia invaded last year can apply to take part in the fight to free them.
And so sprinkled among the ranks of soldiers fighting in the counteroffensive that began in southern Ukraine in June are soldiers with a special motivation. They come from villages and towns in the region, know it intimately, and sometimes have family and friends on the other side of the front line.
“It’s much better for the brigade to have people who know the area, so the commanders allow you to fight in the direction of your home,” said a lieutenant colonel named Dmytro, who like other military personnel provided only his first name.
Colonel Dmytro is deputy commander of the 36th Marine Brigade, and his family is still in an inhabited city in the Kherson region. He also applied for the job.
“I want to see my parents, the sooner the better,” he said.
In interviews, a dozen soldiers whose homes are in front of the trenches they now fight in said they want to march back into the cities they once fled, this time in uniform, guns in hand.
But first they have to break through the heavily fortified Russian defensive lines.
“If it takes me five years to see my home, that’s fine, I’m in no rush,” said soldier Jevheniy. He was about 100 miles away from it.
He and his family were in Kyiv when the Russians invaded. They divided their time between the capital and Berdjansk, but planned to move there permanently.
Now he goes there like a soldier, helped by his intimate familiarity with the terrain.
“I can feel the energy of the ground here, and I know every bush on this front” said soldier Yevheniy. “I can make decisions faster because I know all the rivers. which dry in summer, and which do not.”
Soldiers from occupied cities understand that the cost of liberation could be very high. Private Yevheniy, who helps lead artillery strikes, said he would do what it takes to retake his city.
“I would shell out my home if I had to,” he said.
Anyway, he joked, he wasn’t happy with the pink and orange paint his wife had chosen for the rooms. Now they may have a chance to revisit those decorating choices.
Hostilities with Moscow began in parts of eastern Ukraine years before the full-scale invasion in February 2022, and Ukrainians who took part in that earlier fighting said staying was not an option.
“At best, I would be in a basement” prison, said Vladyslav, a 28-year-old farmer who left his village in the Zaporizhzhia region in the first days of the invasion. “At worst, they’d throw me out.”
After re-enlisting Vladyslav, a sergeant, asked to fight to retake his village, which is now about 30 miles in front of his front-line trench position.
“I miss my walls, everything I worked for,” he said. “I miss my mother’s food. She makes rolls with potato and cabbage. And I want to come home that way.” In uniform, he meant.
Some soldiers spoke of revenge against Ukrainians in occupied territories who took the Russian side in that war. “First, I will go and beat the friends who betrayed their country,” said soldier Jevheniy.
Another soldier, Oleksandr, 23, is from Bakhmut, the eastern city destroyed after almost a year of fighting. He said it was important for everyone fighting to hold onto the image of what their homes once looked like.
“Just remember how good you felt in your city,” he said. “Remember this feeling they took away from you.”
Also the city of Mariupol, on the shore of the Sea of Azov, is also hardly recognizable now after the heavy Russian bombing of the civilian areas.
One surgeon there, Leonid, 43, said he helped the wounded in his hospital every day until Russian troops shelled it. He told then going out through the Russian surroundings still in his white medical gown, which was splashed with blood.
Once out of occupied territory, he joined the 36th Marine Brigade as a military doctor and asked to be sent to the front near his hometown.
“I always imagine that I will drive into Mariupol in my uniform and with a gun,” he said. “My family will see that I fought for them all this time.”