DONETSK REGION, May 29 — The artillery fire begins just before dawn. A soldier steps into a darkened trench and lights a cigarette, carefully cupping the flame with his free hand. A boom and crackle of outgoing fire sound in the distance.

Viktor, the infantryman, ducks his head under a canopy of camouflage netting and looks up at the brightening sky. The incessant buzz of a drone sounds overhead, moving a dozen meters from one end of the trench to linger just above him.

Viktor swallows. A moment later, the buzzing sound moves on.

“One of ours,” the 37-year-old soldier says, bringing the cigarette back up to his lips.

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The sun finally rises and the noise of war picks up. For weeks, Viktor has barely slept as Russian drones and artillery continually target his position. During the day, he watches for any attempts by Russian troops to cross a minefield that separates the two sides. At night, he picks up a shovel to dig and fortify his trench.

“They’re constantly firing, constantly probing,” he says. “We have to survive somehow and we have to hold the line.”

It is the start of another draining day on Ukraine’s eastern front line. Monitoring his scratchy radio, Viktor will try to move as little as possible in a trench less than 800 meters from where Russian soldiers are amassed. For seven months, Viktor’s unit has held this sector of the front, repelling a relentless onslaught of Russian assaults.

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Now in the third year of full-scale war, Ukraine’s top military leaders openly admit that the battlefield situation on the eastern front has deteriorated. Two years of war have sapped Ukraine’s ammunition and manpower, while the country’s failed counter-offensive last year sank morale.

As Reuters traveled along the eastern stretch of Ukraine’s 1,000-kilometer front line in April, soldiers in infantry, artillery and drone units all expressed exhaustion. They spoke of an acute shortage of ammunition and an urgent need to replenish troops. A new push by Moscow earlier this month near Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, is likely to further divert precious ammunition and personnel from other sections of the front, stretching Kyiv’s military thin at a critical moment in the war.

Though Congress finally greenlit a long-delayed $60 billion U.S. military package in April, analysts say that a severe worldwide shortage of artillery shells means Ukraine will likely be outgunned by Russia for the remainder of the year as Kyiv’s allies ramp up production. Reuters could not independently establish how much of the new U.S. weaponry has made it to the front line. On a visit this month to Kyiv, Secretary of State Antony Blinken assured Ukraine that the delayed aid was “now on the way” and some had “already arrived.”

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said recently there were no reports of artillery shortages. But in an interview last week with Reuters, he called on Western allies to speed up aid, saying every decision they’ve made on military support for Ukraine has been “late by around one year.”

With the possibility of Donald Trump, who has questioned American military aid to Ukraine, returning to the presidency later this year, many Ukrainians fear the continued support of their most powerful ally hangs in the balance.

Russia, meanwhile, has continued to batter Ukraine with seemingly endless resources.

President Vladimir Putin, riding high as he begins his fifth term, has redoubled his war effort. In 2014, Russian-backed separatists staged a battle to control the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. Since 2022, Putin has made clear his aims to annex the entirety of the area, known as Donbas. To that end, Russian forces have made steady advances in recent months. In February, they captured the eastern city of Avdiivka.

Now, Russia is trying to seize Chasiv Yar, a strategic hilltop city that, if captured, would allow its troops to more easily advance toward the remaining cities of the Donetsk region. Russia’s recent incursions in Kharkiv have distracted the world’s attention from the heavy battles being waged in the Donetsk region, Zelenskiy told Reuters.

The Ukrainian armed forces and the Russian defense ministry did not respond to questions for this story.

Freezing in the trenches

Before Russia launched its full-scale invasion two years ago, Viktor, the infantryman, was working as a window framer outside of Uman, a city in central Ukraine. His wife had just given birth to a baby daughter. They lived with his parents in his childhood home built on a small hill overlooking verdant forests and fields that changed color with the seasons. (Like all of the Ukrainians profiled in this report, Viktor asked to be identified by his first name only, in keeping with military protocol.)

Viktor received his mobilisation notice four months after the beginning of the war. He was quickly sent to an area in northern Ukraine that borders Russia to dig trenches and fortifications. Later, he was transferred to Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, where mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner group were fighting to capture the city. Last September, Viktor was handed a Browning machine gun and taught how to clean and maintain the weapon. A week later, he was transferred to the front in Donetsk without having fired a single practice round.

When Viktor’s infantry unit first arrived here, thickets of oak and birch trees lined the grassy fields. There were still birds in the trees then and the leaves were just starting to change color. The soldiers dug trenches into the tough black soil but had no time to cover them with wooden planks before the Russian bombardment started. Through winter, the Russians’ near-constant shelling reduced the trees and fields to ashes, leaving only a tangle of charred stumps.

In winter, temperatures in Viktor’s trench fell as low as minus 26 degrees Celsius. On warmer days, shin-high water pooled at the bottom of the canal, mixing with the earth to turn into slushy mud, soaking everything. All the while, Russian drones flew overhead, hovering above the open trench and dropping grenades.

At the beginning of this year, Russian forces attempted yet another assault, driving an armored personnel carrier into a field just meters from Viktor’s position. He fired at the vehicle with his machine gun and diverted it to a minefield, where it detonated a mine and exploded.

Several of the Russian soldiers died in their vehicle, say Viktor and his commander. Others survived with serious injuries and tried to crawl through the minefield back toward the Russian positions. One of them, a former convict from Russia’s Buryatia region, was taken prisoner, Viktor says. Immediately afterward, Russian attacks on Viktor’s position intensified.

“So of course the Russians were angry. They lost equipment, lost people, so of course they started shelling with everything they have,” Viktor says.

In the heat of battle, all you can do is pray, he says. Around his neck, Viktor wears silver medallions of the Virgin Mary and the crucifix. But when the situation is truly dire, he will pray to every God he knows.

After Russia’s failed assault, their drones started dropping gas canisters into Viktor’s trench. A colorless, odorless gas would quickly fill the trench as Viktor and his partner fumbled in the dark for their gas masks. Coughing and sputtering, Viktor would crawl into a hole dug into the side of the trench just tall enough for him to crouch in and grab his phone. There, using candlelight, he would flick through photos and videos of his now two-year-old daughter on his phone.

The Ukrainian military says Russia has ramped up its use of riot-control chemical agents to clear trenches on the front line. The U.S. State Department says Russia is deploying a choking agent called chloropicrin against Ukrainian troops, in violation of the international chemical weapons ban. The U.S. allegations were unfounded, the Russian foreign ministry said this month.

When spring finally came, nothing flowered. All Viktor sees now are the outlines of blackened tree trunks on the horizon.

His exhaustion is palpable - the result of months spent holding the line against an enemy with seemingly endless manpower and weaponry. Death and injury are constant and every day is a reminder of the asymmetry of the war.

A declassified U.S. intelligence report in December assessed that Russia had lost as much as 90% of the personnel it had at the start of the 2022 invasion, with 315,000 soldiers killed or injured. Despite the losses, Russia is still estimated to have almost 500,000 servicemen in Ukraine, according to Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, and has continued to replenish its troops, recruiting heavily from prisons and from the general public. Ukrainian officials say Russia is planning to add another 300,000 soldiers in time for its summer offensive.

Russia’s new defense minister said this month there were no plans for a new mass call-up of troops. Russian officials also say Western estimates of Russian losses are inaccurate.

Zelenskiy recently signed off on a long-debated mobilization law to bolster Ukraine’s armed forces, which number around 800,000. The law, passed in April, lowers the draft age to 25 from 27. The government hasn’t said how many new conscripts the law would yield, and how soon they can reinforce the troops already on the front line.

“It’s not like how it looks on a map, with all these pretty lines and arrows,” Viktor says. “I see my friends, what’s happened to them, what we’re fighting. It’s hell. It’s worse than hell.”

‘Death can come at any moment’

In February, the constant Russian assaults, sleep deprivation, and fear finally got to Viktor. He woke up one morning frozen with terror, physically unable to go to his position.

“I couldn’t calm myself down,” he says. “Not even that I didn’t want to go, but I couldn’t go. I was physically and mentally tired.”

Viktor was paralyzed by anxiety. What if he failed to do his job properly, what if something went wrong with his gun, what if he let down his comrades, whom he calls his “brothers” and considers his second family?

He shared his concerns with his company commander. Despite a severe shortage of soldiers on the front, the commander gave Viktor a few days of rest and time to talk with a psychologist. That short reprieve saved him and helped reframe his fear of death.

In the past, he used to think of death as a distant possibility. “But in a war, you’re completely unprotected,” he says. “Death can come at any moment. I’m starting to get used to the idea of death ... that it can happen, and you can’t escape it.”

“The psychologist said that a person who has faith understands that in death the spirit leaves the body and only a shell remains on earth.”

Viktor’s ideas are blurrier when it comes to what follows death, but he knows, with certainty, that there is no salvation for the Russian soldiers who marched into Ukraine.

“I think they’re churning in hell,” he says.

Viktor’s eyes suddenly flick up. The whistle of incoming artillery makes him duck for cover.

“Get in the hole!” he yells, his voice drowned out by a shattering boom as he flattens himself against the dirt floor of the trench. Another whistle, this time closer, then a sound of impact, of metal meeting earth. The dirt walls of the trench vibrate. Then all is quiet for some time.

A little while later, the exhausted voice of a Ukrainian soldier crackles over the radio, asking for help. The soldier’s position, a few hundred meters away from Viktor’s trench, has been hit by what appear to be Russian suicide drones, which smash into their targets laden with explosives.

“One 200, three 300s,” the soldier says over the radio, using military code: one dead and three wounded.

“What are my instructions?” he asks, panting slightly. The soldier is ordered to hold his position and not attempt to cross the minefield.

“Plus plus,” he sighs, acknowledging the order.

A few minutes later, the same soldier’s voice returns to the radio.

“What are my instructions?” he asks again, audibly out of breath.

“He’s concussed,” Viktor says, noting the soldier’s confusion and slurred speech, signs of possible head trauma.

He slumps against the white sandbags that line the walls of his trench and takes off his helmet. “They’re not going to be able to rescue them until dark.”

Over the radio, the injured soldiers are told to wait until nightfall - more than eight hours - for a medevac team to extract them. From there they could be taken to a stabilization point, a medical facility close to the front line where wounded soldiers receive emergency aid. The commander says another group of men will be transported to hold the position at the same time.

“Do not leave your post,” he tells the soldier on the radio, instructing him to drink water and stay awake.

Several more explosions are heard from the injured men’s position.

“They’re trying to finish them off,” Viktor says, as the radio crackles again with the voice of the soldier. Several more Russian drones are swooping on their position and dropping munitions.

Viktor takes another drag of his cigarette. He’s lost count of the soldiers he’s seen injured or killed. There was a cheerful soldier in his twenties he shared a trench with last fall. He was killed in a heavy mortar attack while Viktor was away from the position for a few days of rest.

Asked for the young soldier’s name, Viktor hesitates and squeezes his eyes shut.

“I can’t even remember,” he says after a pause. “I can’t even remember where he was from.”

More than anything, Viktor wishes he could go home, but he says the chances of another soldier replacing him soon at his front-line position are slim.

The final mobilization law passed in April did not include a provision in an earlier version that would have rotated out soldiers who had already served 36 months of duty. Ukraine’s defense ministry is now considering a new law that will address demobilization.

Even with the mobilization push, many young Ukrainian men do not want to be sent to challenging front-line trenches like Viktor’s, soldiers and officers in his brigade say.

“No one will trade with us,” Viktor says. “Who would want to come here?”

So, he stands guard at his Browning, listening and watching. For hours, the radio crackles on as the injured soldiers wait for the skies to darken. Viktor, ever alert in his trench, looks up at the midafternoon sky. A deeper buzzing sound can be heard approaching, a sound that resembles a larger drone carrying a heavier payload. The sound comes closer, then hovers, suspended above the trench.

Viktor strains to hear against the wind. The buzzing moves away, towards the Russian position.

“Ours,” he says.

‘Nobody’s safe’

A few dozen kilometers away in a demolished village in the southern sector of Donetsk region, another soldier stares at a bank of computer monitors in the dark basement of a command observation point. Roman, a 38-year old commander of a fire support platoon, squints at the screens, a cherry-flavored cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. On one screen is a grid of thermal images, including one showing a tree line in his sector of the Donetsk front.

There is no movement. But Roman knows there are Russian dugouts under the trees. He leans back in his leather armchair and scratches behind the ears of his dog, Marcel, a mixed breed he found in the destroyed village. Another soldier, one of the men in Roman’s drone unit, coughs in his sleep as he shifts on an army cot set up in the room.

Drones have been used in wars before, but their use has exploded in the war in Ukraine. Russian and Ukrainian forces are now racing to develop and deploy a variety of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, that can carry out precision attacks, destroying everything from dugouts to multi-million dollar tanks.

Ukrainian soldiers and commanders say aerial vehicles initially gave them an edge over Russia. They now say Moscow is far outpacing their ability to produce them, in particular the lower-cost first-person view drones, or FPVs, which can be laden with explosives and crashed into targets.

Like thousands of other Ukrainians, Roman volunteered to fight in 2022. At the time of Russia’s full-scale invasion, he had been living in Marseille, after almost eight years working and living abroad. He grew up in a working-class village outside of Kyiv with a single mother and left Ukraine to search for a better life. In Marseille, he met his French wife, opened a small pizza restaurant with friends, and spent his free time walking his dog and swimming in the brisk waters of the ocean.

“I was really living my dream, it was everything I wanted after struggling for so long,” he says.

When war broke out, his wife and mother begged him not to return to Ukraine. But Roman felt he wouldn’t be able to look himself in the mirror if he didn’t volunteer. He quickly joined up with Ukraine’s police task force, which has fighting units, first heading to the southern Ukrainian cities of Mykolaiv and Kherson before moving to Bakhmut in Donbas.

In December of 2022, Roman formally joined the military. Last year, he was assigned to accompany one of Ukraine’s deadliest snipers, Vasya, who has more than 440 kills, according to the press officer of Roman’s brigade. Vasya has been given the prestigious “Hero of Ukraine” title, a presidential award usually bestowed posthumously, although he is still alive. Roman, who has combat lifesaving training, was tasked with protecting Vasya and keeping him alive as they stalked Russian soldiers in the thick of the Kreminna Forest.

In his new role, Roman oversees 32 soldiers in the 58th Motorized Brigade who are fanned out across mortar and drone positions in the Donetsk region.

Roman’s war is now waged almost entirely on monitors.

“It looks like a fucking video game,” he says, toggling between the different windows on his screen.

A few kilometers closer to the front, three soldiers in Roman’s unit sit in a cramped dugout, waiting for Roman’s orders to launch the drone. Denys, a drone pilot and youngest of Roman’s platoon at 21, sits in the corner vaping as another soldier teases him for being too green and stupid.

“He’s senile, don’t listen to him,” Denys says, pointing to the older soldier, who is in his 30s. “They’re so desperate for fighters they’re recruiting from homes for the elderly.”

The two soldiers banter on. Serhii, their explosives expert, listens with a smile. Unlike artillery and other longer-range drone teams, units like theirs need to sit closer to Russian positions because their reconnaissance drones normally have a shorter range. Day and night the soldiers sit underground, waiting for an order to fly the DJI Mavic, a quadcopter that they use to surveil the sector and drop bombs on Russian targets.

Roman’s voice comes over the speaker of Denys’ phone and the men spring into action. Denys balances the drone controller on one leg, while Serhii attaches a freshly charged battery to the Mavic.

Once in the air, the drone sweeps over a field pockmarked by artillery rounds. The soldiers watch its video feed on a small screen: It ascends higher as it flies over two Russian heavy vehicles destroyed by mines. On the horizon, a line of trees appears.

“Denyska, climb higher, you’re flying for reconnaissance,” Roman can be heard telling his drone pilot.

“I’m climbing,” Denys says.

“Higher. Fly sideways,” Roman orders.

As the tree line comes closer, Denys scans for movement on a small monitor.

“No, there’s nothing,” he says.

“Okay, come back, I’ll watch everything on streams,” Roman says, referring to the live feeds from other reconnaissance drones, as he searches for targets.

The next day, one of the reconnaissance flights spots a Russian soldier standing under a thick cover of trees.

“He doesn’t see the drone so he thinks he’s safe,” Roman says in his bunker, looking at the Russian man in fatigues on his screen. “But nobody’s safe.”

Mouth still wet from brushing his teeth, the Russian soldier squints as he tries to make out the soft whirring sound. He turns to say something to his partner, then spots the Ukrainian drone. He dives into a hole under the trees, just as Denys drops a homemade bomb right on top of it.

“Fucking great! Good boy!” Roman exclaims, staring at a plume of dust and smoke rising from the hole.

Denys asks Roman to repeat the praise.

“I told you you’re great, do you need anything else?” Roman jokes.

‘Let them be scared’

Leaning back in his armchair, Roman taps the tip of an unlit cigarette on the back of the pack. Marcel, the dog, trots over to him to lean against his legs.

“The idea is - let them be scared. We want them to sit in their holes and not even pop their heads up. If any time you see movement you throw something at them, you throw FPV, you fly a drone, you hit them with artillery, you shoot them with a machine gun, they’ll be scared even to go to the toilet,” says Roman.

One of the most potent weapons in the war has been FPV drones. They have made it almost impossible for both Ukrainian and Russian troops to move on the battlefield without being spotted from above. These drones, which carry explosives, can be guided to a target kilometers away, and cost as little as $500 to produce. Russia, like Ukraine, aggressively targets soldiers’ positions and equipment with FPVs. Doctors and staff working at medical stabilization points in Donbas now say most of the battlefield injuries they treat are from such drones.

There are no reliable estimates of how many FPV drones Russia is able to manufacture every month. Ukraine plans to produce a million FPVs this year, but soldiers and commanders in drone units say they need to double or triple this number if they hope to keep up with Russian troops.

To more quickly supply Roman’s brigade with drones, former jewelers and mechanics sit in a village house near the front line, soldering parts for FPVs that can immediately be deployed. Brigades also collect downed Russian drones, which are then taken apart and examined by army engineers who are desperate to keep up with the pace of development on the Russian side.

Roman’s phone rings and he picks up, switching to French. His wife is calling from Marseille to ask about Marcel the dog and the vaccinations he will need for a short leave that Roman is planning to France. The couple married just before Roman enlisted to fight, and in his final week in France he drew up a will to make sure she would be taken care of if he died at war.

Like many Ukrainians, one of his best friends from childhood was killed in the fighting two years ago. Afterward, Roman had the words “hate” and “revenge” tattooed above his knuckles, a reminder of the emotions that keep him fighting.

But drone warfare, unlike the close-quarter fighting he conducted in the forests, does not always provide the gratification he seeks. Video clips of the bomb drops, often edited by the soldiers themselves with a hip-hop soundtrack and shared on social media, have an artificial, almost unreal quality about them.

“If I see someone is dead, if we’ve killed someone, I have zero moral satisfaction, it’s just like a video game,” Roman says. Often, he wonders what will actually satisfy the anger and sadness that he feels.

“So your friend is gone. How many invaders do you have to kill to avenge him? 10? 100? 1,000? You’re not going to get your friend back,” he says.

Soldiers in Ukraine clearly delineate life before and after the war.

Even Roman, who has a background in martial arts and easily fits his new role of commander, never dreamed of becoming a soldier. A look at his social media photos from just a few years ago reveals a different man: carefree and smiling on a messenger bike, eating pizza with his friends, posing in a rice paddy in Bali.

Another soldier describes that sense of disconnect as missing the person you once were and not recognisng the new person you’ve become. When there’s a lull in his work, Roman lingers on such thoughts.

“My wife is constantly asking, ‘When is it going to be over?’ And I say I don’t have a fucking answer,” he says. At first, he thought he might be away from home for a year or two. Now, he thinks the war will continue for at least a few more years.

Though he’s not interested in demobilizing and leaving his men behind, Roman agrees that Ukraine needs a way to help fighters rest. Some of Ukraine’s most motivated men and women were the first to volunteer in 2022. Now, so many of them are dead, injured, or exhausted. It’s not enough just to draft more people to take their place, Roman says; they need to be properly prepared and trained.

“You can’t keep the same people constantly on the front line.”

But the decision of Ukrainians like him to continue fighting isn’t really a choice, he says. It’s a question of life or death for his people and his country. And if Russia prevails in Ukraine, he’s convinced no one in Europe will be safe.

“For Europe and the whole world, we’re on the front lines defending it,” Roman says. “Because this motherfucker will never stop just in Ukraine,” he adds, referring to Putin. “If you let him get away with it, he’s not going to stop over here.”

Sitting in the windowless basement in front of the monitors, Roman loses track of time. Outside, above the destroyed rooftops of village houses, the night sky is full of stars.

‘It’s endless’

In an area north of Roman’s command center, artillery units defending Ukraine’s eastern front waited for new deliveries of ammunition to arrive.

Ukraine’s shortage of artillery shells has become a decisive factor in its struggle to repel Russian advances. Russia’s new offensive outside of Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine is likely to put further strain along the eastern front, where artillery units have been carefully prioritizing targets and rationing shells. In an April interview, Zelenskiy said that Russia was firing shells at a ratio of 10 to one to those of Ukraine.

One of Russia’s targets is Kupiansk, a northeastern city in the Kharkiv region that was captured by Russia in early 2022 and retaken by Ukrainians later that year. Today, Russian forces are about 10 kilometers away. Oleksii, a soldier in an artillery unit in the 57th Motorized Brigade, is preparing to return to his position in the city after spending a few days resting in a nearby village house.

Oleksii, 27, volunteered to fight five years ago after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Since then, the town in the Zaporizhzhia region where he grew up has been reduced to rubble. His comrades are all motivated and want to fight, he says, but their biggest concern is the acute shortage of shells.

“When you work and when you have enough shells, you can work and you understand you are destroying the enemy,” Oleksii says. In 2022, one artillery installation could fire 40, up to 100 shells a day. Now, the number has been reduced to two or three shells a day, maybe a dozen on a busy day, he says.

In February, Zelenskiy said Ukraine had received just 30% of the one million shells the European Union promised to deliver by March. The European Commission did not respond to questions about the shell delivery.

By the time Oleksii arrives at one of the brigade’s artillery positions, a spring storm has started. Rain is falling and thunder cracks overhead. The hulking 2S1 Gvozdika, a self-propelled howitzer, sits hidden under a cluster of branches and khaki netting, while soldiers take shelter in a dugout nearby.

The unit commander, a slim man with dark hair named Yurii, boils water on a camping stove as his men wait for an order to fire on a column of Russian infantry.

Stirring a cup of tea, one of the soldiers says the months-long shell shortages have made Ukrainian forces on the front lines exceedingly vulnerable. Without shells, artillery units like theirs are unable to cover for infantry on the front lines.

“If the Americans had passed the package sooner, Russians wouldn’t have gotten so close to Chasiv Yar,” says Yurii, the 53-year-old commander. “They wouldn’t have taken so many villages and we wouldn’t have to fight to take back these villages.”

Russians have factories across their country where they can produce all manner of weapons and ammunition, Yurii says, while Ukraine is largely reliant on the goodwill of Europe and the United States.

“Russians can shoot their artillery like it’s a machine gun,” the commander says. “It’s endless.”

As the wind picks up outside, the men argue over the U.S. election in November and what Trump’s possible return would mean for the war.

“But he won’t win!” exclaims one of the soldiers.

“Even if he did, he’ll still have to help Ukraine,” another says. “When he’s president he won’t be able to ignore the opinions of his people.”

Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung told Reuters that the former president would make negotiating an end to the war “a top priority” in a second term, and that European nations need to pay “more of the cost of the conflict.”

The problem, Yurii says, is that even after all of the horrors of the past two years of war, there are still so many people in Europe and the U.S. who do not accept all that Putin and the Russian military are capable of.

The horrific images of civilians slaughtered in Bucha after its occupation, the pulverized cities of Mariupol and Bakhmut. The tens of thousands killed, the endless portraits of dead Ukrainian soldiers shared on Facebook and Instagram, the never-ending funeral processions for fathers and brothers, the videos of children draped over their coffins.

“It’s not possible, I guess, just by looking at the photos” to comprehend the horrors of this war, Yurii says.

But Oleksii, the soldier in the artillery unit, says Ukrainians have little choice but to keep fighting.

“For our entire history we’ve been fighting,” he says, rubbing the dust out of his eyes.

The men fall quiet. They sit side by side on narrow military cots, taking sips from their cups. Suddenly, the radio comes alive with an order. The soldiers dash out of their dugout and prepare to fire. — Reuters