Fathers on the Front
Film-maker Paul Conroy's beautiful photo essay on the Ukrainian 68 Jaeger Brigade reveals the grim determination of ageing Ukrainian soldiers on the front line during their summer counter-offensive
Commander Del’fin, his face serious and lined with the exhaustion of battle, raises a glass and toasts those absent from his birthday celebration. As an officer in the 68 Jaeger Brigade fighting on the Ukrainian frontline, he had just returned from an operation recovering a fallen colleague and eight wounded soldiers from a newly liberated village.
“They told me I didn’t have to go, but they are my men, and we are family. I had to do it,” he says, removing a combat cap once owned by his brother, who was killed in the 2014 Donbas invasion.
As the muted celebrations continue, another officer plays his accordion, and a mournful melody hangs in the air. One by one, the soldier’s tire, nod their goodnights and drift off to camp beds in dark corners of the building.
The following day, we left the cottage located in a village close to the zero line and joined the weary troops of the Jaeger Brigade at their training area just a mile from the HQ.
“I have three children,” Vlad tells me between drags of his smoke, “I have to fight for them. Otherwise, the Russians will kill and take everything we have.” His eyes betray the inner turmoil of fighting a war while having a young family at home.
In the forest, the team practice patrol and anti-ambush techniques. There is a weight of seriousness and responsibility among these men; the counter-offensive has already started, and what they train for today - will be used in anger tomorrow.
Despite battlefield losses, there is confidence they will prevail in the weeks and months ahead. “We took Blahodatne a few days ago. It was brutal, and the Russians kept coming back, but now we have it,” says Dima, his eyes squinting at the memory of the battle.
.The unit patrolled for a few more hours, then halted in a clearing for a lunch of Borsch and sweet tea.
A young driver was enthused about his MAXPRO MRAP, an American-made armoured personnel carrier. “It saves lives,” he says, smiling. “Yesterday, we took a direct hit from Russian artillery, we had headaches, but everyone inside was ok.”