"Ghost" from Bakhmut: I killed 76 Russians by myself
Ukrainian forces are trying to retake the city of Bakhmut in the east of the country.
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Tanjug/AP Photo/Alex Babenko
The BBC has been given exclusive access to a unit of elite snipers called the Ghosts of Bakhmut, who carry out night raids in the vicinity.
The Ghost, the sniper team commander, leads the reporters to what he calls "the edge of existence" - their base on the outskirts of the city.
"Ghost is my call sign. When we started bringing terror to Bakhmut, we got the name Ghosts of Bakhmut," explains the commander.
Their base is within range of Russian artillery: "Artillery always takes care of people. You can hide from artillery, but not from snipers."
Ghost leads a unit of about 20 soldiers that has been operating on the outskirts of Bakhmut for the past six months. They often hunt high value targets.
When asked how many Russians they killed, Ghost answers: "There is a confirmed number - 524. Of those, 76 are mine. The unit electronically records every shot through the sights of its rifles."
"Of course I'm afraid, only a fool isn't"
But not everyone counts.
Shooter Kuzja says: "We have no reason to be proud. We don't kill people, we destroy the enemy". Before the war, he worked in a factory. He says he never liked guns, but felt the need to pick up one when Russia invaded.
Kuzya once again checks his American-made Barrett sniper rifle: "Every mission is dangerous, when we make a mistake, the enemy can hit us. Of course, I'm afraid, only a fool is not afraid."
In tonight's mission, he will be accompanied by Taras, his observer. Kush is the driver who will bring them as close as possible to the front line. From there, the duo will have to walk two kilometers to the finish line. The ghost will remain at the base, along with the rookie, known simply as the Brit. The youngest member of the unit was named after his training in Great Britain. He's just waiting for his first confirmed kill.
Ghost says he personally selected each member of the unit based on their "humanity and patriotism" rather than military experience and skills. As dusk approaches, the team climbs into an armored Humvee.
BBC reporter Jonathan Beale and cameraman Moose Campbell will follow them to the landing site. Driver Kush says that part of the route is still targeted by Russian artillery. As he starts the engine, everyone crosses. Kush starts playing music from his mobile phone. He says the Ukrainian rap song lifts their spirits and will also mask the sound of shelling.
At first, it's hard to hear the explosions nearby because of the Humvee engine, which Kush is driving at high speed. But he points to the sky several times and warns of the "coming". Several explosions are heard nearby. They pass several destroyed Ukrainian armored vehicles that were not so lucky. Kush points to the minefields on both sides of the dirt road. Twenty minutes later, they come to a screeching halt at a dilapidated house. The sniper duo opens the door and disappears towards the tree line.
Cush shouts: "God be with you"; before storming off.
"One shot, one target"
During the return, an orange flash is seen and a stronger explosion is heard.
The Humvee begins to shake even more. Kush opens the door while driving, looks behind him and utters a series of curse words. Shrapnel tore one of the rear tires to pieces.
This is followed by the "lame" back to the base. When they finally return, Kush shows a large piece of jagged metal that ripped the tire. It is now dark and the shelling has stopped. At their base, they anxiously listen to the radio waiting for news from the sniper duo. Kush and the Brit walk nervously.
The ghost is calling his seven-year-old daughter. She's on speakerphone and excitedly yells, "I love you, Daddy." It's a short scene of normalcy, but he's already taught her how to use a gun.
Seven hours later, it's time for the sniper to return. This time it's dark, but Kush tries to drive by memory - he avoids turning on the lights so as not to attract attention. Another sudden stop and the two snipers are back in the Humvee. Upon returning to base, the relief was palpable. Kuzja says:
"One shot, one target". Later they show video from the night target. A Russian machine gunner is said to have fired on Ukrainian troops near the front line. They will now rest until a new mission the following night.
Kuzja says: "I am happy that I am back and that everyone is alive". During the past six months, several members of the unit, including Commander Ghost, were wounded, but no one died. The spirit says that "every journey may be the last, but we are doing a noble deed".
One small team of snipers will not win this war, or even bring back Bakhmut. But they believe they have influence. Kush says it has a psychological effect on their enemy - they are hunting down Russian soldiers one by one from places unseen and with sounds unheard.