Ukraine war: Vuhledar, the mining town Russia wants to take
"It's difficult. People don't get enough sleep. They are standing for 20 hours.
The commander, codenamed Beast, looked exhausted.
Beneath his green helmet, dark shadows ringed his eyes. He had been on his feet all night fighting. Like many on Ukraine's eastern front, he is both battle-hardened and war-weary.
"It's difficult. People don't get enough sleep. They are standing for 20 hours. The fight goes on around the clock. I can't say more, it's secret. But, we can't go back."
His unit, from the Ukraine's 35th Brigade, is part of the defence of Vuhledar. The name means gift of coal, and this prosperous mining town was once home to 15,000 people. But now it's a wasteland - one of many on Ukraine's 1,300 kilometre (807 mile) front line.
Blackened apartment blocks tower over deserted streets. A church has been reduced to a shell - its roof peeled off and windows shattered. A cross still stands at the front, punctured by shrapnel. In the playground, there are bullet holes in the slide. Vuhledar's children are long gone.
The town sits on high ground in the heavily contested Donbas region in the east. From here Ukraine can target rail lines used by the Russians for resupply. It needs to hold this bastion. Moscow needs to take it. Some of the fiercest fighting of recent months has been here.
"The front line is one kilometre away," said the commander, having to repeat himself over the rattle of heavy machine-gun fire, this time outgoing.
"They are pushing, and we lack armour. We are waiting for the Lend-Lease [the US programme that provides military equipment] and we will advance." That's a familiar refrain on front lines here as Ukraine awaits Western battle tanks promised by its allies.
For now, the defenders of Vuhledar use what they have got.
A few troops dart into position, to target the enemy. They lob mortars - and obscenities - then make a quick getaway, to avoid being targeted themselves.
We move forward carefully to within 500 metres of the front line. The Russians have no line of sight. We are shielded by buildings. But suddenly there's a warning shout. We have to take cover at a wall. The troops have heard something overhead, possibly a Russian drone. That's our cue to pull back.
The Russians may have eyes in the sky here - and superior firepower - but critics back home are questioning their vision.
A hapless Russian attempt to take the town earlier this month ended in heavy losses and humiliation. A column of tanks and armoured vehicles headed straight for Ukrainian positions - through minefields - in full view on a flat plain. Ukraine stopped them in their tracks, much as it stopped an armoured column approaching Kyiv last year. If the Russians learned anything from that, it didn't show in Vuhledar.
About 300 souls remain in this broken town without heat or light - frozen in place by age, clinging to their memories. Solace comes in the form of Oleh Tkachenko, a jovial evangelical pastor in combat gear, who brings aid here twice a week.