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“Echoes of the First War”: rats infest trenches in Ukraine

The front lines of Russia's war in Ukraine have become infested with rats and mice, spreading disease, hampering soldiers' performance and recreating the conditions that plagued troops in World War I trench warfare.

A Ukrainian soldier, who goes by “Kira”, recalled how her battalion was plagued by a “rat epidemic” last year while fighting in the southern region of Zaporizhzhia.

“Imagine going to bed and the night begins with a mouse crawling up your pants or sweater, or chewing on your fingertips, or biting your hand. You sleep two or three hours, depending on how lucky you are,” Kira told CNN .

She estimated there were about 1,000 rats in her four-soldier shelter. “It wasn’t the rats that visited us; We were your guests.”

The infestations are partly due to the changing seasons and the rats' mating cycle, but they are also indicative of how static the war has become after Ukraine's counteroffensive was stopped by Russian defenses.

Amid a harsh winter, the rats search for food and heat sources along the nearly 1,000km front line.

Kira said she tried everything to rid her bunkers of rats: spraying poison, spraying ammonia and even praying. Nearby stores stocked anti-mouse products and made a lot of money, she said. But as the mice advanced, they tried other methods.

“We had a cat called Busia, and at the beginning she also helped and ate rats. But later there were so many of them that she refused. A cat can catch one or two mice, but if there are 70 of them, then it is no longer possible.”

Videos posted by Ukrainian and Russian soldiers on social media have shown how deep the infestations are on the front lines.

Mice and rats are seen sheltering under the bedsin backpacks, power generators, coats It is pillowcases. One of them shows rats coming out of a Russian mortar.

In another, a cat tries to catch a mouse in an armchair, before a soldier hits the top of the seat and dozens of others cascade down. The cat, outnumbered, admits defeat and retreats.

Biological hazard

Ukraine's military intelligence reported in December an outbreak of “rat fever” in many Russian units around Kupiansk in the Kharkiv region, which Moscow has been trying to claim for months.

The report states that the disease is transmitted from mice to humans “by inhaling dust from mouse feces or by ingesting mouse feces in food.”

A CNN was unable to independently verify the report, but according to the Ukrainian military, symptoms of the disease include fever, rashes, low blood pressure, eye hemorrhages and vomiting, as well as back pain and trouble urinating as it causes trouble. in the kidneys.

The result, Ukraine's Defense Intelligence said, is that “'rat fever' has significantly reduced the combat capability of Russian soldiers.” It was not said whether Ukrainian troops were similarly affected.

Ukrainian authorities have not named a specific problem that is affecting Russian troops, but there are a number of diseases associated with living near rodents that have similar symptoms, including tularemia, leptospirosis and hantavirus.

“Back in time”

The report recalled the scene of World War I, where the putrid accumulation of waste and corpses allowed “trench rats” to reproduce rapidly.

Rats are nocturnal and tend to become more agitated while soldiers are trying to rest, causing great stress.

Robert Graves, an English poet who fought in the trenches, recalled in his memoirs how rats “came out of the canal, fed on the abundant corpses, and multiplied exceedingly.”

When a new officer arrived, on his first night he “heard a fight, shone his torch into the bed, and found two rats on his blanket fighting over possession of a severed hand.”

In World War I, the rat population increased as the conflict stagnated. And there are fears that the Ukraine war has done the same.

The head of the Ukrainian armed forces, General Valery Zaluzhny, told The Economist in late 2023 that “just like in the first world war, we have reached the level of technology that puts us in a stalemate.”

Deadly problem

Ihor Zahorodniuk, a researcher at the National Museum of National History of Ukraine, told CNN that rat infestations occurred in part because rodent reproduction peaks in the fall, but also because of the effects of the war itself.

“Winter crops sown in fall 2021 were not harvested in many places in 2022 and provided generous self-seeding. The mice that bred survived the very warm winter and went from crop to crop,” he said.

Furthermore, the war also dispersed natural predators, allowing rats to spread more freely.

In addition to causing anxiety and illness among soldiers, rats also destroy military and electrical equipment.

When she worked as a signalman and lived separately from other fighting troops in Zaporizhzhia, Kira said rats “managed to climb into metal boxes and chew through wires,” disrupting communications.

“The rats chewed on everything: radios, repeaters, wires. The rats would get into cars and chew through the electrical wiring, causing the vehicles to not work, and they would also chew through tanks and wheels,” said Kira.

“The losses caused by rats in our shelter alone amount to one million hryvnia (about R$130,000).”

Zahorodniuk emphasized that the damage could be critical, “as loss of communication could cost lives.”

As Ukraine faces yet another winter, the problem will likely get worse before it gets better. “It’s going to get colder and colder and they’re going to go into the trenches more and more. The situation will not change until everyone gets through this,” Zahorodniuk said.

In World War I, soldiers were unable to solve the problem of trench rats. Instead, they began killing rats for sport. Trying to bayonet one became a form of entertainment. But Zahorodniuk warned that Ukraine should not allow this to happen again.

“The fight against them must be organized and not rely on soldiers and volunteers who have no idea how to fight. This is wrong. After all, this is a question of the army’s combat capability.”

Source: CNN Brasil

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