Bakhmut: the longest battle


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May 5, 2023

Bakhmut: the longest battle

  • Dispatches from Ukraine
  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • war

After months of fighting for the city, the few inhabitants of Bakhmut are struggling to survive—without water, electricity or gas, and with winter temperatures.

Photo by State Emergency Service of Ukraine

The street is dead. Its landscape is made up of concrete apartment blocks, rubble from hit buildings, broken glass and remnants of rockets. And the corpse of a dog covered with frozen snow, from under which you can see a dead eye, a slightly gaping maw and matted fur. In the background, the inscription: “Welcome to hell” – the work of the Bakhmut artist Masha Vyshedska. Contrasting reality with yearning, she painted a street that she would like to see in her city, filled with joy, teeming with life, and at the same time pretty & without chaos. Today, her work, scarred by shrapnel and with corpses lying beside it, takes on a different meaning.

The weather is freezing cold, the sky is clear, but it seems like there is an endless storm all around. Sometimes it feels like the ground is splitting. Artillery almost never ceases. Often the ominous whistling of shells and the roar of missile engines reach the ears. And Russian fighters circle above.

Johnny, a spotted mutt, is running around a few hundred meters further on from where the dog’s remains lie. When he strays too far, Volodymyr, a 64-year-old pensioner and an artilleryman in Soviet times, calls him. He took a break from chopping wood, thanks to which the people left in the city can keep warm. Gas, electricity and water have been lacking for a long time and the cellular network is not working. Although Grad missiles hit his building two days ago, Volodymyr doesn’t even flinch when the missiles fly over his head. “If God wills it, I’ll survive.” Then I’ll put on Peter Green and Pink Floyd, so it won’t be boring, because now it’s just Johnny, four cats, and me,” he says.

The fighting for Bakhmut began in the summer of 2022. Until February 24, 80,000 people lived in the city. At the beginning of February 2023 there were about 6,000 left. The fight for Bakhmut is the longest battle since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion. The city is increasingly ruined and fighting continues street after street. On the anniversary of the full-scale war, the Ukrainian army is struggling to repel successive attacks.

In the present tense

Apart from Volodymyr and his animals, no one lives in the multi-story apartment building. At the turn of January and February, his wife (five years younger than him) and 34-year-old daughter also lived with him. “Why did we stay? My aunt had dementia, we had to take care of her. We buried her in September,” Volodymyr explains.

Even then, the situation in Bakhmut was difficult. They somehow adapted to it and stayed in the city under fire after the death of their aunt. Both women, however, were taken by the war, which the daughter’s heart could not take. Living in constant danger has consequences. She died of a heart attack.

Volodymyr had already resigned himself to the idea that he would have to bury them in the backyard because he had no money for a funeral. But friends who left for Western Ukraine paid for everything. Thanks to this, daughter and wife were buried in the cemetery in the neighboring town of Chasiv Yar.

He still talks about them in the present tense: “The wife’s birthday will be April 7, and the daughter’s on February 24.”

The drama that befell Volodymyr deprived him of hope and willingness to act. “It’s too late to leave,” he says as a shell explodes nearby. “As you get older, you start to understand that you’ve already lived your life. She was my second wife, I have children. I could go to them, but I don’t want to get in the way. I will pray that I survive.”

As he speaks, the explosions become so loud that sometimes I can barely hear him even when I’m standing next to him. “At school they taught me that there is no God. But when things like this happen, you start to think more about him,” he admits, and goes back to chopping wood.

Ten past ten

Two days before we spoke, Grad missiles hit his house. They destroyed the facade of the building right below Volodymyr’s apartment. Bricks lie in the street along with scattered shrapnel and glass, while rocket bodies stick in the ground.

When his house was hit, he was already in bed—without electricity there is not much to do on dark and cold evenings. And that’s when it’s the scariest: everything trembles, cats hide under the sofa, and the dog sits, looks at him and barks. He was about to fall asleep when suddenly there was such a bang that he jumped out of bed and started cursing. No, he did not run down to the basement, although there is a real Soviet-era shelter in the building.

Only in the morning did he see what had happened. He thought about repairing the balcony, but he waved this thought away with his hand. A clock fell off the wall from the impact and the batteries fell out. That’s how he knows the shelling was at exactly 10:10 p.m.

So far, Volodymyr had enough to eat. Humanitarian aid was dispensed in the city, and soldiers who left positions near his home told him to take whatever he needed. But he admits that he doesn’t particularly think about food—the constant explosions kill his appetite. Before the situation in the city deteriorated, he weighed about 90 kilograms. He estimates that he currently weighs no more than 70 kilograms.

He draws water from a well and melts snow. He burns the wood that he chops in a stove inside the house; its pipe protrudes through a plywood window.

Perseverance points

However, the situation may soon change. Due to the deteriorating wartime situation around Bakhmut and the Russians advancing deeper into the city, the authorities of the Donetsk region have restricted access to the city to all non-resident civilians. They explain that it is for security. At the police checkpoint outside the city, civilians must show special passes. As a result, it is difficult or impossible for volunteers to enter. And they are the ones who provide food for the people left in the city.

“This explains a lot,” Tetiana, 51, repeats several times when she learns about the new restrictions.

The decision on passes was announced suddenly. Although they were required at checkpoints, they were not issued for the first three days. Officials argued that the military command had not permitted it. As a result, aid was not reaching Bakhmut.

Tetiana is responsible for one of the three so-called perseverance points operating in the city. Every day from 8 am to 4 pm, people can warm up there, eat a hot meal or drink some tea. Medications are dispensed and first aid is also provided – it has happened that wounded people have run into the point. Tetiana is a midwife, she worked in a hospital for years.

You can also get firewood here. One of the volunteers chops it tirelessly.

The perseverance point is the only place where residents can connect to the internet thanks to a satellite connection. There they can tell their loved ones that they are alive.

To the end

Tetiana and other volunteers are busy. There are always several dozen people at the perseverance point during working hours, and a hundred or more come after twelve o’clock, when lunch is ready. It’s a small room with no light coming in through the boarded-up windows. It is illuminated only by the dim light of light bulbs and the stove on which soup is cooking. Those who come are mainly poor elderly people – they have nowhere to go or do not want to leave the city.

Tetiana, although she smiles and finds a moment for everyone, admits that she is exhausted. She has been working non-stop for several months. And it’s hard to relax at home. “I have no windows, it’s cold and completely dark. I use a flashlight for light and ignite the wood stove,” she says.

Sometimes, when she can give no more, she lies down and—as she says—howls, roars and sobs.

“I have had back surgery, I have diabetes. I crawl out of bed every morning, though it’s hard. I say to myself: ‘Tania, get up, you are needed.’ As long as I have strength and opportunities to, I must help. I know that I am the pillar that many people hold on to,” she says.

She goes to and returns from the perseverance point under fire. Although sometimes they strike nearby, she usually doesn’t pay attention to them. They sometimes strike next to the point. The corrugated metal shop across the street was turned into a ruin. Tetiana then shooed everyone away from the door and tried to keep her cool. This is why they now block the entrances to the perseverance point with wooden shields to stop the shrapnel.

She has been packed for a long time. When the Russians are on the precipice of taking the city, she will leave.

“If Bakhmut isn’t Ukrainian, I will not stay,” she says.

It’ll be alright

Anatoly, an employee of the state railways, isn’t leaving either – he is convinced that the Ukrainian army will defend the city. Though the Russians are gradually tightening the ring around Bakhmut: they are pushing from the north, east and south. They’ve cut off two key routes, leaving one worse road that their artillery is already reaching.

Anatoly decided to stay back in 2014, when the war in Donbas broke out. “You can’t give up in this situation, you have to hold on. Everything will be fine,” he says, and at that moment, an artillery shot rings out. “When this is over, we’ll live better.”

He admits that he is like that by nature, so it’s easier for him in this difficult time: “It’s terrible, but that’s alright. Nothing comes from fear. When they’re firing hard, I run down to the basement, but not for long, for half an hour, sometimes an hour.

It’s hard to say where this optimism comes from. His children and wife have left. He says he misses their conversations the most. He lives in his son’s house—his house and his daughter’s apartment have been destroyed, and his garden plot is in an area already occupied by the Russians.

Only a few people remain around Anatoly. He occasionally chats with them. It is loneliness that bothers him the most. He and his neighbor keep each other’s spirits up. They have known each other since 1995, when Anatoly moved to Bakhmut from western Ukraine.

Whatever happens, happens

An elderly couple remains in the house next door, both in their nineties. The last time Anatoly visited them, their legs were swollen and they could barely move. He and the other neighbors help in whatever ways they can. They bring them wood to keep warm.

The old couple doesn’t want to leave. Nor do they have anywhere to go. Their son just abandoned them. He left town in the fall. When Anatoly called him, he heard from the receiver: “Don’t visit them, whatever happens, happens.”

“I want to cry when I think about it,” he says.

Anatoly walks around the henhouse, where a dozen hens cluck loudly, sometimes frightened by the sound of artillery. When a shell whizzes over his head, he doesn’t flinch. He stands straight as one of the few who believe that Bakhmut will also remain standing.

This text was originally published in Polish in Tygodnik Powszechny.

Translated from Polish by Lukasz ChelminskiThis piece is part of the DS collection: Dispatches from Ukraine.


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