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Life during wartime in Ukraine: Besieged in Bakhmut

Alexandra Induchova
January 25, 2023

The Ukrainian city of Bakhmut once had a population of 73,000. Around 8,000 people are still holding out there, despite offers to evacuate them. Why do they stay? Alexandra Induchova reports from Bakhmut.

Two damaged four-floor buildings, one lemon-yellow, with a pile of bricks and debris in front of them.
The city of Bakhmut is largely in ruins (photo: 17.01.2023)Image: Mustafa Ciftci/AA/picture alliance

The streets are deserted. Every few minutes, a missile whistles past and explodes nearby. Yevhen Tkachov and other volunteers from the aid organization Proliska are the only people moving around Bakhmut, supplying the remaining residents with food and toiletries.

The western part of the contested city in the region of Donbas is almost unrecognizable. Many houses are now nothing more than piles of bricks. Remnants of advertising billboards and damaged streetlights dangle over the roads and pavements, which are littered with overturned and burnt-out cars. Most windows are shattered; provisional coverings are stretched across the frames. Broken doors slam open and shut in the wind.

"Of course it's dangerous. But what can we do? People need help, because the stores don't open here anymore and not everyone has money," says Yevhen, getting out of the car. He has stopped in a courtyard surrounded by several apartment buildings. Here, too, many of the windows are broken. A man is trying to cover one with foil when there is the sound of an explosion very close by. The man ducks for cover, but gets back to work a few seconds later.

No electricity, water or gas

Some people approach the volunteers' car. "Humanitarian aid! Humanitarian aid!" Yevhen shouts, coaxing more residents out of the houses. They all have their identity cards with them, because they have to fill out a form with their personal data and sign it when they receive the aid.

Volunteers take aid to Bakhmut despite intense fighting

Suddenly, something flies just over the roofs of the houses, whistling loudly, and explodes nearby. Nobody even ducks this time; they just keep filling out the forms. "We're used to all sorts of different whistling sounds and explosions," a woman called Nina says.

Bakhmut is the focus of a war of attrition between Russian attackers and Ukrainian defenders. The front line is getting closer. There has been no electricity here for several months, no drinking water, and no gas.

Nina says there are around 100 people living in her neighborhood. Volunteers and the Ukrainian military have provided them with generators, but they only switch them on intermittently: to charge a lot of phones at once, or to do the occasional load of washing. The next gas station is in the town of Chasiv Yar, about 12 kilometers (seven miles) away. "We drive there in the car, which also requires gas. That's why we're saving energy," says Nina.

A few people gather around a black SUV. There are some large plastic bags of supplies on the ground. Someone on the far left of the photo is filming.
The remaining residents depend on volunteers and the army to supply them with food and waterImage: Oleksandra Indukhova/DW

People are staying with sick relatives

Drinking water is also supplied by the Ukrainian army or aid workers. Otherwise, they go looking for it themselves, searching for wells in the interior courtyards of private houses. They cook food on the street, on makeshift grills or cast-iron stoves.

Outside two of the apartment buildings, men are chopping wood. One of them, 35-year-old Dmytro, carries the logs into his apartment, where a sick relative is lying. "We've put stoves in the apartment, and we heat them with firewood," he says. "You can put a pot or frying pan on it and prepare food." From the courtyard, you can see pipes sticking out of several windows, with smoke rising from them. 

Whole families have remained in Bakhmut because of sick or elderly people who cannot, or don't want to, be evacuated. A man approaches with his teenage daughter. The girl doesn't want to speak to the journalists; she hides her face. "We can't leave our very sick grandmother alone in Bakhmut," her father says. The girl is the only child to be seen. Almost all children were evacuated from Bakhmut by September.

Living in the cellar

As early as last spring, as the front was approaching the city, people in this part of Bakhmut cleaned their cellars out thoroughly and set up furniture down there, some of which they made themselves. Down there, there are almost no communication links, says Nina.

Two neatly made camp beds either side of a low green table with items on it. The walls behind are bare concrete blocks.
Residents are sleeping in cellars - although they know they're not strong enough to withstand a rocketImage: Oleksandra Indukhova/DW

She walks ahead down a dark corridor that leads to the "rooms," only switching on her torch once we get there. There are shelves on the concrete walls, with tea and porridge. The six beds are neatly made. It's warm, thanks to a stove in the corner. The women there are boiling water on it, and they offer us tea.

There is no ventilation in the cellar, so they regularly go up to the front door to get some fresh air. For this reason, they say, they also try to use fewer candles at night. During the day they mostly stay in their apartments, but because the shelling goes on all night, they usually go down and sleep in their "bunker," as Nina calls it — although, as she admits, "This cellar won't save us from a rocket."

'The people of Bakhmut have long known the meaning of war'

These people know they are living in danger. Yet they still insist that they're not prepared to choose "capitulation or evacuation."

An elderly man and woman, wrapped in warm clothing, sit on camp beds set up close together in the small basement, drinking tea. The walls are bare concrete, and the room is lit by a bright white light and candles.
Nina and her husband want to stay in their hometown as long as it is held by the Ukrainian armyImage: Oleksandra Indukhova/DW

"The people of Bakhmut have long known the meaning of war and shelling," says Mykyta. The young man points out that fighting in Donbas began long before the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Ever since 2014, "something has hit the city" from time to time. Mykyta says he couldn't leave his parents, and they're too attached to their house to agree to evacuation. He can only hope that "the Ukrainian armed forces will drive the enemy out of the city."

Nina, too, has not yet given up hope. Her daughter has fled "to Europe," she says, but she wanted to stay in Bakhmut with her husband. "I'll stay here as long as the Ukrainian army is here," she insists. However, both agree that civilians should be evacuated if the situation deteriorates further. 

This article was originally written in Russian.