Snow covers the blood-soaked earth of Bakhmut. This modest Ukrainian city in the east is the focus of a major conflict.
Russian forces have been trying to take control of the area for over six months. As a result of the Ukrainian army’s resistance, the phrase “Bakhmut holds” has become a local catchphrase.
Now, Russian regular troops and members of the notorious Wagner mercenary group are attacking from three directions. Russian forces have advanced to a major thoroughfare leading into the city and are now pressing towards its outskirts.
The Ukrainian military reports “hard battles for every home” in some peripheral neighbourhoods.
Sadly, Bakhmut appears to be running out of time. If that’s the case, you can bet that Ilya and Oleksii will make the most of it.
Two members of the Ukrainian National Guard cross an open area of the front lines stealthily and quickly before diving into a trench.
They are armed and dangerous, with drones, grenades with modifications, and Velcro straps stashed in their camouflaged backpacks.
The 3D-printed tail fin on the grenade ensured that it would detonate upon impact, and it was manufactured in Germany.
A former computer programmer turned intelligence officer, Ilya has no trouble attaching the grenade to the drone with some velcro. Next, he fires it at the enemy troops, who are hiding in trenches about 1.5 kilometres away.
Oleksii, the drone’s pilot, said, “We know there are a lot of Russian soldiers there, walking, living, and sitting.” Thus, we simply present them with a gift.
“The goal isn’t to wipe out a bunch of soldiers, but rather to instill in them a healthy respect for our skies and a healthy respect for their own safety. The force exerted is purely mental.”
As he drops the grenade over the icy landscape, he shows us the scene from the drone’s perspective. While the force of the impact is clearly visible on his screen, it is impossible to tell if there were casualties on the ground.
It’s hard, but we’re staying here, and we’ll protect Bakhmut and the area around it as much as we can, Oleksii says of the fighting in Bakhmut.
However, Ukraine is calculating its losses and is reportedly considering a withdrawal.
There is a ticking clock in the Kremlin, marking the days until 24 February 2022, the one year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of its neighbour. Russia’s president is eager for a win before that date. Taking Bakhmut would give him a foothold in the mineral-rich Donbas region, one of his primary targets.
Bakhmut is reached via a network of narrow, back roads. This September, the route we’ve taken on previous trips became “suicidal” due to persistent Russian attacks.
The city is basically empty now. Through deserted streets, the thud of incoming and outgoing fire reverberates. Buildings have been pierced by multiple missiles. Not only have most of the 70,000 people who lived there before the war left, but so have the city’s utilities.
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However, there are still families hiding out here with their kids.
Anna, age seven, is a shining star in a dank, dark cellar. The blonde hair is pulled back in a ponytail, and she is wearing a pink sweater with tiny gold earrings. The room is filled with her colourful drawings, but it has the atmosphere of a jail.
Anna’s family consists of her mother Yulia, grandfather Valery, two cats, and a dog named Mushka. Her blue eyes stand out against her fair skin as she shows us her prized stuffed animals.
She says to me, “I sit in the cellar almost all day long,” and her voice is soft and sweet. “I try to take Mushka for a walk outside, but she keeps coming back because of the loud noises. I can only take her out in the morning when it’s still dark outside.”
Anna recites a list of her friends who have already fled, while Yulia sits in the shadows nearby. I wish I could see them again,” she cries out. “Masha could be in Western Ukraine, and Arina could be in Poland. Diana left for an unknown location. They all abandoned the building.”
Yulia, however, is not going anywhere without her daughter. Obviously, she tells me, she’s concerned. “Still, I believe it is probably safe to do so. A minimum of comfort is provided by our possession of all necessary items and our readiness to proceed with them. Due to a lack of resources, we do not feel secure travelling anywhere within Ukraine.”
The White Angels, an aid and evacuation unit of the Ukrainian police, regularly supply their basement shelter with food and water.
When Team Leader Pavlo Dyachenko sees Anna, he immediately beams. They have become close in the midst of the chaos of war.
To keep Anna warm, he has brought a brand-new sleeping bag, but his top priority is to get her and her family to safety.
He mused, “I don’t know why they’ve decided to stay.” “At night, in the morning, and all throughout the night, Bakhmut is under assault. Constant bombing and shelling make the situation extremely perilous.”
A few more thumps above ground support his claim.
As midday approaches, the shelling usually increases, as this is a regular part of the rhythm of war in Bakhmut. Troops on both sides sleep in late because of the arduous battles that occurred throughout the night.
We leave the city quickly and continue on through some picturesque hills.
A Ukrainian coworker remarked, “These heights are more important to the Russians than Bakhmut itself.” Larger cities like Kramatorsk and Slovyansk would be fair game if their artillery could be brought here.
The question is how much longer Bakhmut will maintain his hold.