BAKHMUT, Ukraine – From atop his tank’s turret, the grinning Ukrainian soldier looked almost gleeful as he flashed the V for victory sign as his armored vehicle navigated a street corner in the battle-hardened eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, the diesel engines screaming as the tank rumbled to the front line.
A few blocks away, Valentyna, 70, stood in front of a two-story brick apartment building where she was staying. It had been hit by a Russian grenade last week. The explosion destroyed much of the top floor, sending glass and debris onto the sidewalk below.
‘Yes, there are sometimes shellings here. See?” she said calmly, gesturing at the damaged building. In her baggy and dirty clothes, she looked tired after days without electricity and running water, and the uninterrupted artillery fire that reverberated through the neighborhood.
The soldier and civilian, less than a mile apart, represented a fitting Wednesday juxtaposition of life in what was once a center of 70,000 people. Surrounded by sunflower fields and salt mines, Bakhmut still remains partially under siege, despite Ukraine’s recent breakthrough in the northeast of the country. It became one of the focal points of Russian forces in Donetsk province after taking neighboring Luhansk in July.
In recent weeks, Russian forces from both the east and south have moved closer to the outskirts of Bakhmut, gaining ground through incessant shelling and creeping troop advances.
The decisive attack around Kharkov, the country’s second-largest city, about 120 miles northwest of Bakhmut, has spurred the Ukrainian military as it seeks to take back more Russian territory. But civilians still mired in the nearly seven-month conflict remain wary of what comes next, in Bakhmut and the wider mineral-rich Donbas region.
“How do we know what’s going to happen?” asked Valentina. “We weren’t going to leave, and we’re not going to leave.”
About a week ago, around the same time as Ukraine began its attack on Russia’s front lines around Kharkiv, much of Bakhmut was plunged into darkness and information blackout when electricity and cell service went down.
Valentyna’s neighbor, Oleksandr, 59, learned of the scale of the Ukrainian offensive from a friend in the nearby city of Kramatorsk on Tuesday. Oleksandr had called him, from the limited spots in the city where cell phones are still available, to find out that the Russian front line at the strategically important city of Izium had completely collapsed. Russian troops, the friend told Oleksandr, continued to retreat.
“On their side, they drove the Russians far away,” Oleksandr said, referring to the front lines around Kharkov. But, he added, “our side is dangerous.”
In Bakhmut’s eastern neighborhoods, Albina, 18, watched as volunteers helped her great-grandmother into a white evacuation bus. She’d heard fleeting news of Ukraine’s run of victories, but hadn’t thought much about it.
“I don’t even follow the news, we don’t have internet or anything,” she said. Dark gray rain clouds hung over our heads and her family’s dog, fenced in and frightened, barked loudly.
The city is cut in half almost perfectly by the Bakhmutovka River, a calm waterway that runs north-south and was lined before the war by well-maintained vegetation and clean walking trails.
But now the river served as a line of demarcation for the range of some Russian weapons. Houses on both sides were destroyed, their roofs collapsed by artillery attacks. A gas station was in ruins. And what looked like a small shopping center had been damaged by a major explosion.
Volunteers from BASE.UAa Ukrainian nonprofit that is helping evacuate residents like Albina’s great-grandmother said the eastern bank of the river had gained a reputation in recent weeks as being much more dangerous and, given Russia’s recent advance into the city, could now become hit by shorter range mortars.
For the residents of Bakhmut, like many in Ukrainian towns and villages under Russian shelling, the deadly danger is often expressed in distance. For some, proximity to death—of a grenade or missile descending from the sky in a bone-rattling cry—is relative: “near” can be defined as half a mile away or a neighbor’s house or their own backyard.
“We haven’t been shelled in this area until now,” said Luda, Albina’s mother. But, she added, pointing to a few houses away, “our neighbor’s yard had been shelled there.”
“We hope for the best,” she sighed, acknowledging that she would stay regardless of the Russian shelling and Bakhmut’s fate.
Her husband, Serihy, wept as his grandmother was helped into the van. In a few days he would send his mother away. His daughter, Albina, hoped her parents would eventually evacuate as well.
“My father built this house,” Serihy said defiantly. “How can I give up?”
It remains unclear how many residents are left in Bakhmut. Over the course of the war, people in eastern Ukraine were much more reluctant to leave compared to those in the western regions of the country, who were more directly threatened during the war’s earlier battles. The territory of the Donbas is predominantly Russian, and in 2014 Bakhmut was briefly under the control of Russian-backed separatists before being ousted by the Ukrainian military.
Near Bakhmut’s cultural center, a grandiose concert hall with a Corinthian columned entrance that had recently been hit by what residents say was a Russian missile, a trio of brothers planned to leave the city without their parents. They weren’t sure where they were going, but hoped to reach Dnipro, a Ukrainian-controlled city about 130 miles to the west.
Sanya (18), Seryozha (15) and Slavik (11) had made the decision to leave after a rocket hit near their apartment in recent days. They planned to bring their game console, a TV, a few bags of clothes and their cat Sima.
For Slavik, a small, quiet boy on the brink of adolescence, it would be the first time he left Bakhmut. With Sima in a brown cardboard box with holes cut out on both sides, he took stock of his new adventure.
“If a rocket landed right behind your house, what else do you need to be afraid of?” he said.