- By Yogita Limaye
- BBC News, Bakhmut (Ukraine)
“This is the most difficult operation I have ever seen. The enemy has launched its strongest attack on Bakhmut. We have never seen such troops before,” testified a Ukrainian commander.
Commander Skala, as he wants to be called, runs the Ukrainian operation to defend the town of Bakhmut in eastern Donbass from an underground chamber in an unnamed street. It is one of the main command centers that the Ukrainian military has set up in the city and few journalists have visited it.
Tall and burly, with bright eyes, he watches live footage from a drone hovering east of town on a large screen in the center of the room.
One of the battalion’s units tries to reconnoitre the location of the Russian positions in order to help another unit that has just left to defend the attacked eastern approaches of Bakhmut.
In addition to the Russian armed forces, mercenaries from the private paramilitary group Wagner were sent by the thousands to the front lines around Bakhmut.
“Wagner’s soldiers are openly advancing towards us, under fire, although they are scattering their bodies on the ground, although of the 60 people in their platoon only 20 remain. It is very difficult to resist such an invasion. we are not ready for that and we are learning now,” said Commander Skala.
He adds: “A few weeks ago we lost positions on the eastern approaches to the city because the enemy was constantly attacking us. We moved to the secondary front lines to save our soldiers.”
“We try to work smart and recover those positions. Sometimes you need to pull back to attack the enemy properly.”
Wagner’s leader Evgeny Prigozhin said that the Ukrainians had turned every house in Bakhmut into a fortress and now there are “500 defense lines”.
Russia used all its strength to try to take Bakhmut – a battle considered critical for the country, which has lost ground in Ukraine in recent months…
The capture of Bakhmut is also important in furthering Russia’s goal of controlling the entire Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.
Throughout our conversation with Commander Skala, dull explosions can be heard from the ground. As soon as you set foot outside, the sound is loud enough to make your heart race – the terrifying hiss of flying projectiles, followed by the deafening crash of impact.
And the noise never stops, because the bombs keep falling.
One resident described the situation as “the end of the world”. And there are times when the situation looks like this.
The bombs pierced the middle of apartment buildings, exploded on building facades and created craters along the streets. It was difficult to find an intact window in Bakhmut. The floor is littered with broken glass and debris.
There was once an ordinary, quiet town in the east, known for its sparkling wine. Today, it has become synonymous with war and Ukrainian resistance.
It stands at a vital crossroads, but over the months the battle here has taken on symbolic significance. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently called it “a stronghold of our morale”.
Before the war, Bakhmut had a population of just over 70,000. Only a tenth of its inhabitants remain, most of them old or poor.
While the streets are practically empty, we see dozens of civilians in a relief center, called here a “resilience center”.
There is electricity and wifi provided by Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite system. Volunteers distribute small packages of food, medicine and other basic supplies. The center is heated by a wood stove.
It is a lifeline for the people of Bakhmut.
Many crowd around electrical terminals, trying to charge their phones.
What is remarkable is that even when the projectiles land a few hundred meters from the center, people do not hesitate. It’s like they got numb from running away from bombs every day.
However, the trauma is visible on many faces.
We asked Anatolay Suschenko, who is in line to eat, why he hasn’t left town.
“I have nowhere to go. I’m alone. Who would want to take an 86-year-old man? Here, at least sometimes, when soldiers throw food or soup, I find it and eat it. And I have free bread. In all my life, I have never seen anything like this. All the windows in my house were broken and the gate was destroyed, “he replied.
People have different reasons for staying. Olha Tupikova is sitting in the corner of the room with her 13-year-old daughter Diana.
“I think in all of Ukraine the danger is the same. Some of our neighbors left and died in other places. Here we have a house. We have cats and dogs. She.
“Our roof has 21 holes and the garage has nine. I always fix it, and I try to fix the windows too. The holes are caused by shrapnel. But lately we also received stones that made holes the size of a head”, testifies Olha Tupikova.
“We live like mice. We run fast for bread, we choose different paths to get home. Before sunrise I look for planks and logs [pour réparer ma maison]. At night, I look for water, because there is no water supply in the city,” said Olha Tupikova.
“Of course it’s scary. But now we do it the army way, like soldiers. We joke that chefs don’t know anything about cooking [comparé à nous]. We can make a meal out of anything over an open fire, or even a candle.”
The local administration tries to convince people to leave.
In a place in the city that we cannot disclose, as it could compromise its security, we meet Oleksiy Reva, mayor of Bakhmut for thirty-three years.
“It’s those who don’t have money and don’t want to face the unknown that are left behind. But we talked about it with them, because security is the most important thing, security and peace,” he said.
We asked him why he continued to stay. “This is my life, my work, my destiny. I was born here, I grew up here. My parents are buried here. My conscience does not allow me to leave our people. And I am sure that our military will not allow Bakhmut not to fall,” said Oleksiy Reva.
In the fields outside the city, we see the daily work required to maintain control of the city.
The unit of soldiers we encountered are trying to scout Russian sites and fire artillery – Soviet-era D-30 cannons – at them to allow the Ukrainian infantry to advance each day. But there is almost no progress.
“The equipment is outdated. It works well, although it could be improved. We also have to be very economical with our projectiles and very precise with our targets, so as not to run out of ammunition. If we had more equipment and modern weapons, we could destroy more targets, which that would make things a lot easier for our infantry,” says Valentyn, one of the soldiers.
Winter also makes things difficult. Guns don’t work as well in cold weather, they tell us.
“We just have to get through this period, hold on, execute counterattacks and fight,” said Yaroslav.
Each side tries to exhaust the other. It’s a battle of resistance.
How do you motivate yourself every day, we ask. “We all have families we need to go back to. Valentyn just had a baby but his family is in Germany so he hasn’t seen him yet,” says Yaroslav as Valentyn flashes a shy smile. “His motivation is colossal.”
Imogen Anderson, Mariana Matveichuk, Sanjay Ganguly and Daria Sipigina and contributed to this report.