Ukrainians leaving Bakhmut describe constant shelling, fear and cold

Valentyna, 70, walks with Leonid, a member of the volunteer organisation Chaplain Patrol, as she arrives at the Pokrovsk train station after being evacuated from Bakhmut, en route to meet her son in Kyiv, Ukraine. PHOTO: REUTERS

KOSTIANTYNIVKA, Ukraine - Ukrainians leaving the eastern city of Bakhmut this week described almost constant Russian shelling that forced residents to shelter in basements and sleep in the bitter cold.

Bakhmut, with a population of 80,000 people before Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, has become a symbol of the grinding warfare playing out along much of the eastern front, where enemy positions have rarely budged more than a few hundred metres in recent weeks.

Military experts say Bakhmut appears to be of little strategic value, but Russian forces including mercenaries fighting for the Wagner group have in recent days intensified their bombardment.

“The house would shake and every minute or second you expect it could crumble around you and that’d be it. I couldn’t even sleep in the last week, so I decided to leave,” said Valentyna, a retired woman of 70 who fled on Tuesday.

She declined to give her full name.

Before the war, Bakhmut was best known for its popular brand of Soviet-era, champagne-style wine and a nearby salt mine.

Its capture by Russian forces would be a rare piece of good news for Moscow after having suffered a series of humiliating battlefield setbacks against foes they initially thought would be easily overcome.

Military losses on both sides could be heavy in and around Bakhmut in fighting that has ebbed and flowed since May, although there are no reliable estimates.

According to the regional governor, fewer than 12,000 residents remain in a town that has sustained serious damage.

‘What are they waiting for?’

Leonid, a 37-year-old military chaplain who only gave his first name, drove a van into Bakhmut to evacuate civilians.

He described a picture of devastation, with mostly elderly people left behind on the streets and humanitarian aid workers covered in soot after fighting a fire.

Footage taken from inside Bakhmut in recent days has shown largely deserted areas, some buildings burning or badly bombed and regular bursts of gunfire.

“The situation is horrible, because there is constant shelling, constant attacks,” said Leonid, speaking to Reuters in his van as it passed through the town of Kostiantynivka en route away from front lines after its trip in Bakhmut.

“When we came into Bakhmut, there were fires to the left and right,” he said.

Valentyna was evacuated in Leonid’s van, headed towards the train station in Ukrainian-controlled Pokrovsk on the way to joining her son in Kyiv.

The pensioner said she finally left her flat because of the cold - there was no central heating - and the fear of shelling.

“It was cold. We slept in temperatures of three degrees Celsius in the house under three blankets... You lose faith,” she said, adding that many people remained in Bakhmut.

“Where the guys picked me up from, there’s a basement nearby, there’s a kindergarten there. There are a lot of people there.”

Leonid said around 60 people, 15 of them children, had gathered around the van when he stopped, but that they turned down his offer to drive them out.

“I begged them to go. No one agreed. Some came up and took my phone number: a grandma whose apartment burned down, another two women with children,” he said.

“People are still waiting for everything to end, even though it has become much more dangerous. People cry, but still stay. We don’t know what they are waiting for.” REUTERS

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