Captured at the front in battle for the city in Ukraine

Captured at the front in battle for the city in Ukraine


Russian missile attacks on power plants this week are threatening cities across Ukraine with blackouts, but many frontline communities have been under shellfire and without electricity or water for months.

The wine-growing and salt-mining region of Bakhmut in the eastern Donetsk region is still fiercely defended by Ukrainian forces, but its desperate residents have been within range of Russian guns since May.

Once home to 70,000 people, the tree-lined main streets of Bakhmut are quiet and the concrete apartment blocks are shell-scarred ruins. Residents on the east bank of the Bakhmutka River are becoming increasingly isolated.

Ukrainian sappers destroyed the bridge connecting the exposed east bank to the city center on the west side to stem any Russian advance.

But this has left civilians on the east side dependent on a muddy gangplank thrown down between murky water and shattered concrete.

They cross the border to claim pensions or fetch water and basic necessities, even when artillery fire erupts nearby.

The crossing is too scary for Oleksandra Pylypenko, 67, who knows her cancer-stricken husband Mykola can barely make it down to their basement to shelter from shelling, let alone cross the rickety bridge.

– Treacherous Passage –

More sweet purple grapes hang on the vines around their little bungalow in the shadow of the blue-walled wooden Church of St. Mykola than they can eat.

And they have buckets of walnuts.

But they lack basic necessities like potatoes and onions — and services like electricity and running water — even as winter and Ukraine’s rolling battle with Russian forces both inexorably approach the city.

“Firewood. How can I get it? There is no way here. I have no money to pay for a delivery,” she told AFP news agency as she recounted her plight, first haltingly and then in a flood of tears and emotion.

“No gas, no electricity for three months, no water. Rainwater. I collect rainwater and use it for cooking. How else can I get water?”

There was no lack of rain on Monday.

The dirt roads traveled by military convoys turned to mud and the steep banks of the Bakhmutka leading down to the makeshift pontoon smoother and more treacherous than ever.

The couple is trapped, their children and grandchildren have fled, and 66-year-old Mykola may not survive the winter, even if the war spares him.

“They said to prepare, that’s it. What else could they say? I go outside and cry so he doesn’t see me,” Oleksandra said.

“See? It’s getting dark now. What can we do? Nothing. We can’t do anything. And these explosions, we can’t take them. When will it be over?”

Mykola, a former furniture factory worker who has lung cancer, said: “When the shelling starts, we run to the basement.”

But Oleksandra looked on with pity: “And now he can’t even make it into the basement.”

The couple’s modest home, still warm but damp and dripping from a shrapnel-damaged roof, is adorned with religious icons and stands next to an impressive church.

But even the sacred was not spared in the grueling struggle for Bakhmut.

The water well in front of St. Mykola’s door is padded and wrapped in polyethylene to protect it from explosions and the windows are boarded up, but the bell tower was pierced by a shell and the walls were ravaged by cluster bombs.

Church housekeeper Valeriy, 69, removes his fedora to show the pierced shrapnel hole as he hung from a hook in his work area.

Local residents are reluctant to complain about the warfare. Some did not want to give reporters their full names because they feared interrogation or arrest by unnamed officers.

– Heavy Guns –

But as a Russian force, rumored to be led by Wagner Company mercenaries, seizes villages near the southern approach to Bakhmut, fighting intensifies and artillery fire erupts every day.

“I have no idea who’s shooting here,” Gennady, 66, said as he rode back from the broken bridge with a metal water canister on the back of his bike.

“From here, from there, from over there. Automatic weapons, heavy machine guns. You never know what they’re going to shoot next,” he told AFP as he walked home to his adult son, whose wife had fled the city.

“She was hysterical, she was shaking,” he explained.

“What happens, happens. I go to bed and I sleep. I’m not hiding in the basement. My neighbor’s apartment was hit by shells. The guest house, the closet, the terrace …”

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