Water with an aftertaste of war. Life in Bakhmut, the most dangerous point on the front, through the eyes of one Ukrainian family who escaped the shelling
Павел Васильев
Water with an aftertaste of war. Life in Bakhmut, the most dangerous point on the front, through the eyes of one Ukrainian family who escaped the shelling
18 May 2023, 19:27

Smoke rises above a burning building in Bakhmut on 26 March 2023. Photo: Libkos / AP

For many months now, Bakhmut has been the place of the most severe fights of the war in Ukraine. Russian troops, mostly Wagner mercenaries and inmates, slowly, house by house, advanced here until the beginning of May, when Ukrainian forces were able to counterattack. By the spring of 2023, most of the residents of the besieged city had fled the fighting. Despite daily shelling and calls from Ukrainian authorities to evacuate, a few thousand people still refused to leave. Mediazona tells the story of how local residents survive during months of the siege and why some of them decide to remain in the most active spot on the front until the very end.

War has turned Bakhmut into ruins. It was here that Russia concentrated its forces last autumn, hoping for a quick capture and subsequent advance in Donbas. They failed to break the resistance of the Ukrainians, and the assault turned into a prolonged siege that continues to this day.

At the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Bakhmut had over 70,000 inhabitants. Most of them left the city last year, but a few thousand continue to survive there under shelling. “Civilians trapped there are living in very difficult conditions, spending almost the entire day under intense shelling in shelters,” Umar Khan, a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross, described the situation in the city in late March 2023. “All you see are people pushed to the limits of their existence, survival and resilience.”

Alexander Androshchuk, 48-year-old resident of Bakhmut, stayed in the city with his family until the very latest. Even when the house, where he lived with his disabled brother, elderly mother, and paralysed father, was burning after being hit by a shell, they still doubted the need for an immediate departure.

They decided to wait out the massive shelling in a neighbouring vacant cottage and hurriedly moved there, taking food, clothes, pillows, blankets and several religious icons with them. A neighbour who lived nearby helped them carry their father, who cannot walk. It was 19 March, recalls Alexander. For a week, the neighbour’s basement became their shelter.

“The basement was fully equipped. People [probably] planned to stay there, so the basements were equipped for prolonged shelter and living,” Androshchuk tells Mediazona.

Alexander considered leaving Bakhmut last March, before the war came to the city. He had worked at a local ‘Silpo’ for a long time, but in 2015 he lost several fingers and retired on disability benefit. Alexander’s family did not dissuade him from leaving, but flatly refused to leave themselves.“My mother is a very stubborn and strong-willed person. She says, ‘I live on my land and as long as my legs move, I will be here until the end,’” he remembers.

Androshchuk had no choice but to stay. Abandoning his mother, brother, and sick father would have been a betrayal, he reasoned. Besides, there was nowhere to go: he and his family had lived in Bakhmut their whole lives and they had no other relatives in Ukraine.

Volunteers under fire

Since the beginning of the Russian offensive, life in Bakhmut has been sustained by humanitarian organisations and volunteers. They bring provisions and medicine to the besieged city and help residents evacuate under fire.

Nikolay Mogilevsky, 24, owns a small café in Fastiv, a city near Kiev. Since the war began, he has been constantly on the move, delivering humanitarian aid to soldiers and civilians throughout Ukraine. At first, he provided assistance in the liberated territories, but by the third month of the war, he found himself in Donbas.

During his humanitarian missions, Mogilevsky has seen a lot: charred bodies, shells hitting cars right in front of him, civilians living under the same roof as their deceased relatives’ bodies, unable to bury them. He reports on all his trips to his Instagram followers, where he also collects donations to continue his relief mission.

According to Mogilevsky, by March 2023 he and his team had managed to evacuate around 70 people and also some animals—cats, dogs and even chinchillas—from Bakhmut. In another trip in early April, he evacuated a pregnant woman and her husband from the city.

Travelling to Bakhmut was particularly dangerous, says Mogilevsky: the city is shelled daily by Russian artillery and aviation, and it is safer to move around on foot than by car, as the latter is a much more conspicuous target.

Nikolay helps a resident of Bakhmut leave the city, 24 February 2023. Photo: @nikolay_offline / Instagram

In early February, an American named Pete Reed, the founder of the humanitarian organisation Global Response Medicine, was killed in Bakhmut. Its volunteers provide medical assistance. According to the New York Times, Reed’s car was hit by Russian shelling.

It was in Bakhmut that Mogilevsky was injured before New Year’s when he and his companion were bringing humanitarian aid once again. As the volunteer remembers, they were 700-800 metres from the front line.

“They threw a VOG grenade at me. It fell and exploded four metres away, more or less. Of course, it didn’t hit me directly, thank God. That’s what saved me, because only two small fragments hit me - one in the leg, the other in the back - one hit my helmet and flew off, and the third tore my jacket. And the fourth hit me in my trousers and just flew out, scratched my leg a bit,” Mogilevsky recalls.

The wounds were not serious, adds Mogilevsky, so he soon resumed travelling around the country with humanitarian aid. Recently, Nikolay returned to Bakhmut, where he suffered the mild concussion while evacuating residents under fire.

Over time, says the volunteer, war has dulled the fear and horror, and rescuing people under fire has become routine.

Basement life

Intense fighting forced the residents of Bakhmut to move into basements and cellars, and they quickly adapted to this underground life. They had enough provisions and fuel to survive.“We were supplied with a lot of humanitarian aid - both the Red Cross and the city authorities,” says Alexander Androshchuk.“We had free bread until New Year’s Eve, the authorities took care of that. They gave us two tons of coal each.”

His family quickly adapted to the shelling. There was a certain system to it, explains Alexander: if they were firing in one area, then others were relatively safe. As soon as they heard explosions near the Androshchuks’ house, they went down to the basement and waited out the attack there.“If we were shelled, then they wouldn’t touch us for the next three or four days,” he says.

Once a shell hit them too. Then half of the house was destroyed, but they continued to live in the other half. By October, there was no electricity or heating in the city, and they had to rely on makeshift stoves for warmth. They went to the nearest stream for water.

“Before the war, when there were still people in the city... some unpleasant people would dump their waste there, but when people practically disappeared, the river cleared up. It originates from springs, so the water became clean. But it had a strange taste and smell due to constant shelling and gunpowder residue. It had a chemical smell. I called it the smell of war,” says Androshchuk.

Local residents collecting water, Bakhmut, 10 February 2023. Photo by Libkos / AP

The family’s typical day would consist of chopping wood, carrying coal, heating the makeshift stove, cooking and going to the stream. They kept Alexander’s paralyzed father warm with bottles of warm water.“Thank goodness it was a very warm winter,” he adds.

In early March, when Bakhmut came under massive shelling once again, it became impossible to go to the stream, says Alexander. They had to melt snow and collect rainwater.

According to Nikolay Mogilevsky, the residents who refused to evacuate from Bakhmut tried to maintain the illusion of normal life under shelling, despite the war.

“In early March, they took a man out of there whose wife had given birth in the basement. We said, ‘You found time to make a baby during a fucking war.’ So, their lives go on just like mine and yours on peaceful territory. Only in basements,” says Nikolay. In Bakhmut, he encountered many people who, while hiding from shelling, managed to make ‘samogon’ using sugar brought by volunteers.

Many residents took risks and left their shelters to go to the partially destroyed Jubilee Market. Traders with fresh meat and sausages were occasionally there, says Alexander. During one such outing in the city, he witnessed a rocket hitting a passing car in the centre of Bakhmut. Androshchuk was lucky, he was thirty metres away from the explosion site. He calls this incident “the biggest scare” during his time in the city.

But he also witnessed much more frightening things. “I personally saw with my own eyes how a [dead] grandmother lay on the street for three days and, on the fourth day, dogs started eating her,” says Androshchuk. “They were gnawing on human bones.”

People cling on to their homes

According to Ukrainian authorities, at the end of March there were about 3,500 residents left in Bakhmut, along with 32 children. All of them, according to the head of Donetsk Region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, refuse to evacuate. People not only do not want to leave the city - they also hide from the police and rescuers who are conducting apartment inspections.

“These are people, and I can say with all honesty, who do not want to leave the city at all, despite the fact that a colossal amount of work has been done to evacuate them,” said Kyrylenko.

Volunteer Nikolay Mogilevsky says he often has to persuade people to leave cities under Russian shelling. And then they only agree to evacuate once one of their relatives has died.

“You see, they have psychological trauma, they have already gone crazy there,” Mogilevsky tries to explain. “They cling to their property, to their homes. Everyone has their own point of view. Someone just needs to hear explosions somewhere in the distance, for example, and that’s it, they’re already leaving. For someone else it is enough just for the war to start - and people leave Ukraine. But others need to be injured or have their home destroyed by an air strike. These people had been holding on to their homes. It was very painful for them to leave.”

Evacuating civilians requires a lot of patience, adds volunteer and journalist Kuba Stasiak from Poland. “This job of ours requires a lot of patience because there are periods when you are not evacuating: people are just refusing to go, and you are risking your life, some could say, for nothing,” Stasiak explains in an interview with Mediazona. “And that’s the tricky part because you can get frustrated and apathetic very, very quickly. Exhaustion is one thing, but when the frustration comes... You are getting less friendly in all environments. And empathy is a necessary factor for you to be successful.”

A local resident runs past destroyed houses in Bakhmut on 9 April 2023. Photo: Libkos / AP

Kuba Stasiak has been in Ukraine for a year, dedicating himself entirely to volunteering and evacuating civilians from hotspots. He says he almost always understands whether a person wants to be evacuated or not. But even in the case of refusal, he tries to persuade them to leave the city or village before it becomes completely impossible to stay there. “In some of the cases, people are deciding to go at the very last day before the city's collapse. And the worst part is you could have done a proper, relatively safe evac weeks before,” he explains.

Alexander Androshchuk and his family left Bakhmut on 27 March, the 397th day of the war. At that time, a shell exploded near the neighbouring house where they had moved to after a fire destroyed their own home. In those days, during the last week of March, shelling was particularly intense. The Androshchuks did not have time to descend into the basement and the explosion caught them off guard.

“I haven't been to hell, but it was hell on earth,” Alexander recalls.“It came in through the window, about a metre and a half away. My brother was standing sideways-on, my mother too, and I was a little behind them. My brother was knocked off his feet and my mum fell down. They were injured, my brother’s left shoulder was cut, and my mother had a deep wound on her arm. I thought I was going to die.”

There was no first aid kit, so Androshchuk tore up a sheet and taped the pieces to the wounds. He himself had received a minor shrapnel wound.

The Androshchuks were taken out from under the shelling by a soldier of the Armed Forces of Ukraine who had moved into empty houses nearby with his comrades the day before. “A lot is thanks to him. He saved four human lives,” says Androshchuk.

At that time, volunteers were almost absent in Bakhmut itself—it was too dangerous and there were already battles taking place in the city. The military took the family to Chasiv Yar, which is on one of the main supply lines for the Ukrainian troops fighting in Bakhmut. From there, volunteers picked up the family. Currently, it is the only route for the evacuation of civilians from Bakhmut and the surrounding areas.

Currently, the family lives in Kramatorsk in a small hostel at one of the local churches, which has taken in many Ukrainians who have lost their homes due to the Russian invasion. For a couple of weeks, Alexander took care of small household matters, organised bank cards, and waited for his paralyzed father, mother and brother, injured in the shelling, to be discharged from hospital. The Androshchuks don’t know where they will start their new life, but they hope for the help of volunteers.

Editor: Maria Klimova

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