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Bakhmut: The Russians are about to capture a key Ukrainian city. In the nearby town, those with nowhere to go prepare for their arrival

As we drove into the city of Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine on a warm sunny morning, men in orange vests tend to the roses. The tall trees that shade the streets are thick with leaves.

Traffic is light due to fuel shortages, so many residents commute by bicycle.

This peaceful façade is deceptive, however. Explosions echo regularly over Bakhmut: outgoing and incoming artillery and rocket explosions outside and sometimes inside the city.

Our first stop was a municipal building where volunteers were distributing bread. With cooking gas no longer available, bakeries ceased to operate. Every day a truck arrives after a 10-hour journey with 10,000 loaves of bread, distributed free of charge – two loaves per person.

Lyilya brought her two grandchildren to collect bread. “We support them,” she says, explaining what she does to reassure them. “We tell them there are guys who play with tanks. What else can I tell them? How can I harm their mental health? You can’t do that. It’s impossible.”

Just as the last words come out of his mouth, the air quivers with multiple explosions. She turns to her grandchildren with sweet words of comfort.

On a nearby wooded hill, thin wisps of black smoke billow into the sky where the explosions originated – most likely a Ukrainian rocket launcher.

No one flinches. No one is running for cover.

Tetyana volunteers for the distribution of bread. A stocky woman with an easy smile, she exchanges pleasantries while distributing the bread.

When I ask her if she intends to stay in Bakhmut if the Russian forces approach, her demeanor changes. She shakes her head.

“We love our town. Our graves are here. Our parents lived there. We’re not going anywhere,” she insists, her voice shaking. Tears well up in his eyes. “This is our land. We will not give it to anyone. Even if it is destroyed, we will rebuild. Everything will be…” and here she gives a thumbs up.

A teddy bear wrapped in bandages is placed at the site of a strike in Bakhmut.
Bakhmut is near the main road leading to the twin cities of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk, now the epicenter of fighting in eastern Ukraine. The latter was the scene of intense street-to-street fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces. For weeks, Russian forces have shelled the road and Bakhmut, in what is seen as an attempt to cut off the twin towns from the rest of Ukrainian-held territory.

Ukrainian officials say most of Severodonetsk is now under Russian control. If this city and Lysychansk fall, Bakhmut, it is to be feared, will be next.

Unlike other parts of the country, there is no sense here in the East that the worst of this war is over. Russian forces made slow but steady progress there.

Ukraine’s intelligence chief recently told the Guardian that for every piece of artillery the Ukrainian military has, Russia has between 10 and 15. Others, including President Vlodymyr Zelensky, claim that every day, up to 100 Ukrainian soldiers are killed, and around 500 injured.

In this crushing war of attrition, Russia, much larger and better armed, pushes its advantage.

It’s no secret here. In a city-run dormitory, Lyudmila prepares lunch for her two children, frying onions and boiling potatoes. She fled her town outside Bakhmut in March to escape shelling. “The house” is now a small cramped room. Her husband died before the war.

Kolya came to Bakhmut with his mother and sister in March to escape the shelling.  Now he lives with them in a cramped room in a student dormitory.

She says she has nowhere to go, and barely any money, and asks with a hint of irritation, what’s the point? The Russians are coming. “It’s the same everywhere,” she said. “When they [the Russians] are made here, they will go further.”

She shrugs and walks away down the dark hallway. “That’s all I have to say” she shouts over her shoulder.

On Thursday morning, Russian planes crashed into an agricultural warehouse complex on the outskirts of Bakhmut. It was the third strike on the complex in recent weeks. A gaping hole in the sidewalk shows where a bomb hit, spraying shrapnel in all directions, tearing holes in a wheat warehouse.

Plump pigeons circle overhead, ready to feast on the grain. The weather has been good this year. The wheat harvest is only a few weeks away. However, the war threatens to reduce production by a third.

Bakhmut Police Major Pavlo Diachenko spends his days documenting the aftermath of air and artillery strikes. He knows only too well how random they seem. Strikes, he told me with a sigh, can happen “anytime. In the morning, in the evening. [know] when.”

A small group of people gather mid-morning in a parking lot next to a municipal building, waiting for a volunteer-run bus to take them to the relative safety of Dnipro town, a four-hour drive east west.

A warehouse in Bakhmut containing cereals was hit by an airstrike on the morning of Thursday 9 June.

Igor, a peacetime beekeeper, is startled by a large explosion as he stands in the shade. He leaves with his cat, Simon Simonyonich, who frowns through the bars of his blue and white transport cage.

Simon Simonyonich has been in bad shape since Bakhmut was shot, Igor remarks.

“I left everything here – my bees and my house with all my stuff,” he says holding Simon’s cage as he prepares to board the bus.

Moments later, another explosion shakes the ground. Soon the bus is loaded, passengers seated in their seats.

“Is anyone here with the army?” asks the driver. The bus is strictly reserved for civilians. A sardonic chuckle echoes among the passengers. Most are well past military age.

The door slams. The bus begins to move.

After a final bang, the bus pulls out of the parking lot.

CNN’s Ghazi Balkiz contributed to this report.

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Post expires at 10:13am on Wednesday June 22nd, 2022

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