Bakhmout, where Russian troops are still advancing
A ritual shower of grenades by day and an ever-closer face-to-face encounter by night that drives some soldiers insane. Bakhmout, on Ukraine’s eastern front, is one of the last towns where Russian forces, in retreat elsewhere, are still advancing.
The small town (70,000 inhabitants before the war) echoes from all the surrounding hills, the regular sound of shells, incoming and outgoing strikes.
While the Russian army is in retreat everywhere, according to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, Bakhmout has become the “most difficult” spot for Ukrainian forces to remain in a defensive position in the sector.
Ukrainian soldiers are still controlling the western and northern halves of the city, AFP journalists noted on Saturday.
A demarcation line marked by iron braces and concrete blocks was erected in the middle. From there, it’s the “zero point,” the Ukrainian front line that no one can bypass.
The Separatist forces in the Donetsk region, supported by Russia and maneuvering in this battle, pushed east and south, taking advantage of their rear base’s proximity to the city of Donetsk, 100 km away.
On Thursday they announced that they had taken the two neighboring suburbs of Opytin and Ivangrad.
– 6 p.m.: premiere commands –
Since then, fears of an infiltration of Russian forces into the eastern part of the city, including mercenaries from the Wagner paramilitary group, have increased, according to a British intelligence statement.
And according to Ukrainian fighters questioned by AFP, a direct battle ensued with these auxiliary militias.
“They (enemy troops) start when it gets dark, around 6 p.m. they send the first reconnaissance squads,” says Anton, nicknamed “Poliak”, a 50-year-old Ukrainian soldier of the 93rd Brigade, on the way back to the front a minor injury and a state of exhaustion.
But these soldiers, whom he bitterly calls “single use,” are inexperienced recruits, he assures us, “whom they send under our bullets” to “create a diversionary tactic” while the Russian sabotage squads, said to be more experienced, continue to manoeuvre.
“By 5 a.m. we have seven or eight (distraction) attacks like this,” he explains.
After four nights and four days without sleep, “Poliak”, a truck driver in his past life, realizes with tension and tiredness that he has been having “hallucinations”.
One night his unit opened fire, believing they had spotted a Russian commando in night vision goggles. In the early morning they realized that they had been shooting at logs. Since then the group was left in the trench with 13 men and brought back with 11 including 5 wounded.
– “I wander” –
In the center, still under Ukrainian control after two months of active fighting, every building still standing bears a stigma: broken windows, a roof torn off by an explosion.
Civilians live in their basements and brave the bombing raids to eat, drink, keep warm, charge a phone on a collective generator, or get some fresh air for a few minutes.
There is no water or gas in Bakhmout and the electricity was finally shut off ten days ago. The telephone network is miraculously still working. A market where some groceries are arranged on wooden boards also offers the opportunity to stock up.
An 80-year-old woman holding a pipe to tinker with her wood stove stands in the street in shock.
“We can’t even bury people anymore!” she laments.
“My sister has been under the rubble since the night of October 12-13 (after a strike). Nobody can come and pick them up. I wander around I don’t know where to go,” explains the former beekeeper.
“My bees are somewhere in the forest, alone. We are alone too,” she concludes, breaking down in tears.
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