Bitter fight for Bachmut: “He dies before my eyes”

As of: 01/17/2023 7:52 p.m

Brutal fighting is going on around the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, and the residents lack almost everything. Despite constant shelling, volunteers come to help. In a basement in a residential area, they provide the residents with the essentials.

By Isabel Schayani, WDR, currently Kyiv

It is early in the morning when 21 doctors from Kyiv make their way to the front. The group also needs almost as many volunteers to make it to the site in Bachmut.

The group has been particularly cautious since two British volunteers disappeared earlier this month during a similar relief operation here. The armored vehicles move along a well-considered route, the distance between the cars is precisely agreed.

The closer the column came to Bakhmut, the emptier the snow-blown streets and the shorter the intervals between the checkpoints. At some point, the group is only met by military vehicles and tanks.

The closer the relief column came to Bakhmut, the emptier the snow-covered roads became and the distances between the checkpoints became shorter.

Image: Isabel Schayani

8000 out of 70,000 inhabitants

The city of Bakhmut is considered one of the most fiercely contested cities in Ukraine. Where 70,000 people lived before the start of the war, almost 8,000 are still holding out today. Including hundreds of children. But the streets in Bachmut are deserted.

The group heads for the basement of a residential building in the west of the city. Here the rows of houses are still intact, but the windows have been blown out by the blast waves from the constant explosions. On the other side of the river, the troops fight each other. According to the Ukrainian regional administration, 60 percent of the city has been destroyed.

According to the Ukrainian regional administration, 60 percent of Bakhmut is said to have been destroyed. It is difficult to understand why this place is so bitterly contested.

Image: dpa

“No electricity, no gas, no water”

In the inner courtyard of the block of flats, Natalia Verbitskaya collects wood and saws it with concentration. The pensioner wants to use it to heat her small stove, which she received from helpers. Civilian infrastructure has also been largely destroyed in eastern Ukraine. Verbitskaya cannot heat without wood, and the electricity no longer works either. Nevertheless, she still lives in the block of flats with the broken window panes.

All the neighbors have fled, and she herself has taken up residence in her shoemaker’s workshop, she reports. “The situation is not good. We have no electricity, no gas, no water. It has been five months. Before the frost, we collected rainwater and use it as service water. Helpers bring us food. So we have something.” She doesn’t want to complain, she emphasizes. “We’re not hungry yet.”

The constant blasts of artillery roll like thunder over the city. But Verbitskaya remains calm. “We’re used to it,” she says curtly. “We know what flies above us and we know where it comes down.” The impacts can’t be far away, as the volume reveals. The thought, Bachmut, of leaving the front never crosses her mind. She didn’t want to leave her belongings behind. And definitely don’t become homeless. That happened to many of her friends who used to live here. Now they would be wandering around with no money and nothing, reports Verbitskaya.

Natalia Verbitskaya collects and saws wood behind her apartment. Bachmut doesn’t want to leave her, leave behind her belongings and become homeless.

Image: Isabel Schayani

Almost daily visits from helpers

As the fighting continues uninterrupted just a few blocks away, doctors and organizers rush into the bunker. Patrick Münz from the aid organizations “Leave No One Behind” and “Base UA” has been here in Bachmut several times. Wearing a protective helmet and vest, he explains in a calm tone: “You can hear the artillery of the Ukrainian and Russian troops here. There is heavy fighting in the east.”

It rumbles particularly loudly. “That was an impact,” says Münz dryly and quickly moves on. He can tell who is shooting from where by the sound. That is vital for survival in a place like Bachmut. “According to our information, the Ukrainians are holding all positions.”

Munz and the “Leave No One Behind” team drive here almost every day to bring people to safety, distribute medicine or transport the sick. The fuel costs are immense, but they collect in Germany. Over the past few days, Münz and his team have informed the people of Bachmut about the emergency consultation hours in the bunker with flyers. There is still a polyclinic in Bachmut, but hardly any doctors.

Bachmut as a symbol

For months there has been a brutal and bitter fight for Bachmut. The river Bakhmutovka divides the city into east and west. The western part, where Munz and the doctors work, is held by the Ukrainians. So far, the Russian military has not managed to capture Bakhmut, even after months.

It is difficult to understand why this place is so bitterly contested. Russia desperately needs a win, a name, a trophy. Bachmut seems to have become a symbol of victory and defeat.

The steep staircase leads to the basement, which serves as a bunker for the district and has two exits. Pale faces with sunken eyes look at the helpers. Older people in particular have ventured here. The gentleman with the long gray beard waves his hand when he sees the microphone. “I don’t want to say anything, I’m in so much pain.”

Dark green: Russian army advancing. Hatched: areas annexed by Russia.

Image: ISW/01/16/2023

“He dies before my eyes”

An elderly lady stands behind him. It’s Nina Gregorievna, she is 75 years old. She stands in line at the surgery and leans to the side to anticipate when it’s her turn. Apparently she wants to leave as soon as possible.

“My husband is bedridden. He is getting yellow and thin and there is nothing I can do. I am here to ask a doctor for help. He is dying before my eyes. I feel so sorry for him. I have lived with him for 55 years together. I have two children, two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. I am desperate. We could never have imagined that we would live like this in old age,” the old lady bursts out.

During an emergency consultation in a bunker in Bachmut. Nina Gregorievna tries to get medical care at home for her bedridden husband. He’s too weak to evacuate.

Image: Isabel Schayani

No more contact with children in Germany

Then she turns away because tears well up in her eyes. She pulls herself together and talks about her grandchildren who are now looking for protection in Germany. She doesn’t want to be a burden to them. What should she do? Constant shelling, no electricity, no water, no heating and then her sick husband?

She no longer leaves the apartment, she always stays with him. Except when she needs to charge her cell phone in hopes of calling the kids. There is no longer a network here at the front. One notices that Nina Gregoriewna finds it difficult to stand in this bunker instead of being with her husband. But she needs the help. “If my husband were healthy, we would evacuate.”

She turns her gaze from the floor and asks half angry, half desperate: “Where should we go? The children have only been in Germany for a month. Why should we be a burden to them? They are young and have to live. Our life is over .” And as she describes this, it becomes clear that she no longer has any connection with them. She is now being called into the treatment room.

You have to leave the bunker quickly in order not to stay too long in the open air. You can still hear the impacts relentlessly. The muffled tones of the Ukrainian artillery and the somewhat more crashing of the Russian army. In the courtyard, Natalia Verbitskaya continues to collect firewood. She waves goodbye. No one knows which of the people here will survive the war.

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