The few 7,000 inhabitants that remain in the Ukrainian town survive underground, faced with fear for the future of their children if Russian mercenaries enter.
The crowd that gathers in the Sloviansk Cathedral Square silently attends the umpteenth funeral held in recent days. This time it is about a soldier -Denys Eduardovich Cochenko, 22 years old- belonging to a medical brigade that has been annihilated by Russian artillery while trying to help the last inhabitants of Bakhmut, the village for which they fight to the death Ukrainian soldiers against Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group. The body arrives in a Red Cross refrigerated truck festooned with Ukrainian flags. He is carried on a corridor of roses deposited by the crowd. After the religious service, the hymn sounds, which fails to silence the heartrending cry of the mother of the fallen; She clings to her rigid body and kisses her swollen face non-stop until, in a gesture of love and pity, her relatives grab her and separate her from her corpse.
The battle for Bakhmut has become the symbolic clash that defines the present moment – of stagnation and fierce fighting – of a war that promises to last a long time. The population, belonging to the Donetsk Oblast or region, which before the war had 70,000 inhabitants, now shelters a few hundred civilians and thousands of Ukrainian soldiers who fight one against ten against the Russian troops. The shelling with artillery, mortars and rockets does not stop for a moment, day or night. The casualties on both sides number in the dozens daily, so much so that doubts abound about the need to maintain resistance in an enclave that the NATO allies consider to be of little strategic value, even though the railway line passes through it.
“The Russians,” says a volunteer on the ground who declined to be identified, “send from ten to fifty Wagner convicts against the Ukrainian lines every day. They are hardly armed, they are human bullets. Its meaning is different: when they are killed by the best Ukrainian troops, they remain localized and that is when the Russians crush the positions with their artillery. They don’t even wait for their troops to leave there. They do not care. Russia loses thousands of convicts that it will no longer have to feed or support, while Ukraine sees dozens of well-trained men die. This, in chess terms, is exchanging pawns for queens.”
Getting to Bakhmut is not easy. To the north, Wagner’s troops captured the village of Blahodatne on Tuesday, very close to Soledar, which fell in January. And from there, they attack and threaten the M03 highway, which comes from Sloviansk. In the same area, British volunteers Andrew Bagshaw and Christopher Perry disappeared on January 6; later it was learned that they died while trying to evacuate the last civilians from Soledar.
To the south, the Russians are close to the road that connects Bakhmut with Kostiantynivka, and they are constantly sweeping it with mortar fire. In this section, soldiers and volunteers die every day trying to keep the resistance alive around a population that is already one of the symbols of this war. The only remaining umbilical cord for Bakhmut is a small track full of potholes and sinkholes, which starts from the village of Chasiv Yar. Even so, there are those who describe the route as extremely dangerous. After leaving a forest, the vehicles must pass through an open field, before going down to Bajmut, who is in a hollow. It is then that the Russian drones appear, locating the vehicles, which are later riddled with artillery.
It is best to arrive “on a cloudy day to minimize the ability of drones and satellites to locate the cars,” residents advise. The Russian command assured on Wednesday that Bakhmut had been completely surrounded, but that day it was still possible to enter the town. This does not lessen the danger of the attempts: on January 10, two Polish volunteers were seriously injured and, this same week, a Medical Brigade of the Ukrainian Army was severely punished. With each passing day, access is more dangerous and complicated, and the town, known for its famous salt mines, is already at real risk of being pocketed by Russian troops.
Some 10,000 inhabitants resist as best they can in the subsoil, protected by thousands of soldiers who fight against the invader from icy trenches and spend the night in flooded bunkers by candlelight. Hand-to-hand combat is almost always at night. But the bombardments do not stop for a moment.
Death comes to his appointment time and time again, without anyone being able to predict which house will be destroyed or who the grim reaper will summon. In the streets, like ghosts, from time to time, one sees an inhabitant trying to survive the trance, such as the old woman who cuts firewood in a downtown park, the young woman who smokes in fear at the door of the shelter clinging to a sled with the one who carries the groceries, or the man squatting against a wall while petting his dog, as if trying to give him a hope that, given his expression, he doesn’t seem to keep for himself.
In a basement, what used to be the local boxing club has been transformed into one of what President Zelenski calls “invincibility points.” Two huge wood-burning stoves provide heat to the large space where a priest celebrates a sung mass with a guitar. A handful of volunteers offer hot soup near the corner where the silent Bakhmuts charge their mobile phones. The ring where the boxing fights were settled is now occupied by three or four children who play oblivious to everything. “There are -says a Ukrainian volunteer- about five hundred infants in the Bakhmut underground. That’s why we have to resist. Imagine what can happen if the murderers and rapists who are part of Wagner come here.
However, not all the inhabitants of the town resort to patriotic speeches. Some of the older ones, on the contrary, show certain pro-Russian leanings. A woman tells a stunned journalist that the Russian rockets falling in front of us are actually from Ukraine. Vaclav, an old man wearing an ushanka hat, assures that the town “is called Artemiusk” (Russian name for Bakhmut) and affirms that in the past he was a soldier of the Soviet Union. “I was wounded in the invasion of Czechoslovakia in the 1960s,” he recalls.
“Most of the inhabitants support Ukraine, but have fled to safer areas. Among those who remain are old people, some of whom still have emotional connections to the USSR. We even suspect that some are spies”, comments a volunteer with long experience in the area.
A place without strategic value
Western strategic experts believe Bakhmut’s fall is imminent. They give it, however, little strategic value, even though it is a railway junction and one more step towards the vital cities of Sloviansk and Krammatorsk. Russia has begun to replace the mercenaries of the Wagner Group with soldiers from the conventional Army, who are part of the 300,000 recruits that were mobilized months ago and who have been trained and armed for the occasion. And it is ‘vox populi’ that a major offensive by Putin seems imminent, perhaps, according to official European sources, “for the first anniversary of the war, on February 24.”
If this prediction comes true, it will be long before the arrival of the desired Leopard and Abrams tanks promised by the Western Allies. For this reason, the US president, Joe Biden, has insisted in recent days to his counterpart Volodimir Zelensky to abandon Bakhmut and concentrate his forces on the southern front, strategically much more vital.
But the Ukrainian leader is not giving in for now. And what’s more, he has sent his own presidential guard to fight in this “Stalingrad of the 21st century” after acknowledging that the confrontations are “fierce.” The daily casualties on both sides number in the dozens. Will Bakhmut go down after being bagged in the next few days as a sequel to Azovstal? Or will she hold out against all odds like kyiv and Kharkov did before her? Nobody knows. But what is clear is that Bakhmut is already a hell on Earth whose memory will last.
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