AFrom low clouds, drizzle falls on Kramatorsk. The men are therefore crowded under the canopy of the station. They wear camouflage clothing and swipe around on smartphones. Some have flowers in their hands. Artillery rumbles in the distance.
Then an announcement. The men run across the rails towards a dark blue train. He comes from Lemberg in western Ukraine. It took him twenty hours from there to this last stop in the Donbass. It doesn’t go much further, because the rest of this industrial area in the east of the country is occupied by the enemy. The front is close here – the villages 20 kilometers to the east are already under Russian control.
The soldiers on the track survey the exhausted travelers who are now climbing down the high steps out of the carriage. In the crowd they look for the familiar faces of their wives, girlfriends, comrades. When eyes meet, they run towards each other and hug each other. A female soldier is also standing on the platform with a red rose. The gunner says she only bought the rose for fun. Together with a friend, she welcomes a comrade who has been on vacation at home. The three laugh, they have to go on.
Every day the enemy gains a few meters
The frontline towns remain connected to the countryside by the railroad. Then, when the partners of Ukrainian fighters come to visit for a few days, they rent an apartment in Kramatorsk. Many residents here have fled, many apartments are empty. Since the Ukrainians were able to push back the Russians further north, Kramatorsk and its twin city of Sloviansk, which used to have a combined population of 250,000, are no longer directly threatened. But gradually the Russians are approaching from the east. Bakhmut, the bloodiest battlefield of this war, is less than 50 kilometers away, and the enemy is gaining a few meters there every day.
The Kramatorsk station building is missing the panes, the holes are blocked with wooden panels. A year ago, a Russian missile attack killed 61 people here, including seven children. They had been waiting to be taken to safety by trains. The pictures that went around the world at the time showed pools of blood next to suitcases, bags and bags.
Today there are hardly any civilians to be seen in Kramatorsk. Many streets have just been renamed, and the large Puschkin Park is to be called “Family Park” from now on. There is no longer any room here for Russian poets. But you hardly see families, almost only soldiers everywhere. Most shops are closed, only people are standing in front of the ATMs. The flatbed trucks of the soldiers stand in front of the few restaurants that are open, with white crosses stuck on them as identification. Only non-alcoholic beer is sold inside – serving anything else is prohibited. On the other hand, a striking number of men with dark plastic bags come out of some shops – some of them staggering.
The song from the Bakhmut fortress
In the center, jagged trenches run through the green belt. Kramatorsk is ready to defend. The remains of Bachmut may not last much longer. The Ukrainians are still bringing supplies to the western part of the destroyed industrial city via the fields that have been softened by the constant rain. Cell phone videos taken by Ukrainian soldiers on the way there include the sound of explosions and wrecked military vehicles in the mud. The Ukrainians have so far been able to prevent an encirclement of their own units.
If Bachmut fell, it would have more symbolic than military significance anyway. Visits by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the one hand and the Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin on the other hand turned the city into a myth. The song “Bakhmut Fortress” has been at the top of the Ukrainian charts for weeks.
The roads in this area are damaged by tracked vehicles, so the car tires make a whistling sound. In towns that have been shot up, plywood seals the window sockets. Flatbed trucks drive alongside Humvees and Ladas on the trunk road to the eastern front. Sometimes an armored personnel carrier rattles by.
In the opposite direction, military buses with red crosses race past the overburden heaps of the coalfield. In the Donbass artillery battles, both sides have suffered heavy casualties. The defense of the “Fortress Bakhmut” should protect the cities further west from destruction as long as Kiev has to wait for weapons from the west. But every day the front moves a little further to the west.
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