The last few days have blended into one in my mind and I still get confused when I try to identify when things happened. Was it on Monday or maybe Wednesday – all in all, it is all the same. Between Sunday morning and last evening I slept in bed for just 3.5 hours, spending most of the time in the car on the Krakow-Kyiv-Kharkiv-Bakhmut route and back (except for a few naps in the passenger seat; enough to keep going, not enough to rest). I only mention this to help you understand my situation. I will share with you almost everything I saw and heard during this trip – yet taking it one step at a time.
For the record, the convoy in which I was travelling delivered 15 tonnes of humanitarian aid to Bakhmut. Meanwhile, the army received drones and a power generator. This trip was organised by the Open Dialogue Foundation, which has been involved in helping Ukraine for a long time.
You ask me what things are like in Bakhmut – and that’s what I will talk about first, especially as there are a few things which need to be clarified.
Firstly, it is important to clarify that the city – in contrast to emerging reports – has not been totally ruined. To us Poles, such a status brings connotations with Warsaw, which was basically wiped off from the face of the Earth by the Germans, especially on the site of the former Ghetto. Indeed, the suburbs of Bakhmut to the east and north look dire, but even there it is impossible to speak of a total destruction. Few houses have been completely demolished, although a fair number of them have been so badly damaged that they are no longer fit for habitation. A good example would be the apartment block in the photo which has been split by the explosion. Many of the buildings located in the city centre and the rest of the city have remained unscathed, among them the large-scale skyscrapers. Roughly one third of the entire built-up area bears clear traces of shelling: burned-out flats – sometimes entire floors – collapsed roofs, facades riddled with bullet holes, glassless windows. The main roads – despite being ripped up by tank tracks – remain serviceable; fallen trees, lamps and power pylons are being cleared from the roadways on an ongoing basis by the military. Bombing funnels can be seen in places, the number of which (along with the damage described) confirms that Bakhmut is not the primary target of artillery shelling. The central battle is being fought outside the city and in the skies above it.
The sound of missiles flying over the city often merges into one continuous thunderclap. If we listen from a position “in the heart of the city”, we can hear mainly the sounds of gunshots, with rare explosions. “Because our boys are banging” – the soldiers assured me. One of them, Yuri (to whom I will pay more attention in another of my reports, as he is a very fascinating figure) even stated: “When the battles for Bakhmut began, the Russians had ten times as many barrels as we did. Now the ratio is one to one”. I don’t know if this is actually the case – from where I was, I was closer to the Ukrainian artillery positions, and they were pounding really hard.
“They are five kilometres away” – said Yuri when we stopped on the north-eastern outskirts of the city. And he showed me a space at the exit of the road leading to Soledar. “For the moment, they are still too far away for their handgun fire to reach us, but they keep trying to push closer”.
No, it is not a human wave – as is often reported in the media. The naval nomenclature is justified insofar as the Russians attack the Ukrainian lines time and again, like waves, but it is not a massive attack. The enemy sends only groups of a dozen or so into battle, which operate simultaneously in multiple locations. These groups are ‘stabbing’ Ukrainian defence forces in order to gradually wear them down. Many such units are annihilated, and those that manage to occupy at least some new territory immediately entrench themselves. Determination and consistency is backed up by precise, for the Russians, artillery fire and the skill of their landing troops. There are more and more of these landing forces under Bakhmut and they gradually replace the Wagner fighters. I would prefer not to draw any general conclusions from these reports, but from what I have heard it appears that the Russians are gradually backing away from using reservists mobilised in the autumn to fight in Bakhmut.
I will write more about this phenomenon in my next report, but for now let me return to the city and its inhabitants. There are still several thousand of them left in the area (this is the approximate number given by Ukrainian soldiers). These are the old people who cannot imagine leaving their possessions, and all those who have nowhere to run to and no money to flee. I have run across an opinion that there are a lot of losers there – i.e. drunkards, drug addicts, homeless individuals – along with the suggestion, outrageous as it may seem to me, that such people do not deserve to be helped. Although I do not intend to participate in this kind of embarrassing debate, I would nevertheless like to point out that Bakhmut has been deprived of electricity, gas and heating. And people – like the man in the photo – do not always have access to water other than that sourced from puddles. Just try surviving in such conditions, in winter, for a few weeks – even the healthiest, flushed face will turn into a somewhat ruddy, swollen one and the most exquisite clothing will be replaced by a multi-layered bunch of fleeces.
I do not know how many of those who stayed are actually waiting to be “liberated” by the Russian army. I met one such person on Tuesday – it was an elderly man. “It will be what will be” he told me looking towards the camera, earlier telling me about his wife and children, who had immigrated to Russia before the war. “I would like to join them because there is nothing to keep me here,” he confessed, seeing Russian soldiers as a “bridge” which would help him reunite with his loved ones. That is the whole Donbass reality – in a version that our legitimate anger at the Russians often blinds us to…