But in Bakhmout, as everywhere else in the towns of eastern Ukraine close to the front, “you can’t run away from war, and you never know where it will find you”, simply sums up Lioubov Mojayeva, an agronomist from 60 years old came to get some food in the city’s former cultural center transformed into a food aid depot.
“You never get used to war, it’s dreadful and scary”, adds this dark-haired woman with sparkling blue eyes, who does not flinch an inch when the artillery fire, presumably coming from the positions Ukrainians.
Bakhmout, a city of around 70,000 before the war, lies southeast of Kramatorsk, the last major Ukrainian-controlled city in the Donbass, the coalfield the Russians want to take full control of.
And Bakhmout, already bombarded for several weeks, is only a few kilometers from the front line.
Its fall would give the Russians control of a crucial crossroads opening access to all parts of the front, as well as Kramatorsk.
The city, which lives from a huge salt mine a few kilometers away and from a factory producing a renowned sparkling wine since Soviet times, has been emptied of its inhabitants since the start of the war: some 30,000 people have fled , out of a population estimated at 73,000 inhabitants in 2020, according to Dmytro Pidkouïko, a municipal official in charge of evacuations.
– More difficult evacuations –
Behind the large municipal building, about thirty people are preparing to board two buses chartered by a Ukrainian NGO, Rescue Now, which will take them to Dnipro, a large industrial city four hours away.
But these evacuations are becoming more and more difficult due to the intensification of the bombardments and the dangerousness of the roads, sighs one of the drivers, Dima.
“If the situation continues to get worse, I will end up leaving too,” admits municipal official Dmytro Pidkouïko.
In the square, Sofia, a mischievous eight-year-old girl, a stuffed tiger hanging from her belt, watches those who leave with eyes full of envy.
“I would like to evacuate too, but my parents don’t want to. Everyone has left, there is only one child my age left in my neighborhood”, explains the kid, fiddling with her pearl bracelet.
Her mother approaches and confirms: “We will not leave. We have a shelter”, says this former real estate agent.
However, most families with children have left Bakhmout, and as often only the oldest remain, who have neither the means to flee nor a place to go.
Nor, for some, a valid reason to leave, as the situation is beyond them.
“It’s sad, we were good before, and now it’s very unstable, and I don’t even know who I should support, the Russians or the Ukrainians”, wonders Valeri Pashtchenko, a former construction worker with amputation. one leg and moving in a wheelchair.
“Maybe the Russians will come and give me gas,” he wondered to himself.
Not far from him, Svetlana Pergat, a pretty and frail old lady of 86, half blind, nods her head.
“I’m not afraid of anything or anyone, but I want it to stop. I didn’t think war was possible,” said this woman who lived through the German occupation of Bakhmout between 1941 and 1943.
More recently, the city also experienced a short but violent period of fighting, at the start of the war in Donbass which began in 2014. Pro-Russian separatists backed by Moscow seized Bakhmout, recaptured by Ukrainian forces two months and a half later.