“It used to be that visitors would browse through Bakhmut’s late 19th century buildings, enjoy walks in its rose-lined lakeside park and revel in the sparkling wines produced in historic underground caves. That was when this city in eastern Ukraine was a popular tourist destination.
No more. The longest battle of Russia’s war has turned this city of salt and gypsum mines into a ghost town. Despite bombing, shelling and attempts to encircle Bakhmut for six months, Russia’s forces have not conquered it.
But their scorched-earth tactics have made it impossible for civilians to have any semblance of a life there.
“It’s hell on earth right now; I can’t find enough words to describe it,” said Ukrainian soldier Petro Voloschenko, who is known on the battlefield as Stone, his voice rising with emotion and resentment.
Voloschenko, who is originally from Kyiv, arrived in the area in August when the Russian assault started and has since celebrated his birthday, Christmas and New Year’s there.
The 44-year-old saw the city, located around 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Russia’s border, gradually turned into a wasteland of ruins. Most of the houses are crushed, without roofs, ceilings, windows or doors, making them uninhabitable, he said.
Out of a prewar population of 80,000, a few thousand residents remain. They rarely see daylight because they spend most of their time in basements sheltering from the ferocious fighting around and above them. The city constantly shudders with the muffled sound of explosions, the whizzing of mortars and a constant soundtrack of artillery. Anywhere is a potential target.
Bakhmut lies in Donetsk province, one of four that Russia illegally annexed in the fall — but Moscow only controls about half of it. To take the remaining half, Russian forces have no choice but to go through Bakhmut, which offers the only approach to bigger Ukrainian-held cities since Ukrainian troops took back Izium in Kharkiv province in September, according to Mykola Bielieskov, a research fellow at Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies.
“Without seizure of these cities, the Russian army won’t be able to accomplish the political task it was given,” Bielieskov said.”
Comment: Crunch time for all. pl’