The weather in Bakhmut deceives the senses, sunny and warm, almost peaceful.
But a deafening roar of artillery pouring out of the critical eastern Ukraine city shakes that notion of the system, as Ukrainian soldiers launched offensives on Wednesday to try to recapture positions from Russian forces.
Three men could be seen fleeing the city, one with a microwave strapped to his back.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has been going on for nine months. It is only when you descend into the city that you really get a sense of the devastation and destitution that Vladimir Putin’s invasion has caused in this city.
Our guide is a Ukrainian military doctor, whose nom de guerre is “Katrusya”. Wearing tinted sunglasses and a work uniform, she launches our convoy downtown at breakneck speed.
Flashing through the windows is a ghost town.
“For the last two months, the Russians have been trying to break through the city’s defenses and have been unsuccessful,” he tells us over cigarettes.
He took us to see a building that had just been bombed. Our car hadn’t even come to a complete stop when another artillery shell landed nearby. We scrambled for cover as more artillery rained down and buzzed nearby for about 20 minutes.
Attacks are normal, Katrusya says, leaning against a wall, a picture of composure, as we take cover from incoming projectiles.
“Artillery strikes fly every day so it’s never quiet here. Other parts of the city get hit many times a day,” she says.
A handful of residents remain on the streets of Bakhmut. The buildings have no windows; the streets are full of craters and the industrial dumps have become small puddles of garbage.
Those who remain seem to live in a parallel universe. They’re on their bikes, running errands, and older women dragging their shopping carts behind them, though it seems like a mystery which stores are open.
Sergey is one of those Bakhmut residents who still walk the streets. When he is asked if he is worried about the bombing, he replies: “Afraid of what, mate? Everything will be fine”.
Then he looks into the distance, almost as if he doesn’t really believe his own words.
Katrusya says that heavy fighting has cost the lives of scores of soldiers and civilians here. “I can’t give you the number, but it’s a lot… there are a lot of wounded on both sides and also a lot of dead.”
She lost her husband fighting the Russians in Bakhmut just a month ago. Only antidepressants mask the pain, she says.
The fight for Bakhmut has grown increasingly fierce in recent days. Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky called the fighting in the city “the most difficult”.
The importance of the city cannot be overstated.
Bakhmut is located at a fork that points towards two other strategic cities in the Donetsk region: Konstantinivka to the southwest and Kramatorsk and Slovyansk to the northwest. All three are key to Vladimir Putin’s total control of the region.
However, the scenes in Bakhmut are different from the rest of the country, where Ukraine has been able to largely repel and even gain territory in recent weeks as Russian forces withdrew in late September.
Here, Russian forces have made small, steady gains, largely thanks to the wagner groupwhich analysts consider a Kremlin-approved private military company.
Reports on social media and in Russian state media say that Wagner’s mercenaries are on the outskirts of Bakhmut, in a small town called Ivangrad.
On the Telegram social network, Wagner’s owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, acknowledged that the city’s resistance is tough.
“The situation near Bakhmut is steadily difficult, the Ukrainian troops are putting up a decent resistance, and the legend of the fleeing Ukrainians is just a legend. Ukrainians are guys with the same iron balls as us,” she wrote.
Katrusya says he has faced Wagner fighters and, despite their international notoriety, they seem more like a hodgepodge of soldiers-for-hire, he says.
“They are a rabble. There are some very well-trained professional fighters, but most of them have accidentally found themselves fighting this war for money or a chance to get out of jail,” he said.
In September, a video surfaced that appeared to show Prigozhin recruiting prisoners from Russian jails for Wagner, offering a promise of clemency. in exchange for six months of military service in Ukraine.
Despite her anguish, Katrusya’s spirit does not dim. The only goal is victory.
“The price for Ukraine will be enormous,” he acknowledges. “We will lose the best of the best, the most motivated and trained, but we will definitely win, we have no other option, it is our land. We will absolutely win.”