At first glance Bakhmut doesn’t look like a city at war.
As we drove into the city in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine on a warm sunny morning, men in orange vests tend to the roses. The tall trees shading the streets are thick with leaves.
Traffic is light because of fuel shortages, so many residents get around on bicycles.
This peaceful façade, however, is deceptive. Explosions regularly echo over Bakhmut: the blasts of outgoing and incoming artillery and rockets outside, and occasionally inside, the city.
Our first stop was a municipal building where volunteers were handing out bread. With cooking gas no longer available, bakeries have stopped working. Every day a truck arrives after a 10-hour journey with 10,000 loaves of bread, handed out free – two loaves per person.
Lyilya has brought her two grandchildren to pick up bread. “We support them,” she says, explaining what she does to keep their minds at ease. “We tell them there are some guys playing with tanks. What else can I tell them? How can I damage their mental health? You can’t do that. It’s impossible.”
Just as the last words come out of her mouth the air shakes with multiple blasts. She turns to her grandchildren with gentle words of reassurance.
On a nearby forested hill, thin threads of black smoke curl into the sky where the blasts came from — most likely a Ukrainian rocket launcher.
No one flinches. No one runs for cover.
Tetyana volunteers with the bread distribution. A stocky woman with an easy smile, she exchanges pleasantries as she hands out the bread.
When I ask if she intends to stay in Bakhmut if Russian forces push closer, her demeanor changes. She shakes her head.
“We love our town. Our graves are here. Our parents lived her. We won’t go anywhere,” she insists, her voice quivering. Tears well up in her eyes. “It’s our land. We won’t give it up to anyone. Even if it’s destroyed, we’ll rebuild. Everything will be…” and here she gives two thumbs up.
Bakhmut sits by the main road leading to the twin cities of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk, now the epicenter of fighting in eastern Ukraine. The latter has been the scene of intense street-to-street combat between Ukrainian and Russian forces. For weeks Russian forces have bombarded the road, and Bakhmut, in what is seen as an attempt to cut the twin cities off from the rest of Ukrainian-controlled territory.
Ukrainian officials say most of Severodonetsk is now under Russian control. If that city and Lysychansk fall, Bakhmut, it is feared, will be next.
Unlike in some other parts of the country, there is no sense here in the east that the worst of this war is over. Russian forces have made slow but steady progress there.
The head of Ukrainian intelligence recently told The Guardian that for every one artillery piece possessed by the Ukrainian military, Russian has between 10 and 15. Others, including President Vlodymyr Zelensky, claim that every day as many as 100 Ukrainian soldiers are killed, and around 500 wounded.
In this grinding war of attrition, Russia, far bigger and better armed, is pressing its advantage.
All of this is no secret here. In a city-run dormitory, Lyudmila is preparing lunch for her two children, frying onions and boiling potatoes. She fled her town outside Bakhmut in March to escape the shelling. “Home” now is a small, cramped room. Her husband died before the war.
She says she has nowhere else to go, and barely any money, and asks with an edge of irritation, what is the point? The Russians are coming. “It’s the same everywhere,” she says. “When they [the Russians] are done here, they’ll go further.”
She shrugs and walks away down the dark corridor. “That’s all I have to say” she shouts back over her shoulder.
Thursday morning Russian aircraft struck a complex of agricultural warehouses on the edge of Bakhmut. It was the third strike on the complex in recent weeks. A gaping hole in the pavement shows where one bomb hit, spraying shrapnel in every direction, ripping holes in a warehouse of wheat.
Plump pigeons circle overhead, ready to feast on the grain. The weather has been good this year. The wheat harvest is just weeks away. Yet the war threatens to cut production by a third.
Bakhmut police Major Pavlo Diachenko spends his days documenting the aftermath of air and artillery strikes. He knows only too well how random they seem. Strikes, he tells me with a sigh, can happen “anytime. In the morning, in the evening. We don’t [know] when.”
A small group of people gathers mid-morning in a parking lot next to a municipal building, waiting for a volunteer-run bus to take them to the relative safety of the city of Dnipro, a four-hour drive to the west.
Igor, a beekeeper in peacetime, is startled by a large blast as he stands in the shade. He’s leaving with his cat, Simon Simonyonich, who frowns through the bars of his blue and white pet carrier.
Simon Simonyonich has been out of sorts since Bakhmut came under fire, remarks Igor.
“I left everything here – my bees and my house with all my belongings,” he says, holding Simon’s cage as he prepares to board the bus.
Moments later, another blast shakes the ground. Soon the bus is loaded, the passengers sitting in their seats.
“Is anyone here with the army?” the driver asks. The bus is strictly for civilians. A sardonic chuckle ripples among the passengers. Most are well past military age.
The door slams shut. The bus begins to move.
After one final blast, the bus pulls out of the parking lot.