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The Press in Ukraine | Life in a ghost town



(Bakhmout, Ukraine) A feverish crowd gathered around a truck of Obolon, a well-known brand of beer in Ukraine. But it’s not the hops that keep the people of Bakhmout running on this cold winter morning. For them, the cargo of the semi-trailer is much more precious, even vital: coal.

The distribution is going smoothly. Each is entitled to ten bags. Enough to face, for a while, the biting cold of the Ukrainian winter. A cold that can kill as surely as the bombs that continue their work of destruction at a maddening pace in the besieged city of Donbass.

My interpreter has moved away when a fifty-year-old approaches me, his eyes worried, his coat covered in dust. His words jostle in Ukrainian. I don’t understand. He insists. Get angry, even. Finally, he shouts to me in English: “HELP ME! »


Distribution of bags of charcoal in Bakhmout

Pavlo Hreshko has no means of transporting the coal to his home. As we load the bags into our car, a woman stops him. She stares at him for a moment, then bursts into tears. “Pavlo, you have changed so much! Your clothes are dirty! She found it difficult to recognize the man who was, before the outbreak of the war, a teacher at the agricultural school.

In the car, Pavlo grumbles: “I have to take care of myself… I’m really starting to look like a homeless…”

Paradox: while the eyes of the world are riveted on Bakhmout, the hot spot of the war in Ukraine, the inhabitants of Bakhmout live cut off from the rest of the world.

They have no electricity. No running water. No heating. No internet. No access to mobile phone. Even the International Red Cross refuses to venture into the dead city. Too dangerous.

The majority of the 72,000 inhabitants fled long ago. There are a few thousand left, left to fend for themselves.


Residents warm up in a shelter in Bakhmout.

They chose to stay, even though they know death can happen anywhere, anytime. At the bend of a street, in broad daylight. In a bed, in the dead of night.

Diana Hrytsenko, 86, lost track of her son in August. He had gone to get food distributed by a local NGO. “He never came back. »

Babouchka Diana remains, despite everything. The local authorities are doing everything to convince her and everyone else to leave town urgently. In vain. These recalcitrants refuse to face the unknown. They have nowhere to go. Here, at least, they have a roof.

They refuse to give up their home to become homeless.


Bomb crater in Bakhmout

Ten months of bombardments are wearing out his man.

Crossed in a refuge where the inhabitants come to warm up, eat a soup or sip hot tea, Alexandr Alexandrovitch Thachenko apologizes: “Don’t judge me on my appearance… I just cut wood…”

With his ripped jeans and shapeless tuque, the 65-year-old man is seriously starting to look like a tramp, too.

In his other life, before the war, Alexandr was a gymnastics coach. On his cell phone charged by the shelter’s generator, he scrolls through videos of his students performing pirouettes in a gleaming gymnasium, now in ruins. He smiles: “my casseroles”.

That time is over, forever.


Alexandr Alexandrovich Thachenko

Alexandr invites us to his home to show us how he manages to survive in this cursed city – hoping all the same that his wife, who fled Bakhmout, will never come across our report. “If she sees what I’ve done with the house, she’s going to kill me…”

The disorder is total, but organized. Alexandr hung the carpets from the windows, hoping to protect the panes from the bangs. He moved the appliances to the hallway, to protect them from the shells. He stacked his books in the yard. That’s what he’ll save, if the house is bombed. Even if he has already read them a thousand times. Finally, he installed a bed in the narrow kitchen, the only heated room in the house.

For the past 10 months, Alexandr has spent most of his time in this kitchen. “I’m entitled to a candlelit dinner every night,” he slips, sketching a sad smile.

“The most frightening thing is that there is no internet. »

Oleh Stigantsov is only half kidding. The lack of water, electricity and heating, it can still go. But the absence of the internet, with four children permanently cloistered in a small apartment… that’s hell.

The children went to school until she was razed in the fighting. They went to school online, until the internet went down.


Oleh Stigantsov and three of his children: Ivan, 12, Maria, 14, and Timofii, 10

Now they kill time in this apartment plunged into darkness, on the second floor of a deserted block. The family moved here after a shell hit their house. “The children were afraid to live in a place where there is no bomb shelter,” says Oleh.

As with the others, a question comes to mind. Always the same: why doesn’t he flee this hell?

Oleh answers me bluntly: he is waiting for Bakhmout to fall into the hands of the Russians.

Like many of those who chose to stay, he supports Moscow in this war. “After the fighting, we will probably leave the city, because everything is destroyed; life will be untenable. »

He will take refuge in Russia, where he has relatives. But for now, he remains. He has no choice but to wait for the outcome of this battle, hoping that Bakhmout will change hands: like all men in Ukraine, he is not authorized to leave the country.


The priest Volodymyr Diakovskiy

Under its golden dome, the facade of the Church of All Saints bears the scars of war. Its facade is riddled with shrapnel.

A handful of worshipers attend Sunday mass in the cold darkness of the basement of the Orthodox church. Their chants fail to drown out the muffled sound of the bombs.

“Last month, there were many more faithful at Sunday mass. But the shelling intensified. It’s difficult for them to move around,” explains Volodymyr Diakovskiy, a priest with a long gray beard.


The facade of the Church of All Saints, riddled with shrapnel

He persists in celebrating mass, despite the fighting. And maybe even because of them. “In war, people’s faith is stronger and they pray more. It is important to give them a connection to God. »

The priest sees himself as a kind of essential service. More than ever, the people of Bakhmout need to believe in something.

After mass, Marina Fer goes to the shop to get some religious books, “to replace the TV”. Suddenly, a loud explosion shakes the walls. Marina pauses, then shrugs her shoulders: “If we’re killed in the church, that’s fine. It’s good for the soul…”

She lacks nothing in Bakhmout, she swears. “We eat our fill and we don’t work. We lead a communist life. But after 10 months of bombing, we are tired. We don’t need humanitarian aid. All we want is peace. »

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