“The objective for today is to come back alive.” Yevgeny is a young commando from the “Mad Pack”, a special forces unit that has been fighting in Bakhmut since November. His words are familiar — lacquered with that mix of emotions common to almost all soldiers fighting on the frontlines of war: laughter and unease. We clamber into a Land Cruiser and head toward the city. “The situation is always changing,” he continues. “But one thing remains the same: the line of contact is always active.”
Even by the standards of eastern Ukraine, Bakhmut is a hellscape of destruction. Electricity has been out since August and water since October. Rows of uniform Soviet-style buildings now resemble a series of ragged molars, mottled by shells and blackened with soot.
The streets of this city that once had a population of 70,000 are almost empty of civilians, save for the odd elderly man or woman who ambles past amid the constant drum of nearby shelling. Everywhere I look I see soldiers: standing guard, advancing forwards, taking cover, congregating in doorways and behind walls, and almost always smoking. Our first port of call is a mosque. A small squat rectangular box that could be a normal house save for a small golden dome on its roof. Kazbek, a Chechen soldier fighting for Ukraine, who is our guide with Yevgeny, gets out of the car and goes to pray, bowing to Mecca as shells explode around us. [Continue reading…]