The weather in Bachmut deceives the senses, sunny and warm – almost peaceful.
But a deafening blast of artillery fire from the critical eastern Ukrainian city shook that notion as Ukrainian soldiers launched offensives on Wednesday to try to retake positions from Russian forces.
Three men could be seen running out of town, one with a microwave on his back.
Russia’s war in Ukraine lasts nine months. It’s only when you descend into the city that you really get a sense of the devastation and misery that Vladimir Putin’s invasion brought upon this city.
Our guide is a Ukrainian military medic, nicknamed “Katrusya”. With tinted sunglasses and work clothes, she hurls our convoy at breakneck speed into the center of the city.
A ghost town flashes through the windows.
“For the last two months, Russians have tried to penetrate the city defenses without success,” she tells us between cigarettes.
She led us to a building that had just been shelled. Our car hadn’t even come to a complete stop when another artillery shell landed nearby. We ducked for cover as more artillery rained down and pounded nearby for about 20 minutes.
The attacks are normal, Katrusya says as she leans against a wall — an image of serenity — as we take cover from the incoming shells.
“The artillery attacks fly every day, so it’s never quiet here. Other parts of the city are hit several times a day,” she says.
A handful of residents still linger on the streets of Bakhmut. buildings have no windows; the streets are littered with craters and industrial garbage cans have merged into small garbage pools.
Those who remain seem to live in a parallel universe. They’re out on their bikes running errands and older women towing their shopping carts, but which shops are open seems a mystery.
Sergey is one of those Bakhmut residents who are still out on the streets. When asked if he’s worried about the shelling, he replies, “Afraid of what, mate? Everything will be fine.”
Then he stares off into the distance, almost as if he doesn’t really believe his own words.
Katrusya says the intense fighting here has claimed the lives of scores of soldiers and civilians. “I can’t give you the number, but it’s a lot… there’s a lot of injuries on both sides, and a lot of dead as well.”
She lost her husband only a month ago in a fight against the Russians in Bakhmut. Only antidepressants mask the pain, she says.
The battle for Bakhmut has become increasingly fierce in recent days. Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy has described the fighting in the city as “the most difficult”.
The importance of the city cannot be overstated.
Bakhmut lies at a fork that points to two other strategic cities in the Donestk region: Konstantinivka to the south-west and Kramatorsk and Slovyansk to the north-west. All three are key to Vladimir Putin’s total control of the region.
However, the scenes in Bakhmut differ from those in the rest of the country, where Ukraine has largely been able to repel territory and even gain territory in recent weeks as Russian forces withdrew in late September.
Here, the Russian armed forces have made small, steady gains, thanks largely to the Wagner Group, which analysts see as a Kremlin-sanctioned private military company.
Reports on social media and Russian state media say Wagner mercenaries are staying on the outskirts of Bakhmut, in a small village called Ivangrad.
In the social network Telegram, Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin admitted that the city’s resistance is strong.
“The situation near Bakhmut is stable and difficult, Ukrainian troops are putting up decent resistance and the legend of fleeing Ukrainians is just a legend. Ukrainians are guys with the same iron balls as us,” he wrote.
Katrusya says she’s encountered Wagner fighters, and despite their international notoriety, they come across as more like a hodgepodge of hired soldiers, she says.
“You are a rabble. There are a few very well-trained professional fighters, but most of them just happened to find themselves in this war looking for money or a chance to get out of prison,” she said.
In September, a video surfaced that appeared to show Prigozhin recruiting prisoners from Russian prisons for Wagner and offering him a promise of clemency in exchange for six months of combat service in Ukraine.
Despite her broken heart, Katrusya’s spirit is not clouded. The only goal is victory.
“The price for Ukraine will be enormous,” she admits. “We will lose the best of the best, the most motivated and trained, but we will definitely win, we have no choice, it’s our country. We will absolutely win.”