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“A battle over smoldering ruins”: The defense of Bakhmut through the eyes of a Ukrainian soldier

Over the past several months, the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut has been in global media headlines: this small town, once home to 70 thousand people and now down to almost no residents, has become the center of a fundamental confrontation between Vladimir Putin's troops and Ukraine. The town has no strategic importance, but the Kremlin has thrown enormous forces toward its capture and is gradually pushing forward, despite losses of three to five times that of Ukraine. Yuriy Matsarsky, once a journalist for Kommersant and now a fighter in the Ukrainian army, told The Insider why the city’s defenders are fighting so desperately for the nearly destroyed settlement and how the remaining locals are surviving.

I can't talk about what lies ahead for Bakhmut, as I’m a rank-and-file [soldier] and it is not up to me to decide how, what and on what terms will happen next. Bakhmut is holding and standing its ground, most of the city is under the control of the AFU. Yes, the city is constantly being shelled. Every 5-10 seconds, a shell or a mortar shell explodes closer or farther away. All this is occasionally interrupted by machine-gun bursts.

As for the locals – pain and misery. Up to several thousand people remain in Bakhmut, living in basements or apartments that haven’t been destroyed. There’s no light, no water and no food except what can be obtained from the military or police, which still come here from time to time. Locals – including children – are still [in those apartments]. I don't know how [there are still children here] after the [government] passed a decree saying that children will be removed [from Bakhmut] even without the consent of their parents or guardians, but it’s absolutely impossible to see adults dragging children through the bombed-out streets of Bakhmut with them. It’s hard to watch.

Up to several thousand people remain in Bakhmut, living in basements or apartments that haven’t been destroyed

Who are these people? They’re desperate, and it seems to me that they simply have nowhere to go. They fear change more than bullets and shells. Many of my acquaintances and I said that if I had not been in the military, I would not have come within 100 kilometres of Bakhmut, but these people stay there and find a million excuses, saying that they still have belongings here, they were born here, they remember every corner. I don’t know how to explain that, but it's the truth. Of course there’s no work in Bakhmut, no one can earn money. There’s no economy there at all now. The fact that you still keep your children and grandchildren with you – that's what amazes me. You don't realize the risk you’re taking with your children, or you do, but you take it anyway.

From my experience and [from] what I’ve heard from my comrades-in-arms, humanitarian aid hasn’t been delivered in recent weeks. [Humanitarian aid deliveries] have been barred from entering Bakhmut and the humanitarian aid that continues to arrive is what the military share with the civilian population, meaning it actually comes from their own dry rations and supplies. Ammunition and food is brought in every day, although that depends on the brigade, and still some [soldiers] leave for a couple of days to catch up on sleep, do laundry and then come back, with others coming in to fill the vacant spots. There’s constant rotation and movement.

It's always good when the occupiers get a kick in the teeth and when their plans are screwed up. They need to show at least some kind of victory, which is why they’re gnawing at Bakhmut, but it wasn’t Bakhmut they were after. The guys say that if they surrender Bakhmut, it will be paid for with so many lives of the occupants that they themselves won’t be happy [about taking it]. Bakhmut is being pinned down by a huge occupying force, but the losses of the attackers are much higher than those of the Ukrainian defenders.

Unfortunately, Ukrainian fighters are also being killed and wounded, but the Russians are dying in far greater numbers. According to some reports, Russian casualties are 5-7 times higher than those of the Ukrainian defenders. As long as Bakhmut hangs on, the Russians will litter the surrounding area with bones, and that cannot but make all the good people on the planet happy.

The occupiers need to show at least some kind of victory, which is why they’re gnawing at Bakhmut

As for the mood of the fighters and locals in Bakhmut, I can say that those guys and gals who are now fighting for Ukraine are some of the most motivated people in the world. If you lose motivation, if you show some slack or get lost in any way, that's it, consider yourself lost, and so quickly enough everyone learns to be focused, complete the tasks at hand and trust each other. This super trust between people is one of the main qualities which distinguishes Ukrainian fighters from the majority of people I know, especially in hot spots. There is a popular word for this, «brothers-in-arms», and it is not popular at the front and in Bakhmut. Here, people trust each other as brothers and sisters, as no one else, and fighters to each other, and commanders to fighters, and fighters to commanders. It is a real war brotherhood, united by a very clear common goal - to keep the enemy out and chase him as far away as possible so that he forgets where he is and what his name is.

Children's drawings for Ukrainian soldiers defending Bakhmut
Children's drawings for Ukrainian soldiers defending Bakhmut

When they tried to surround one of the groups of fighters, a guy took a gunshot wound to his leg. So, he put a tourniquet on his leg to stop the blood loss. All of our fighters carry tourniquets with them, and I only have three with me. That said, some people say to me: “That’s not enough, you've got four limbs! Just in case, carry four!” So, this guy put on a tourniquet and kept on fighting. You also have to understand that when you put a tourniquet on a leg, it loses its locomotor functions for a few minutes. This guy crawled around the field and his commander literally pushed him out to be evacuated, the combat medics got there and were able to get him to be picked up by a vehicle that sent him off to remove the bullet, stitch up and treat the wound. This is just one of the stories I’ve witnessed myself, and there are tens of thousands of these stories. I wish there were fewer of them, that we would win, kick this damn scum off the Ukrainian soil and live in a human way with a Ukrainian Crimea, Donbas, with all the hostages and prisoners having returned home.

All Ukrainians are special people now. I won't name names or call signs, but I meet very different guys. For example, a young guy who looked 19 years old, but is actually 21. We crossed paths on his birthday. And despite the fact that he’s very young, he’s a company commander, he has a number of very tough guys in his command. Many of those he commands are two to two and a half times older than him. And they managed somehow to get and bring a cake from Sloviansk or Kramatorsk, and it's an amazing story - to a ruined city where shelling and rips don't stop, where you stick your head out of the basement and immediately Russian drones start herding you and pointing artillery and mortars at you, suddenly, a cake. A real birthday party. Everyone’s learning some kind of military skill in one way or another.

There are IT people fighting here, there was a veterinarian girl, she’s now in Bakhmut killing the occupiers. There are people [here] who used to be millionaires, but now they sleep in dirty basements because there are no clean ones, and they eat stew from a can with a knife. Everyone who is in Ukraine is fighting the Russian aggressor in Bakhmut.

There are people here who were millionaires and now sleep in dirty basements

Whether the city will be surrendered is hard to say, because there’s very different information even within Bakhmut. You talk to some fighters and they say they’re waiting for the order to retreat any hour now. Where do they get that feeling? Well, that's what they feel. Did the commander say that? No, he didn't say anything like that. And two days later other people say: “Why should we leave? We have good positions here, we are grinding the Russians one by one. Why should we leave a place like this?”

You also have to understand that [Bakhmut] is a literal ruin. There is nothing left here that could be of any strategic, military or logistical interest. The battle is over smoldering ruins.

Ukrainian soldiers on the streets of Bakhmut
Ukrainian soldiers on the streets of Bakhmut

As for the non-stop fighting – not many people fight for days on the front line in the trenches. They fight for days or hours on end, with assault groups and those who find themselves in a situation where someone is trying to encircle them or surround them. Fortunately, most fighters in Bakhmut and other parts of the front can withdraw to more or less calm positions. More or less, because there are no guarantees that they won't get you. Even in Lviv there are rockets coming from these savages. There are opportunities to step back, opportunities to rotate. You can go out, have a rest, wash and change your clothes. It is important to have a piece of quiet life, to change into warm and clean clothes when there is mud, blood and destruction around.

There is nothing left here that could be of any strategic, military or logistical interest. The battle is over smoldering ruins

Even when Ukrainian politicians or some of the senior officers say that Bakhmut may be abandoned, it’s clear that it won’t be abandoned forever. And Bakhmut, if God forbid, will return, and Luhansk will return, and Donetsk, and Yalta, and Simferopol, and Sevastopol. This is all Ukrainian land, which will be returned militarily to its rightful owner – the people of Ukraine.

But if it is necessary to leave Bakhmut, then yes, it will be left. The main goal and the main priorities of the Ukrainian command, and it is written in the combat service regulations, from the top to the junior sergeant on the ground, is to preserve the lives and health of the troops. If the further holding of Bakhmut risks high casualties and is deemed unreasonable based on the number of casualties and dead Ukrainian defenders, [then] such a decision will be made based on the expediency of preserving the lives and health of Ukrainian men and women.

This is all Ukrainian land that will be returned militarily to its rightful owner – the people of Ukraine

The heroes of Ukraine are the people whose portraits best illustrate the answer to the question of who defends Bakhmut. They are mortar men, who were mostly civilians. There’s one mortar man who was on film, but who has no lines – he was a militia special forces officer. He served in the infamous Berkut under Yanukovych. The mortar commander is an IT guy from Lviv, a man of an absolutely peaceful profession, but during his university studies he went through the military department and acquired the rank and skills of handling artillery. There is a senior medical officer, he’s an oral surgeon in Lviv – he’s my father's colleague. He had his own clinic in Lviv, he worked on oral and maxillofacial surgery. The man comes from a family of doctors, hereditary surgeon. He volunteered for the army shortly after the full-scale invasion began. Serving in the army, saving lives. There’s a great team of guys and girls who serve and save lives with him.

I know a professional serviceman who graduated from a military academy in Odesa, serving in the infantry. He’s a combat officer who was told that, due to various circumstances, there was no senior officer in charge of logistics, so he had to do it. Orders aren’t negotiable in the army, and he took charge of logistics in one of the battalions. He's a great guy with a fine [service] record. Everyone who serves with him says he’s absolutely in his place, he's a real doer. He is in charge of everything the Ukrainian army can't fight without, from fuel, machine-guns, shells and grenade launchers to stew and pasta. Everything’s on him. No army can exist without logistics. In the army, we all understand perfectly well that logistics are one of the most basic things, because if you don't have food, medicine, ammunition and staff rotation, you can't do a lot of fighting. The Russian army has bad logistics, which is why mobilized soldiers are fertilizing Ukrainian soil in their thousands.

The Russian army has bad logistics, which is why mobilized soldiers are fertilizing Ukrainian soil in their thousands

There are also the guys who feed the soldiers. They are not in this nice man’s command, but they also have their own commander, who organizes everything and keeps an eye on things. The chief of these guys, the army chef, is an actual chef who used to work in some five-star hotel in Lviv. He knows how to cook the most sophisticated dishes and he too decided that he couldn't stay away. Many people think that he’s just a cook, that's all. But a chef in war is not just a cook – he also delivers. Delivering hot food to Bakhmut is a small daily heroic feat, as the delivery has to be made along the road, which is under constant fire from the Russian occupiers.

I’ve been in the army for over a year now and I know that any man who is engaged in a cause and devotes himself [to it] is a real hero. And it doesn't matter if he’s sitting in a trench on the front line with a Javelin waiting for the Russian tanks to approach, or cooking borscht to take to that guy in the trench under fire – all the guys and girls are heroes. I want to make a joint family photo of all Ukrainian defenders after all this filth has been shredded, kicked out and the remains buried. There’s a feeling of a real fighting brotherhood. There’s a feeling that all these people are your brothers and sisters, and you all are doing the most important thing in your life.

Why haven't people in Ukraine stiffened and hardened after a year of deaths and a hard struggle that’s left behind so many widows, orphans and disabled [people]? Because it is a war of people with souls, with conscience, with the idea of good against the occupiers, who are absolutely soulless and brainless creatures, who came and tried to take from the Ukrainians what was rightfully theirs. How has the enemy changed? Hell knows, I can't tell. They were looters, murderers and rapists a year ago, and they are looters, murderers and rapists now. Is there any difference between an SS soldier in 1940 and one in 1944? Maybe a specialist on German fascists can tell you that, but I’m no expert on Russian fascists. They’ve stayed the same.

See the video report on the defense of Bakhmut here.

*The cover photo depicts a Ukrainian soldier walking along a street in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Sunday, Feb. 12, 2023. The writing on the wall reads “Bakhmut loves Ukraine.” Souce: AP Photo / Libkos.

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