A man steps out of the iron gate closing off the stairs to an apartment building basement, drawn by the noise of our car. He doesn’t look friendly.
Not many people come to Soledar, there is constant shelling and the front is close by. When the man reads the word “Press” on our bulletproof vests, he starts cursing and slams his hands on his hips before disappearing back into the basement.
The rain is pouring, and all around one can see plastic jugs and buckets set up under metal sheets to collect rainwater. A large plume of white smoke is coming from under one of the sheet metal roofs, and we catch a glimpse of a massive figure fiddling with a pot. It is an old lady with short hair, assiduously poking at the pieces of wood inside a small brazier. The lady is covered in several layers of clothes, all different colors, and has a pair of slippers on her feet. I can tell she can’t stand being still; she moves frantically from one activity to another, looking at me sideways, while another woman in her forties is sitting on a bench eating borscht. They are mother and daughter, the older named Yelena, the younger Irina.
After a few moments, they loosen up, invite me to eat with them and get a little offended when I refuse. “It’s good!” insists Yelena, but she doesn’t repeat the invitation twice and asks for a cigarette. “See how we live?”
Irina starts, immediately interrupted by her mother: “There’s no water, no electricity, no gas, we have been living in the basement for five months.”
“Five months,” Irina repeats.
There are 24 left in their dwelling, including four children.
“There are no men here, right?”
“Men…I wish!” says Irina laughing, and her mother starts laughing with her, in a hoarse, dry voice, uncovering her few remaining teeth.
“Look there, there was the hospital, look!” She almost drags me over to a building gutted by bombing. “Now there’s no doctor, the pharmacies are all closed, if we get sick how can we manage it?” She says this with anger and no trace of self-pity in her voice.
The sound of explosions seem to leave her indifferent, but when a hissing sound is heard from above, she stops, looking up. Her whole face is tense, as if she can visualize the trajectory of the shell. Irina watches her, terrified. This lasts for just three or four seconds, then Yelena starts stirring the water in the pot again.
Why don’t they leave?
“Because it’s expensive,” she replies dryly. The daughter tells me that evacuation minibuses have come several times, but they don’t trust them: “We’ll go to Dnipro, to Kyiv, and do what?” This is their home, they have nothing else.
Meanwhile, between Bakhmutske, Bakhmut and Soledar, Russian and Ukrainian artillery are relentlessly exchanging fire. One of the objectives of Moscow’s forces is to break through the Ukrainians’ defensive lines and take possession of the junction that continues straight toward Slovyansk and the stronghold at Kramatorsk.
Over the months, we have returned to Soledar several times, finding a worse situation each time. On Oct. 6, the salt mine that is the productive center of the area had been reduced to a pile of sheet metal debris among the still-standing remains of the tall industrial buildings; the streets were like a graveyard of trees, high-tension cables, debris of all kinds and unexploded ordnance. The general atmosphere was that of a ghost town, and to see a human being one needed to go down the ramps to the doors to the basements.
“Have you ever seen any Russian soldiers?” I asked the women, who said they hadn’t. “You can hear them, though,” I said, hinting at the constant rumbling noises, sometimes farther away, sometimes very close.
“Those are the Ukrainians!” said Yelena. “The shells are coming from there (she pointed with her hand) and the Russians are there (she pointed the other way); it can’t be the Russians!”
But why would the Ukrainians be shelling them?
Yelena makes a gesture to just forget about it, and Irina smiles dejectedly, out of politeness and to keep from crying, which she only half succeeds at.
They are at their limits, like everyone else who still lives here. They are afraid to move elsewhere, but live in terror of dying buried in their homes, aware that winter is coming and that as long as the war continue it will only get worse and worse for them.
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