“Welcome to hell,” reads a wall in Bakhmut, a short distance from the central square. On the ground is a dead dog, still in one piece. We hear the hisses of artillery fire – you can hear the entire trajectory of the shell from launch to hiss to burst. At each large intersection, you count the columns of smoke, try to guess the direction of firing, but the strong wind jumbles everything, especially the smells. The nose fills up with the stench of burning and gunpowder that even cigarettes are unable to overpower.
They’re fighting near the river: the bridge pylons are still in Ukrainian hands, but from the other side the fire is relentless. The last time we came here, about a week ago, we recounted the constant barrage of fire from the defenders. On Sunday morning there was almost nothing, as the Russians pounded the location with different types of ammunition for hours, including Grad rockets, recognizable by the sound of them raining down, and cluster bombs, which bring a shattering sound everywhere as they break glass, sheet metal, cars and pierce whatever is in their path. Until the early afternoon, vehicle movement is almost nonexistent; then, two tanks and a few pickup trucks drive by at full speed. No one can give us any information about the market area and Freedom Square, where the municipal administration building used to be.
“Why do you want to know where the administration is?” a policeman in his early twenties asks us with suspicion, after being quite helpful until that point. “I wanted to know about the paramedics at the stabilization center,” I reply. “They’re no longer there.” The young man was born and raised in Soledar; he and his colleague standing next to him and swinging his heavy rifle nervously don’t have 40 years between them.
We find Sonja still in the unbowed center; however, very few civilians remain here. On the other hand, the percentage of people in distress seems to have increased significantly. A man who appears to be drunk is sitting on a tree stump cut for firewood. With one elbow resting on one knee and the other arm drooping, he remains motionless despite the bombs. The dog at his feet doesn’t leave him; however, when the explosions get too loud, the dog gets up, circles around the chair and returns to lie down in the same place. “
How is your grandson?” “Ooooh,” smiles Sonja, “he’s so cute, I talk to him all day.” She laughs nervously, still finds time to offer us American coffee and have a bit of a chat, but she’s tired. Red specks have developed around her eyes that contrast sharply with her blond hair and light irises.
“They wanted me to leave,” she says in a low voice, almost hissing, “but I want to stay here, the boys need me.” Even she, with her gentleness shining through the exhaustion, doesn’t seem to be doing so well anymore.
We make an initial attempt to approach the city center by car. The road we had chosen ends in whitish smoke still too close to the ground – a recent explosion. We turn back and drive around from the north. Dangling high-tension cables bang on the car’s roof; when driving you have to constantly choose between debris and a pothole, and with each jolt you hope the tire doesn’t blow. Near the road down to the square we find ourselves surrounded by new columns of smoke, and the industrial area is on fire as well. We turn back and set off on foot. On the corner we see a mural with the commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Valery Zaluzhny, making a victory symbol with his fingers on the ground floor of a half-destroyed building. We walk close to the walls over broken window panes, slippery ice and rubble, and crouch whenever a whistle breaks the monotony of explosions.
A little distance away we see a military man rounding the corner; we follow him. “What are you doing? Run!” he says. He signals us to follow him to a building a short distance away. There, from the cellar stairwell, a whole unit of Ukrainian infantrymen come out, weapons in hand.
“Where are you from?” they ask, and we reply that we are Italians. “Ah… Berlusconi.” “Nyet!” we object.
The commander doesn’t like us, and Berlusconi’s statements – who knows when he found time to watch those – heighten his impatience with our presence. A skinny white-haired soldier is thrown around like a sack, and as he doesn’t raise his head, I crouch down to greet him. “It’s okay, I’m fine, everything’s fine,” he says and laughs like a fool, raising himself on his arms and knees.
The soldiers are dismantling the position. A hatchback and a Humvee (a kind of Hummer with a heavy machine gun on the roof) arrive one after another, and the soldiers load up everything in the basement: backpacks, sleeping bags, potato sacks, water crates, a grenade launcher, various work tools, and, last but not least, the Starlink antenna. There will be no rotation; the temporary base is about to be abandoned.
Another of the soldiers, perhaps the youngest, seems at times out of his mind and at other times just restless. It is obvious that the camera is stirring him up: he insults the Russians, simulates shots towards the sky, makes some dance moves, but when he stops for a moment his hand is shaking like a leaf. The commander calls him back; it’s time to go.
“Good luck,” says the young soldier with the last sincere smile he has to give at that moment.
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