In Bakhmout, Ukraine, civilians under pressure from Russian advance

&In Bakhmout, Ukraine, civilians under pressure from Russian advance


While struggling on other fronts, near Bakhmout in eastern Ukraine Russian forces are advancing slowly, battling since August to capture the town where so many civilians survive though badly. 

Rimma Tsykalenko, 65, is determined to cross the river to collect her monthly pension, despite being in a wheelchair and the bridge having been blown up to slow the Russian offensive.

Olexandre Valy, a 67-year-old retired factory worker, stopped to watch Rimma's neighbors carry her on foot across the steep bank at the edge of the Bakhmoutka River.

“She's not going to make it!”, he says.

“We've done it before!”, retorts one of the team members, holding the woman on a makeshift footbridge.

Once on the other side, the retiree is not out of danger. Plumes of smoke rise from shell fire south of the city and machine gun fire echoes from the eastern bank.

On the slightly safer west bank, destroyed apartment buildings stand alongside rubble and broken glass. The shells whistle in the sky, forcing passers-by to take shelter. Civilians struggle to transport water and food across the ruined bridge.

In the south, pro-Russian separatists fighting alongside Moscow forces claimed Friday morning the capture of three villages, Otradivka, Vesselaya Dolina and Zaïtsevé.

Intense shelling is heard from this direction.

Capturing Bakhmut, a pre-war city of 70,000, would be a victory for Moscow after weeks of defeats from north to south in Ukraine.

Ukrainian forces still control Bakhmut, but the fears of an infiltration of Russian forces on the eastern bank, including mercenaries from the Wagner company, are very present.

“My neighborhood of origin is that of Zabakhmoutka, over there. I haven't been able to reach my house for about two months,” says Edvard Skorik, a 29-year-old civilian volunteer, pointing to the other side of the river.

“This part of the city was badly affected, the eastern part. Street fights take place every night,” he told AFP.

On the bridge, Edvard distributes a few loaves of bread to civilians crossing the river, some pushing bicycles or carrying 20 liter water canisters on carts.

He also has another mission, for the Ukrainian humanitarian group Vostok SOS: to evacuate the vulnerable inhabitants of the apartments damaged by the shells.

He jumps in a white van and sets off. Most of Bakhmout's roads are blocked by anti-tank obstacles, forcing him to weave through courtyards and alleys.

“Genia, I'm already in Bakhmout. If they're okay with leaving now, I can get them back,” he shouts into his phone.

In a nine-story building in a central residential area, Edvard climbs the stairs to an old man's apartment.

Ivan Soloviankov is 90 years old and could not leave Bakhmout because of the bombardments. Edvard drives him out of town and on to Dnipro, from where he can take a train to the relative safety of Kharkiv.

Remaining Bakhmout residents are trying to stock up on meager supplies.< /p>

Igor Maksimenko's water canister leaks as it falls from his metal trolley on his way down to the rickety bridge, but he manages to straighten it, determined to bring it to the east bank in an apartment building still housing 25 people.

“Sometimes they shoot really close, next to this store, right above our heads, and shrapnel mixed with earth is spurting everywhere,” he testifies.

“But we still continue to lug all that around. How could we leave? To where? To stay with whom?” he asks.