As Moscow’s forces push to encircle the frontline hotspot of Bakhmut, the battle-scarred town’s last residents say they will not budge if the Russians arrive.
“How could I leave?” says 75-year-old Natalia Shevchenko, who worries that moving would be too expensive.
She spends so long taking cover in her basement that she feels “like a mole” as she steps out into the light and her eyes adjust.
“Don’t worry,” she tells AFP as shells whistle in the background. “They’re far away. I’ve now learnt where they’re going.”
Russian forces have been trying to seize control of Bakhmut in the eastern region of Donetsk for months in what has become the longest and bloodiest battle since Russia invaded Ukraine last February.
Despite the flow of Western weapons, Russia has in recent days claimed gains in the region.
The fight for Bakhmut has turned the town with a pre-war population of roughly 75,000 into a ghost town dotted with hedgehog anti-tank defences and burnt-out cars.
There is no gas, no electricity, no running water. Around 7,000 people — many of them elderly — still live in the town despite the constant sound of artillery exchanges, gunfire and drones buzzing overhead.
On Tuesday, a 12-year-old boy and a 70-year-old man were killed during Russia’s barrage of the town.
On a visit to Bakhmut on Wednesday, an AFP team saw smoke coming from the northern part of Bakhmut.
A Ukrainian military vehicle was targeted by a Russian strike on Tuesday in the west of the town, and on Wednesday AFP saw blood-stained snow at the scene.
A piece of what appeared to be human flesh lay next to shattered glass.
– ‘I’ll stay alive’ –
Outside the war-ravaged town, Ukrainian soldiers have been busy fortifying positions.
The river that splits Bakhmut in two has become a key dividing line in the fighting.
Shevchenko, who lives on the eastern bank, risks her life every day when she crosses the bridge to get water.
Those who could leave have left, while others like Shevchenko seem resigned to their fate.
“Forget about gas, if we had electricity, everything would be easier. Then we could have heating and the chance to cook,” says the elderly woman.
“The worst thing is that we have no more signal,” she says.
“I can’t call my family. I have two children — one is in Kyiv, the other is in Odesa. Their children are small, that’s why they had to leave.”
Nadiya Burdinska, 66, says she has lived in Bakhmut her whole life and has no plans to leave.
“Only a fool wouldn’t be afraid,” she says.
“Everything is possible, if God wants it, I’ll stay alive,” she says outside her Soviet-era apartment building as she hauls sacks of wooden pallets.
To keep herself warm, she had to buy a stove for 3,500 hryvnia ($95) and asked the authorities to provide the cheap wood.
“That’s how we live in the 21st century,” she says.