‘This is hell. They torture us’: The town Vladimir Putin desperately wants

By Anthony Galloway and Kate Geraghty

At a medical stabilisation point in Bakhmut, Ukrainian soldier Oleh Nazarov, 51, has sustained head, neck and back injuries from a grenade attack in his trench.Credit:Kate Geraghty

Inside the battleground city of Bakhmut, an ambulance stops at the entrance of a building and wheels out a soldier on a stretcher with shrapnel blasts all around the lower part of his body. The man is immediately rushed into the emergency room before doctors work to stabilise him while a nurse holds his hand.

Minutes later, another Ukrainian soldier is rushed into the building as he holds a large bloodied bandage around his pulsating right ear and head. Near the entrance of the building, dozens of bloodied stretchers line the walls.

We are in the medical staging point for wounded Ukrainian soldiers being brought from the battle for Bakhmut. They are raced here, treated for their injuries, and then many are taken to hospitals further back from the front line.

Some are treated for more minor injuries and are back in the city’s urban trenches within days.

The facility has been operational since the first day of the Russian invasion, on February 24.

At a medical stabilisation point in Bakhmut, wounded Ukrainian soldiers from frontline positions await to be transferred to a hospital in a nearby town. Credit:Kate Geraghty

After Bakhmut’s hospital closed months ago, the military medical facility has taken in civilians who are injured by artillery and missiles that regularly rain down on the city.

While there is a constant stream of wounded soldiers stretchered in, there is orderliness and calm among the doctors and nurses; this is just another day in a hollowed-out city where no one rests.

In a corridor, a queue of eight wounded soldiers sit and stand around, waiting to be assessed.

Ukrainian soldiers from frontline positions, some wounded with concussion and shrapnel injuries, wait before they can be transferred to hospitals in nearby towns.Credit:Kate Geraghty

Messages of support from children hang on the wall all around the building, with one drawing, by a six-year-old girl named Carolina, depicting a tank with a Ukrainian flag accompanied by the words: “A big thank you.”

Another drawing of a watermelon says, “Everything will be Ukraine”, alluding to the recent liberation of the southern city of Kherson, where most watermelons in Ukraine come from.

The retreat of Russian troops from Kherson has seen the focus now drawn to fighting in towns to the east, which includes Bakhmut. The combatants here have, however, long been engaged in a long and relentless battle.

For weeks Russian soldiers have been edging closer towards the town as their president, Vladimir Putin, attempts to gain some ground after the humiliation of a number of successful Ukrainian counteroffensives.

Putin is now, more than ever, desperate to capture all the predominantly Russian speaking eastern Donbas region.

Taking Bakhmut would allow Russia to launch artillery strikes on the last major cities in the region of Kramatorsk and Slovyansk.

Such has been the intensity of the fighting, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky says it is in Bakhmut that the “craziness of Russian command is most evident”.

“Day after day, for months, they are driving people to their deaths there, concentrating the highest level of artillery strikes,” he said earlier this month.

Ukraine claims that, on one day, Russian forces launched eight separate attacks on Bakhmut before lunchtime, only to be repelled on each occasion.

Inside the medical staging point, Ukrainian soldier Oleh Nazarov sits on a wide brown bench, hours after a grenade explosion injured the whole right side of his body.

The 51-year-old was brought into the facility an hour ago and now has bandages around his head, face, neck, arm and leg.

Asked if the fighting in the trenches on the eastern outskirts of the city has been heavy, Nazarov says: “We Ukrainians don’t know what heavy fighting is.”

Oleh, 51, served in the Ukraine military from 2015 in the Donbas war and was badly injured in 2018. After two years of recovery Oleh went back on active duty. He was injured one hour before he was brought to the stabilisation point where he was treated.Credit:Kate Geraghty

We then ask him how many Ukrainian soldiers are getting killed or wounded in the battle for the city in the country’s east, and he again responds with sarcasm.

“We’re f—ing them [the Russians] up really good,” he says. “We don’t have any dead or wounded.”

The infantry soldier is a veteran of the eight-year war in the eastern Donbas region; in 2018 he was severely injured by a shrapnel blast and forced to recuperate for two years before he was allowed to return.

He tells us the Russian offensive in the east “is all shit”.

“Everything will be Ukraine,” he says.

A wounded Ukrainian soldier with heart pain is assessed and stabilised before he can be evacuated to a hospital in a nearby town.Credit:Kate Geraghty

After a few more minutes, another soldier comes in saying he has something wrong with his heart, and he is eventually brought to the cardiologist. Then another soldier is wheeled in with foot and calf wounds from an apparent shrapnel blast.

After a few more minutes, three soldiers are rushed in, all with serious concussions from mortar and grenade attacks on their trench the day before.

Military medical staff treat wounded Ukrainian soldiers from frontline positions.Credit:Kate Geraghty

One of the soldiers, 24-year-old Danylo Turnov, from Cherkasy in central Ukraine, says it was his first big fight on the frontline, and it happened on his birthday.

He and the other soldiers had the job of defending the left side of a road in the east of the city, while another group was on the right side. He spent four nights in the trench, trying to prevent the Russians from breaking through.

The Russians were positioned just 500 metres away through bushes, but they were continually creeping forward to try to fire mortars and throw grenades at the Ukrainian soldiers.

All of a sudden, they made a big advance.

“There were definitely Russian special forces there … because the cannon fodder just advanced without any preparation, but the special forces tried to draw our attention by firing on us,” Turnov says.

“We started throwing grenades at them and firing at them, and they retreated.

“Also, our mortars started firing at them. We managed to defend this position and we received reinforcements.”

Danylo Turnov waits to be transferred to a hospital in a nearby town where he will be treated for concussion after a fierce battle where grenades and mortars landed in their trench on November 13, his birthday.Credit:Kate Geraghty

But the next morning the fighting became worse and the soldiers in the neighbouring trench retreated after sustaining casualties. Machine guns were mowing down the bushes in front of them, while a tank was firing in their direction and grenades and mortars were landing in their trench.

“We held out for as long as we could [but] they were coming in like crazy,” Turnov says.

“It was the special forces guys who were firing at us with single shots, and it was the other guys who were just advancing. We killed as many as we could. The machine gunner who was a little behind us alone killed three Russians who were about to throw grenades.

“We held the position until lunchtime, but we wouldn’t have made it out any later. So we retreated after lunch, around 4pm.”

He says he suffered a concussion from either one of the grenades or mortars that landed in their trench, which was “very close”.

“We had to retreat from the position but I’m very happy we are alive,” he said.

“I have never been in one of those [a big fight] before, so I did what I could. Because they are my brothers I would have done anything for them.”

The head doctor and surgeon, Serhiy, 41, has been working at the stabilisation point for three months.

Head co-ordinating doctor and surgeon Serhiy, 41, (3rd from left) treats a wounded Ukrainian soldier with shrapnel wounds.Credit:Kate Geraghty

Serhiy says he has stopped counting the number of soldiers he has treated multiple times before they go straight back to battle.

He says today is a “normal day”, given it is only soldiers being brought in, adding that up to 100 wounded people are brought in on the worst days.

“A hard day is when they start shelling the city and they bring in a lot of civilians … Today is just routine.

Head co-ordinating doctor and surgeon Serhiy, 41, treats a wounded Ukrainian soldier with shrapnel wounds to his legs.Credit:Kate Geraghty

“It’s when they bring little children in here. It’s very hard for me to talk about it and I don’t want to talk about it, [but one child was] 2½ years old.”

He says it has become worse in recent weeks because Russia is now intent on destroying the city.

“I think they understand that nobody is going to give up Bakhmut. They want to do something similar to Mariupol or Kharkiv with it, but that’s just my point of view,” he says, referring to the large cities in the south and north-east of Ukraine that were flattened by Russia in the early days of the invasion.

‘They torture us in Bakhmut’

The region’s hospitals are starting to fill up with wounded civilians from Bakhmut.

In a surgical ward in Kostyantynivka, 67-year-old Mariya lies in severe pain in her bed four days after a shelling attack on her house that killed her husband.

She has shrapnel wounds all over her back and can barely move.

Mariya was at home with her husband when their home was hit in a Russian strike that killed her husband in Bakhmut. Credit:Kate Geraghty

“We never thought this would happen. We wish there will be peace for all of us,” she says. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re from Australia, America, Germany, Ukraine or Russia – we just want peace.”

In the bed next to her, Viktoriya Prokopenko, 48, is recovering after suffering internal injuries to her lungs and heart when a shell hit her house.

“It’s getting much worse. Every minute, it gets worse and worse,” she says. “We used to have intermittent shelling, but recently it became around-the-clock.”

Viktoriya Prokopenko, 48, recovers in the surgical department of Kostyantynivka Hospital with a punctured lung from shrapnel. Viktoriya was at home with her husband when their home was hit in a strike on November 9.Credit:Kate Geraghty

On another level, in the amputee ward, Ludmyla lies in her bed two days after a missile hit her house and tore off her left hand.

Her husband, Vasyl, says he picked up her blown-off hand and held it in his own hands.

“When will this stop? This is hell. They torture us in Bakhmut,” he says.

Vasyl, 65 (right), sits by his wife Ludmyla, 72 (left), whose left hand was amputated.Credit:Kate Geraghty

Yuri Myshastyi, head of the surgical department at the hospital, says that since Putin set the goal of taking all of the Donbas, it has become much worse.

“This is a despicable attack by those who we mistakenly took for brothers,” he says.

Head of the surgical department at Kostyantynivka Hospital No5, Yuri Myshastyi.Credit:Kate Geraghty

“This [Russia] is a nation that does not understand the voice of reason at all.

“They are all brainwashed.”

A city divided

The only thing that separates the rest of Bakhmut from the front line is a bombed-out bridge over a river that runs through the city. Go over the Bakhmutovka River, and it is essentially a battleground where the positions change almost every day.

A couple walk across the Bakhmutovka River crossing where the bridge has been destroyed.Credit:Kate Geraghty

The city had a population of more than 70,000 before Russia’s invasion of the country, but now only a few thousand remain. Now there is no power, gas or running water.

It is impossible to understand Russia’s renewed attempt at capturing all the eastern Donbas region without going back to 2014 when Putin backed rebels in the two breakaway oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk declared their own republics.

While people in areas such as the recently liberated southern city of Kherson overwhelmingly rejected their occupiers, the views of people in Bakhmut are more complicated.

Some are undoubtedly pro-Ukrainian, some lean more to the Russian side or that of the Moscow-backed separatists. Others are mostly ambivalent and just want the attacks to stop.

We meet Vadym, 48, who has just headed out for the morning from across the river amid a constant firing of artillery between Russian and Ukrainian soldiers in the background.

“It’s very hard for us all, a lot of people have been killed, buildings destroyed. We don’t want war.”Credit:Kate Geraghty

He says all the trouble comes from the fact that Ukraine and Russia can’t come to a peace agreement.

“Everyone sticks to their position,” he says.

“You need to look for a compromise and you have to repent. And that’s when you can have dialogue. You have to forgive all the evil that you have done to each other and repent.

“It’s very hard for us all, a lot of people have been killed, buildings destroyed. We don’t want war … This is my home town and now look at it. Nobody would wish this on his hometown.”

Serhiy, 46, lives in an apartment building with his wife and children on the west side of the city, but spends most of his time in a tent out the front where he and his neighbours have constructed a makeshift stove.

He served in the Ukrainian army in the 1990s, which he says makes it easier to tell whether a hit is nearby or not and if it is incoming or outgoing.

“When there’s a hit nearby, my son starts panicking and runs down to the basement,” he says. “But my daughter and my son-in-law have adapted already. They follow my commands.”

Serhiy says his relatives elsewhere in the country now look down on him because they believe he doesn’t show support for Ukraine in the war.

“Because of their media, they have a cold attitude towards us because they think we’re separatists now,” he says. “Look at me, the separatist!”

Serhiy, 46, sits in the outdoor kitchen with a wood stove where his family and neighbours can keep warm.Credit:Kate Geraghty

He says his mother lives in Russia, and he occasionally goes to a place in the city where he can get mobile reception to talk to her.

“Just like me she doesn’t care about politics, all she cares about is our family,” he says.

“She doesn’t see the difference between Ukraine, Russia, China or Japan. Just like the language, it doesn’t interest her.”

His neighbour Anatoli, 56, says he has a brother in the annexed territory Crimea and they both hope the war will end soon.

He lays the blame on both Russia and the United States for the war.

“As long as Russia and the United States don’t come to some sort of agreement, the war will go on,” he says.

We find two local council workers, Kateryna, 69, and Mykola, 63, working on a garden in the centre of town. They say turning up to work each day and cleaning up their city gives them strength amid the shelling.

Council worker Kateryna, 69, works on a garden in the centre of town.Credit:Kate Geraghty

“We were born here, our ancestors were born here, this is our city. We went to a Ukrainian school and we had Ukrainian classes,” Kateryna says.

“Everything is OK.”

About 500 metres away, the body of a 76-year-old lies under rubble from a shelling attack the previous day.

The liberated areas

While the battle for Bakhmut rages on, many people in smaller cities and villages in the northern part of the Donetsk oblast are trying to get back to normal after months of being occupied by Russian soldiers.

But the liberation has come with increased Russian attacks on their homes.

Less than 70 kilometres north of Bakhmut lies the city of Lyman, which was occupied by the Russians at the end of May and retaken by Ukrainian soldiers on October 1.

There is barely a house or building that doesn’t have some kind of damage from shelling or missile attacks.

We meet Dmytro Sylov, 33, who was injured in a missile attack two days before outside his butchery at 1.30pm.

“I was near the garage and I fell down and it hit 1.5 metres away from me,” he says.

“I injured the arse and the leg … a lot [to the arse]. I can still sit fortunately

Dmytro Sylov, 33, shows his bandaged wounds sustained in a missile strike on November 9 in Lyman. Dmytro, a butcher, was about to carve up a pig at a house when the missile hit. Credit:Kate Geraghty

“It must have been God who saved me, I don’t know, but I was really lucky.”

Under Russian occupation he says he and his family “didn’t go anywhere, we just stayed home”.

Sylov says luckily no one in his family has died, but his dog was killed by flying shrapnel in one attack that damaged his house.

Natalia, 52, says her son Serhiy, 30, was killed by Russian soldiers on May 26, days after they took the city. She had already fled.

He was delivering humanitarian aid throughout the city but she believes the Russians thought he was tipping off Ukrainian soldiers about the locations of their positions.

She came back on June 9 to look for him, only to find his severely beaten body in a barn about a week later.

Natalia shows a photo of her 30-year-old son, Serhiy, who was killed by Russian soldiers in Lyman.Credit:Kate Geraghty

His body was then taken away, and she doesn’t know where it was buried.

“We lived together and everything was good. He always helped other people. To me, he was the best,” she says.

“Someone must have told them that he was a person of interest. Nobody knows what the reason is.”

She says the situation is better in the city since Ukrainians retook it, but there is still no power or water and her house’s windows have been smashed in from shelling.

In another part of town, an apartment building was hit by a missile attack two days prior, killing six people.

Oleksandr, 69, and his wife Lidia, 69, both blame Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for escalating the war.

“It’s been going on for eight months, we are living in a hell. There are lot of you [media] here but you don’t help at all,” Lidiya says.

The apartment building that was destroyed by a missile strike on November 9 in Lyman.Credit:Kate Geraghty

“The president [Zelensky] should have brought us peace, we trusted him … he needs to take responsibility for the people. Why did 73 per cent of Ukrainians vote for him? Because he promised peace.”

The couple say previous attacks have come from the Ukrainian side, not the Russians, and suggest the attack on their building came from the Ukrainian soldiers.

“On the radio I keep hearing it’s all Russia. But the khokhols are lying,” Oleksandr says using a derogatory Russian term for Ukrainians.

“Take Zelensky away and take Putin away. Get new people to sit down and negotiate. You need to start negotiations straight away, but these guys won’t come to an agreement.”

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