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Water, Dumplings, Camaraderie: Volunteers Help Locals With Life In Ukraine's Beleaguered Bakhmut

Bakhmut residents gather at one of the volunteer-run "Points of Invincibility" to get a warm meal, recharge their phones, and share a sense of community as Russian forces continue to pummel the city in Ukraine's Donetsk region.
Bakhmut residents gather at one of the volunteer-run "Points of Invincibility" to get a warm meal, recharge their phones, and share a sense of community as Russian forces continue to pummel the city in Ukraine's Donetsk region.

BAKHMUT, Ukraine -- There is no drinking water in Bakhmut. Locals in the besieged city survive by collecting rainwater or melting snow.

In one neighborhood recently, a group of young men are preparing to drill a well as artillery fire echoes in the distance. One man introduces himself as Havriyil, a volunteer from Kyiv.

"We will get water for the people," he says as he shovels out the hole while the others prepare the drill. The team hopes to drill several such wells around the city in the coming days. Until that happens, volunteers will continue bringing water in by truck over pitted roads, often under enemy fire.

Working against the backdrop of artillery barrages in the beleaguered city was "only scary for the first half hour," Havriyil said with a fleeting smile.

Russian forces have been pummeling Bakhmut since October in a determined effort to capture the Donetsk region city, whose prewar population of more than 70,000 has been reduced to just 8,700, according to local authorities.

The devastation of the city and its surroundings has been nearly total in what Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Kremlin-connected businessman who runs the ostensibly private Wagner mercenary group that is conducting the assault, has called "the Bakhmut meat-grinder."

In PHOTOS: The furious attacks by Moscow's forces to capture the destroyed city of Bakhmut are intensifying. Reports of infantry charges like those seen in World War I have left fields covered in dead Russian soldiers.

RFE/RL has identified everyone in this story only by their first names because of the security situation in Bakhmut.

'Everything Is OK'

"Over 300 people a day come here," said Kateryna, a volunteer serving hot meals to Bakhmut stalwarts. "Today we have mashed potatoes, pasta, and soup."

"People are fed, get warm, and recharge," she added. "They communicate with their relatives. Everything is OK."

Tetyana is a volunteer and a local resident who refused to leave.

"We need water," she said. "We need fuel for the generators…. There is a shortage of disposable dishes."

About a dozen people eat and drink coffee or tea as Tetyana boils dumplings on top of a makeshift stove at an aid station called a Point of Invincibility. While they eat, people charge their mobile phones and scan the news.

Children play video games at a volunteer-run community center.
Children play video games at a volunteer-run community center.

"People are always huddled in basements," she added. "It is cold and damp there, so they get sick. We need cold medicines, cough drops, and so on."

Ruslana, 11, clutched a teddy bear that she says was given to her at the aid station. Her mother, Kateryna, said the girl is studying at home and hopes to complete the fourth grade soon.

"We don't plan to," she said when asked if they intended to leave the city. "We like it here. We are doing fine."

Her words were hard to hear over the noise of children playing video games and the sound of explosions outside.

'God, Help Me'

Every day volunteers arrive in Bakhmut to evacuate people who have had enough.

A Bakhmut local named Ihor was on a bus leaving town on January 19, the Feast of the Epiphany.

"Today, on the Epiphany, I undressed and went out into the rain and thought. 'God, help me,'" he said. He was traveling to join his family, who had evacuated earlier.

But he hopes to return.

"I want to come back home," he said. "I'm 52 years old…. Everything I own is here."

Anatoliy, an 86-year-old pensioner, refuses to leave Bakhmut.

"I have nowhere to go," he told RFE/RL. "I have no friends. My wife is dead."

"I am alone now," he added. "Where am I going to go? Let them kill me here."

Written by RFE/RL feature writer Robert Coalson based on reporting from Bakhmut by correspondent Serhiy Horbatenko of Donbas.Realities, a regional project of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service
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    Serhiy Horbatenko

    Serhiy Horbatenko has worked for RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service since 2015 and was awarded by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy with an Order of Merit for his coverage of Russia's invasion. He previously worked as a journalist for Public Television of the Donbas; as a regional representative for the commissioner for human rights of the Ukrainian parliament in the Donetsk region; and as an editor at the TV channels TOR and C + (Slovyansk). He is a graduate of Donbas State Pedagogical University.

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