The weather in Bakhmut deceives the senses, sunny and warm – almost peaceful.
But a deafening boom of outgoing artillery from the critical eastern Ukrainian town shook that notion out of the system, as Ukrainian soldiers on Wednesday launched offensives to try to reclaim positions from Russian forces.
Three men could be seen making a run for it out of town, one with a microwave strapped to his back.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has been going on for eight months. It’s only when you descend into the city of Bakhmut that you really get a sense of the devastation and destitution that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion has wrought.
Our guide is a Ukrainian military medic, who goes by the nom-de-guerre “Katrusya.” In tinted sunglasses and fatigues, she slings our convoy into the center of the city at breakneck speed.
Flashing through the windows is a near ghost town.
“For the past two months, Russians have been trying to break into the city defenses and have not been successful,” she tells us between cigarettes.
She took us to see a building that had just been shelled. Our car hadn’t even come to a complete halt as another artillery shell hit close by. We scrambled for cover as more artillery rained down nearby for around 20 minutes.
The attacks are normal, says Katrusya, as she leans on a wall – a picture of composure – as we take shelter from the incoming shells.
“The artillery attacks fly every day so it’s never quiet here. Other parts of the city take hits many times a day,” she says.
A handful of residents are still on the streets of Bakhmut. Buildings have no windows; the streets are pockmarked with craters and industrial garbage bins have merged into small pools of trash.
Those who remain seem to live in a parallel universe. They’re out on their bikes, running errands, and elderly women drag their shopping trolleys behind them, though which shops are open seems a mystery.
Sergey is one of those Bakhmut inhabitants still walking the streets. Asked if he is worried about the shelling he replies, “Afraid of what, mate? Everything is going to be okay.”
He then stares out into the distance, almost as if he doesn’t really believe his own words.
Katrusya says that the intense fighting has cost the lives of numerous soldiers and civilians here. “I cannot give you the number, but it is a lot… there are a lot of injured from both sides and also lots of dead.”
She lost her husband fighting the Russians in Bakhmut just a month ago. Only antidepressants mask the pain, she says.
The struggle for Bakhmut has grown ever more ferocious in recent days. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has called the fighting in the city “the most difficult.”
The significance of the city cannot be overstressed.
Bakhmut lies at a fork that points toward two other strategic towns in the Donetsk region: Konstantinivka to the southwest, and Kramatorsk and Sloviansk to the northwest. All three are key to Putin’s total control of the region.
The scenes in Bakhmut, though, are different to those across the rest of the country, where Ukraine has largely been able to repel Russia’s advance and even gain territory in recent weeks as Russian forces retreated at the end of September.
Here, Russian forces have made small, steady gains, largely thanks to the Wagner group, which is considered by analysts to be a Kremlin-approved private military company.
Reports on social media and in Russian state media say Wagner mercenaries are on the outskirts of Bakhmut, in a small village called Ivangrad.
On social network Telegram, Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin has acknowledged that resistance from the city is stiff.
“The situation near Bakhmut is stably difficult, the Ukrainian troops are putting up decent resistance and the legend of the fleeing Ukrainians is just a legend. Ukrainians are guys with the same iron balls as we are,” he wrote.
Katrusya says she’s come up against Wagner fighters and, despite their international notoriety, they seem more like a hodgepodge of soldiers for hire, she says.
“They are a rabble. There are a few, very well-trained professional fighters, but the majority of them have found themselves accidentally fighting in this war looking for money or for the ability to get out of jail,” she said.
In September, video surfaced appearing to show Prigozhin recruiting prisoners from Russian jails for Wagner, offering a promise of clemency in exchange for six months’ combat service in Ukraine.
Despite her heartbreak, Katrusya’s spirit isn’t dimmed. The one goal is victory.
“The price for Ukraine will be enormous,” she acknowledges. “We will lose the best of the best, the most motivated and trained but we will definitely win; we have no other choice, it is our land. We will win absolutely.”