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Water, dumplings, camaraderie: Volunteers help locals with life in Ukraine’s beleaguered Bakhmut

Evacuees prepare to board buses Sunday, March 6, 2022, after the Ukrainian town of Irpin, outside Kyiv, was bombarded by Russian artillery. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

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 Vagner mercenary group that is conducting the assault, has called “the Bakhmut meat-grinder.”

‘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.

“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.”