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‘It’s terrifying to live like this’: Ukrainians under bombardment in one of the world’s most dangerous places

A middle-aged woman with a bright yellow hat stepped out of a white van close to the frontline Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, one of the most dangerous places on the planet.

Smiling cheerfully, Liudmyla Bila handed out a jumble of supplies – from woollen socks and metal pans to dried noodles and cans of beans – to a small group of grateful soldiers.

She even gave them periscopes – useful to peer over the top of a trench – and heart-shaped biscuits.

“The guys are helping us [the troops gave her fuel] – and we are helping them”, Liudmyla, 45, said, before jumping back into her van, with two other companions, and heading into Bakhmut.

Liudmyla
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Liudmyla Bila hands out supplies to grateful Ukrainian soldiers

The trio is among a band of volunteers that braves the treacherous journey to distribute aid to the few thousand residents who are still living in the town despite months of relentless bombardments by Russian forces that have prompted most people to flee.

As well as providing supplies, the volunteers try to convince remaining residents to be evacuated, offering to drive them out to safety themselves.

There is no electricity or running water in Bakhmut and the threat of death from incoming rounds is constant.

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Russia is desperate to take the town, in Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, after suffering humiliating defeats elsewhere.

Ukrainian troops are defending hard but the bloody battle – one of the fiercest of the war – has been dubbed a “meat grinder” because of the huge and growing number of casualties.

A local resident leaves his home after Russian shelling destroyed an apartment house in Bakhmut, Donetsk 
PIC:AP
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A resident leaves his home after Russian shelling destroyed an apartment building in Bakhmut. Pic: AP

For local people caught in the middle, there is an added danger as winter falls and temperatures drop below freezing.

The active combat means even entering the town is high risk.

But Liudmyla said her only son, 22, is a soldier fighting around Bakhmut. She said she wanted to be nearby, adding: “I am not afraid.”

Her voluntary group of some 20 people is called Wings of Liberty, based in the city of Dnipro, about a five hour drive from Bakhmut.

Ukrainian soldiers in a shelter in the frontline near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022. (AP Photo/LIBKOS)
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Ukrainian soldiers in a shelter in the frontline near Bakhmut. Pic: AP/LIBKOS

She makes the round trip to the town every week.

Sky News followed her and her team – 35-year-old Olha Ekzarkhova, whose brother was killed on the frontline two months ago, and Ian Boiko, 39, who drives the van – into Bakhmut on Wednesday morning.

They stopped in a residential area, surrounded by large, concrete apartment blocks.

Glass was shattered across the ground – evidence of past blasts having blown out windows.

The volunteers had to work quickly – wanting to minimise their time on the ground. The sound of distant explosions and gunfire could be heard.

“People!” shouted Liudmyla as she and Olha darted from the van to one of the blocks, carrying bottles of water, candles, blankets and food.

No one immediately appeared.

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‘Ferocious’ battle for Bakhmut

They left the aid at the top of a short flight of steps leading down to a shelter in the basement. Liudmyla said people are living in there.

We knocked on the door to the shelter but there was no reply. It turned out they had gone to another spot in town where it is still possible to pick up mobile phone signal.

A tired-looking man was shuffling around the entrance of the apartment block next door.

Sky News approached him, but he did not want to speak and said no one else was around.

Aid delivered, Liudmyla and her team headed further into town.

We peeled off to speak with people in a small crowd on the side of a main road.

Desperate and weary, they queued at a window to try to receive stoves to heat their homes.

Read more:
Eyewitness | Ukrainians fight Russian mercenaries and plummeting temperatures in the Battle for Bakhmut

One woman moved away from the window empty handed.

Asked how life is in Bakhmut, Oksana, 75, said: “Very difficult. Very difficult.”

Then her face crumpled and her voice broke.

It is “impossible, cold – without blankets”, she said.

“This is bad. We are freezing. The temperature is only 3 to 5 degrees inside our home.

“We are waiting here for a stove. They told us to put your names on a list and wait. When will it end? When will it end? Oh God.

“Why are they [Russians] so stubborn when it comes to our Bakhmut? And here: war, war, war. They have been hitting us all the time for more than half a year already.”

The Ukrainian service members fight and stay warm in the Donetsk region
Sergiy, 35, an operator for a self propelled artillery vehicle with the 24th Mechanized Brigade of King Danylo of the Ukrainian Army heats up water for coffee while waiting for coordinates to strike a Russian military target as Russia’s invasion on Ukraine continues near Bakhmut in Ukraine, December 3, 2022. REUTERS/ Leah Millis
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Ukrainian service members fight and stay warm close to Bakhmut

She explained that she lived with her husband who is 82 and too frail to be evacuated.

“How can I leave him? There are no doctors here. No nurses. Nothing is here.”

Oksana said she was worried about having to live through the winter. As she spoke booms from incoming rounds could be heard, again in the distance.

“We are in the Stone Age. It is terrifying to live like this in the 21st century. And no one in the world can help us. How can it be?”

With the sound of explosions growing louder, we decided to leave.

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On the way out of town, an artillery round or some other form of munition exploded up ahead. We did not see the impact but could see the smoke.

Suddenly, there was a loud blast and our vehicle shook.

A second round had smashed into the ground to the right of us, sending shrapnel across the road. It narrowly missed a small car that was just ahead of ours – a reminder of the reality and the randomness of this war.

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