From atop his tank’s turret, the grinning Ukrainian soldier looked almost joyous: He flashed the V for victory sign as his armored vehicle navigated a street corner in the embattled eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, the diesel engines screaming as the tank lumbered toward the front line.
A few blocks away, Valentyna, 70, stood in front of a two-story brick apartment building where she was staying. It had been hit by a Russian shell last week. The explosion destroyed much of the top floor and sent glass and debris onto the sidewalk below.
“Yeah, shelling is happening here sometimes. See?” she said calmly, gesturing to the damaged structure. In her baggy and dirty clothing, she looked tired after enduring days without power and running water, and the nonstop artillery fire that echoed through the neighborhood.
The soldier and the civilian, separated by less than a mile, represented a fitting juxtaposition on Wednesday of life in what was once a hub of 70,000 people. Surrounded by sunflower fields and salt mines, Bakhmut still remains under partial siege despite Ukraine’s recent breakthrough victory in the country’s northeast. It became one of the Russian forces’ focal points in the Donetsk province after they took neighboring Luhansk in July.
In recent weeks, Russian forces have edged closer to the outskirts of Bakhmut from both the east and the south, gaining ground by incessant shelling and crawling troop advances.
The decisive sweep around Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city around 120 miles northwest of Bakhmut, has galvanized the Ukrainian military as it aims to take back more Russian-held territory. But civilians still trapped in the middle of the nearly seven-month conflict remain wary about what comes next, in Bakhmut and the broader mineral-rich Donbas region.
“How do we know what is going to happen?” Valentyna asked. “We were not going to leave, and we are not going to leave.”