‘The basement won’t save you’

Jen Stout reports from Kramatorsk

It takes a few hours to drive from the relative bustle of Kharkiv to the eastern front. It’s remarkable how well the road has been patched up: this territory was taken back by Ukraine in last September’s counteroffensive but over the winter the craters have been filled and temporary bridges built. Burned-out tanks, though, still appear at the side of the road, alongside the blackened shells of overturned cars. Many of the petrol stations are in ruins. The region is in wartime limbo: essential things get a quick fix, but the rest must wait till peacetime.

I took the road east last week. Past Izium the traffic thinned out, military vehicles replacing civilian. A Land Rover screamed past with a blue light – a makeshift ambulance. The woods on either side offered glimpses of abandoned foxholes and military camps. The road surface was scored by tank tracks, making the car’s tyres hum and buzz.

Four months ago, when I last drove this way, the lightning-fast liberation of occupied land, through Kharkiv oblast and down into northern Donetsk oblast, followed by the retaking of Kherson in the south, had bolstered a sense of momentum and optimism among Ukrainians. The end – just maybe – was in sight.

But now, with the grim mud season in full swing and appalling losses on both sides around the besieged city of Bakhmut, things feel uncertain. Harder. Bleaker. As I approached the smokestacks of Kramatorsk, an industrial city twenty miles from Bakhmut, it was clear it was a garrison town now, as is Sloviansk to the north. Repurposed and refashioned vehicles, sprayed matte green, formed a steady flow in and out of the city: tiny old Ladas, grey Kombis from the 1960s, lurching high-roof Sprinters, battered pick-up trucks, tractors. The odd tank or armoured personnel carrier roared past, camouflage netting flapping in the breeze.

The cars coming back from the front were easy to pick out: riddled with bullet holes or shrapnel scars; a ragged gap where the bumper should have been. One old Toyota was being dragged on bare rims, the metal screaming and sparking as it bounced over the asphalt.

Air raid sirens blare at all hours, but no one pays them much attention. The front line is so close that people say the rockets will arrive before the alarms go off, and in any case, they say, ‘the basement won’t save you’: the common wisdom is that the dank cellars of prefab panel blocks offer only the possibility of being crushed underground, so you may as well die in the open air, or in bed. Recent strikes have destroyed apartment blocks and a school.

The city is full of troops on rotation, many from Bakhmut. I saw a jumble of army vehicles, caked in mud, crammed into the space in front of a big supermarket. Inside, the shelves were full of fresh produce but prices were high. Soldiers wandered in groups, gathering up packs of energy drinks. Alcohol sales are banned; the war is run on Red Bull.

Cafes are doing brisk business, I was told – soldiers have pay packets and this is keeping the economy afloat for now. The large contingent of foreign journalists also provides custom; they wait in Kramatorsk for access to Bakhmut, which is increasingly denied. Military clothing and gear are on sale, along with generators and the ubiquitous green tape used on vehicles and armbands for identification by Ukrainian forces.

The population is now around eighty thousand, down from 180,000 before the war. Most of the civilians left in the city are women. I met Dasha and Ira, university students, and they smiled brightly, speaking of the war around them as though it were a minor inconvenience. ‘Spring is coming, the air is fresh,’ Dasha said, shrugging. ‘We got used to all this.’ The girls strolled off, passing a residential building destroyed in a strike, and barely glanced at the ruins.

Walking through a pleasant postwar housing scheme, I noticed a light armoured vehicle parked very conspicuously under a tree, its gun turret covered in green tarp. A woman in a denim jacket ahead of me turned round to roll her eyes. ‘Not exactly hidden, is it,’ she said. I asked her how life was. ‘There’s hardly any work,’ she said. ‘We get humanitarian aid, but not money. And those who evacuated to Dnipro came back – it was too expensive.’

A recent International Rescue Committee survey of people from southern and eastern Ukraine found that more than half had exhausted their savings, and most were struggling to get by. The prospect of uprooting and leaving for an unknown life in western Ukraine or abroad is too daunting for many, who say they’ll ‘sit it out’, hoping to stay lucky. There is a marked sense of indifference about the possibility of being unlucky, of being burned or blown up in your flat in the next strike.

The fight around Bakhmut long ago turned into hell, artillery pounding without cease on both sides, the town itself almost destroyed. The chances of not coming back from the front are high; everyone knows that. A young soldier told me calmly, over cake, that she thought Ukraine would win the war, but she and her comrades would not survive it. ‘I’ve made my peace with that,’ she nodded. It’s a sentiment I can’t really begin to understand.

In Sloviansk, I found Dmitriy and Vasiliy in possession of an old farmer’s pick-up truck, part of the convoy in which I had driven from Scotland two weeks earlier. Soon it would be sprayed green and sent into battle, transporting supplies to the front and bringing the wounded back. The trucks are old, cheap, expendable – two broke down on the way across Europe – but they don’t need to be kept going for long. They are expected to last a month or two before they are blown up or burned out.

I asked about the situation in Bakhmut. There had been mutterings of discontent, questions about the government’s decision to keep reinforcing the town as Russian pincers closed on either side. But Dmitriy and Vasiliy are diplomats. ‘The situation is difficult,’ they admitted. ‘Heavy.’ Dmitriy insisted that Ukraine would hold the town, but added several times: ‘as long as we can’. ‘We’ll just keep hoping for the best,’ he concluded. It’s not exactly a rallying cry.