BAKHMUT, Ukraine – “Three Hundred! Thirty! Three!” – The mortarman shouts out, loading another 150 millimetre projectile into the cannon. It’s an old Soviet firing chant meant to replace the traditional “3, 2, 1” that this team of Belarusian legionaries fighting to support Ukrainian forces enact as a cheeky nod to days gone by.
A massive thud shakes the leaves off a tree nearby and the crew runs to reload another round. “Hurry, hurry!” yells Yan Melnikov, the baby-faced commander. He’s in charge of this scrappy crew of 8 Belarusian dissidents supporting Ukrainian infantry that fires American-made mortars at Russian enemies.
“The pigs are gone,” Melnikov reports into the radio, referring to the launched explosives.
It’s nearly 2AM on a winter night just a few miles outside of Bakhmut, a city in Eastern Ukraine. Aside from the glow of cigarettes and a few tactical red lights, it’s pitch black. Melnikov and his team are many hours into their planned attack on Russian forces. Their job is a flowing motion of repetitive steps. They listen quietly to a radio. On the other side, a hidden Ukrainian reconnaissance team is just a few miles up the road far past the enemy lines, creeping dangerously close to unwitting Russian troops.
“We can smell their cigarettes,” one Ukrainian soldier later said.
These hidden units quietly call in coordinates, and then Melnikov and his crew spring into action. They sprint to their barrels, adjust the infrared sights then fire onto the enemy, hoping to kill as many Russian troops as they can.
“Gently as never before,” a team member says as he picks up another mortar with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, “as with a girlfriend.”
For months, Russia has been attacking this small Eastern Ukrainian city with little regard for human life. Thousands of Russian troops have piled into the fight. Some from the elite infamous Wagner mercenary group and others barely trained and recently mobilised by the Russian government, all fighting and dying as they push to control Bakhmut. But try as they might, Ukrainian forces have so far stopped them. Both sides are slowly fighting for inches at a time with casualties increasing.
On a trip in October and November, VICE World News spent 2 weeks inside the besieged city documenting the fighters, aid workers and civilians that had stayed behind. What we found was a vicious hellscape and a city ravaged by months of attacks.
Devoid of all but a few thousand of its pre-invasion population of roughly 75,000 residents, Bakhmut is now a charred shadow of its past. The stands of the local football stadium are torn from a massive explosion. The town square is a bread distribution point rutted with mortar and artillery shell hits. The local clinic is a bustling military evacuation point filled with a constant stream of dead and injured Ukrainian soldiers and civilians.
Last week, Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelenskyy emphasised the significance of Bakhmut with both a daring visit to the besieged city and then, a few days later delivering a battle flag from the frontlines to the US Capitol where he made his first trip outside of the country since the beginning of the war, hoping to petition US lawmakers for increased support.
“Every inch of that land is soaked in blood, roaring guns sound every hour,” Zelenskyy said of Bakhmut in his passionate congressional address, “but the Ukrainian Donbas stands.”
For those left in the city, their main support comes from the local Bakhmut firefighters. Since the beginning of the onslaught this past summer, they’ve kept a steady presence in the city, crisscrossing the besieged town in a rickety Soviet-era fire truck while wearing bulletproof vests over their fire gear.
There’s no electricity or running water left in the city. The firefighters rely on generators and make daily runs to the lake outside of town to pump massive tanks full of the scummy water. On the busier days, they quickly run out of water and have no choice but to watch a house burn while they wait for a refill.
“When there are people inside,” said Zhenya Yevtushenko, a deputy fire commander at the station, “children, those are the hardest ones.”
A few months ago, Yevtushenko’s wife and 3-year-old daughter fled the city but he stayed behind. Now he lives and works at the station, taking only a few hours break at a time while the calls for help constantly flow in.
“What can you feel?” Yevtushenko said on break at the firehouse, “I must be here and there. But people need me more.” He sat near the Wi-Fi router, looking on Google maps to check just how far he was from his family.
According to soldiers here, Russia fights in “human wave” style, sending thousands of their less experienced troops to the front to weaken Ukrainian forces. “They have no tactics, they have no understanding of proper offence and retreat,” said mortar team leader Melnikov, “they are just meat.”
Ukrainian losses are piling up as well. At the central evacuation point in Bakhmut, some 50 to 100 soldiers are coming in each day. The injuries are as vicious as they are consistent. The luckier ones are concussed from close explosions. Others are pocked with shrapnel wounds causing massive bleeds.
“You must understand, we might save one and lose a dozen. If time allows, we can work well. If we don't have time, we do what's necessary,” said Dr Volodymyr Pigulevskiy. “It’s like back in the years of World War II. They held Stalingrad. Now we're holding Bakhmut.”
Outside the clinic, two shell-shocked soldiers sat waiting for transport to a nearby hospital. They were deployed to Bakhmut just after Russia stepped up its assault in August, but two months on the frontline have taken its toll.
“The fighting is severe,” 22-year-old Olexiy said as his hand trembled over his blood-stained uniform. “We got lucky.”
Hours earlier they were conducting surveillance on a Russian position when heavy artillery began raining down. With no trenches in sight, they said they weathered the bombardment by running for cover behind a concrete wall where they radioed for help.
“We thought everything was OK, but we checked each other for some injures and suddenly we started to vomit,” said Olexiy, describing a symptom of severe concussion.
Despite their injuries they say they’re determined to keep fighting. “I don't want to go home, at home there are electricity problems,” Olexiy said with a smile, referring to the Russian attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure that have caused widespread power outages. “No doubt. We're waiting for the next rotation to go back.”
Back on the outskirts of town, Melnikov and his mortar team work into the morning. With little sleep, he makes a quick coffee as new coordinates come in. He runs back to his firing position. “Nothing wakes you up in the morning better than freshly brewed coffee and firing mortars at bastards.”
The front team reports: The night mission killed one Russian soldier, but no movement from either side. For the mortar team, it’s a successful night.
As Melnikov waits for coordinates, three direct Russian strikes thump in. The explosions shake everything just a few houses from their position. The team rushes into a small cellar used for cover.
“I guess they found us,” one of the soldiers says as the men pack into the cellar and catch their breath.
“Don’t worry,” Melnikov smiled. “It's like in Orthodoxy, all martyrs later became saints.” He adjusted his helmet and sights. “Shall we go?”
The team quickly ran back into firing position.