Ukrainians and Russians celebrated Eastern Orthodox Christmas on Saturday in the shadow of war as artillery fire echoed through the nearly deserted streets of the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, now the center of some of the heaviest fighting during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine despite Moscow’s announcement of an Orthodox Christmas truce. .
Glittering clear skies and snowy dust belied the devastation of a city abandoned by most of its pre-war population of 70,000, where humanitarian volunteers are now risking their lives to support those who remain.
“My God, our city was so beautiful,” said Olga, 75, smartly dressed and wearing lipstick, as she carried shopping bags down the street.
“There were roses and flowers everywhere,” she added, almost without flinching at the sound of a distant rumble. “It was clean, everything was in order.”
Moscow said on Saturday that its forces in Ukraine would maintain a 36-hour ceasefire announced by President Vladimir Putin until midnight, despite Ukraine rejecting the offer.
He stated that his troops returned artillery fire only when they were fired upon by Ukrainian forces; Reuters was unable to establish the origin of the shells heard at Bakhmut.
“Ceasefire, do you know how that works?” said 30-year-old humanitarian volunteer Vasily Leisin.
“When Putin says that there is a truce, it is the opposite: there is no truce. Yesterday we were shelled a lot. Then at night it was more or less calm. calmer the next day.
A drive through Bakhmut, which lies on the front line that bisects Ukraine’s Donetsk region, reveals the scars of months of bombing, from broken shop windows to destroyed workshops and destroyed businesses.
Volunteers like Liesin are helping to maintain “invincibility centers” set up to provide free electricity, heat, water, internet, cell phones and medicines as Russian attacks destroy basic civilian infrastructure.
The centers may display an indomitable spirit, but they are far from invulnerable.
“When we visited another point of invincibility yesterday for 15-20 minutes, a rocket hit us. She damaged the car of the volunteers, killed one person and wounded four,” said Leisin, who was wearing a helmet and bulletproof vest.
“Volunteers were injured, and one local Bakhmut volunteer lost a limb and was evacuated. I hope people were in protective gear, but the situation is unclear. We know they are seriously injured.”
Olga, who declined to give her last name, scorned the idea of any Christmas respite from the Russian onslaught. “I think they are cheating us, it’s pretty obvious to me,” she said.
“What else can I tell you? If someone makes a promise, then someone has to keep it. Promises are made to be kept. I don’t understand what they want?”