“I can’t fall asleep at night. I’m afraid to go to bed and not wake up in the morning”
Author: Natalia Vlasenko, WeAreUkraine editor, translator, foreign press assistant
At the end of May, I came to Bakhmut with Danish journalists to see how the city lives now. This is a small town in Donetsk region, with a population of 73,000 people, and 20,000 of them have already left the city due to the Russian invasion. Bakhmut suffered even before the full-scale war with Russia. During the events in 2014, the Russian-backed separatists proclaimed the so-called ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ on April 12, 2014, and occupied several administrative buildings in the town. But Bakhmut did not stay under occupation for long. In July 2014, Russian mercenaries were expelled from it by units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the National Guard of Ukraine. Since then, Bakhmut has been under the control of Ukrainian authorities.
My impression of the town was very much sad. I’ve never been to Bakhmut before, so I cannot compare how it was before the war. Anyway, it was devastating to see almost empty streets, a few people (mostly elderly) passing by. A queue of the locals next to the ATM — many banks are closed, so it has become more complicated to withdraw money from the bank card.
We’ve met Elena Rozhenko on the street occasionally. She looked lost and terrified, and my colleague talked to her. We found out that she lives in a house damaged by Russian missiles. She’s afraid that a new hit can happen again. Now she wants to leave Bakhmut.
Elena invited us to visit her apartment. It turned out that it was not a separate flat but a room in a dormitory with a shared kitchen and bathroom. Unfortunately, the window of her room was on the side of the building, hit by a missile, and the window had the glass and frame crashed. She lives with her brother and a blind sister on the 5th floor. They were in the room when the explosion happened. They managed to run into the corridor, and her brother was injured by the broken glass. The sister’s room was on the other side, so it wasn’t damaged.
“We cannot live in this room anymore. We were lucky that my neighbor’s son [the neighbor left Bakhmut earlier] gave us the key from her room, and now we live here.” This room faces the yard, and the window isn’t broken.
“I can’t fall asleep at night. I’m afraid to go to bed and don’t wake up in the morning. We don’t turn on the light in the room in the evening, I only use my phone to give some light. We still have electricity, but we were told it can be cut, as well as water and gas. Now I cook on an electric stove.”
When Elena tells her story, she’s almost crying. She raised from the sofa and started searching for nitroglycerin to calm her heart down.
Initially, the old woman didn’t plan to leave Bakhmut, but after the damage to her room and continuous missile attacks, she’s forced to do this. For now, evacuation buses are coming to Bakhmut from Dnipro, so I advised Elena to take this opportunity while evacuation is possible.
Elena’s neighbor, Nadia, also became a victim of the missile, her window was smashed, but she managed to fix it up. Nadia is an example of a hard-working person trying to earn money decently. Unfortunately, without success. “I have 43 years of work experience, used to be a chef, then worked at a local plant taking night shifts. I was put on the waiting list to get my own apartment, but it never happened. I used to live in a township next to Bakhmut, then last year I moved here, in this dormitory. I have nice furniture, my TV, good fridge. Who will help me to transfer it to another place? It cost a minimum of 700 hryvnias per hour to rent a truck for transportation. And where can I go? It’s good to go to another city or move abroad if you have money, or if you’re younger. I’m 60, and I used to work at the plant on contract. Now the plant is closed, I have no work, the labor exchange pays me a bit more than 2,000 hryvnias, I won’t be able to rent an apartment with this money in other cities. So, I’ll stay here, come what may.”
I called Elena Rozhenko later after I returned home to Odesa in June. Almost every day, one can read the information in the news about new attacks on Bakhmut or in the area. Elena’s phone number was the only one I got from Bakhmut, the only connection with this town. Elena was happy to hear me. She remembered my visit with Danish journalists and was glad to talk. I was touched by her friendly but trembling voice. I was upset when the old lady said she had changed her mind and didn’t take the evacuation bus. She’s still in Bakhmut with her blind sister and brother. “I decided to stay whatever happens. Where can I go? Where can I live?”
And this is a really big problem. Hundreds of people who have become refugees face it. Many shelters in Dnipro (I visited some of them) or Zaporizhzhia can host people from 3 to 7 days, not longer. After that, refugees have to search for other places to stay. Finding a long-term shelter or an apartment can take time or demand money. Not all refugees — especially elderly ones — are financially secure. They are attached to their homes and belongings, and even under the danger of missile attacks, they prefer to stay in their hometowns, no matter what happens.