'Somehow' still alive: Bakhmut residents face daily shelling
Driving up to Bakhmut, a city in the embattled Donbas region, you can see thick white smoke swirling in the sky.
Fighting is not over in this city controlled by Ukraine.
For while Russian troops retreated in the northeast of the region, they are still on the offensive here.
The smoke, visible from kilometres away, comes from a five-storey apartment block hit by strikes overnight.
Firefighters at the scene were still working to put out the fire, while at the same time picking their way through the debris in search of bodies.
Already, there was at least one confirmed death.
"There are people under the rubble," said one elderly resident, still in shock. "And here I am, somehow still alive."
The 78-year-old man, who did not want to give his name, explained how he had had to be rescued from his flat when a ruined staircase had blocked his door.
"I heard a sound like thunder, there was a lot of broken glass," he recalled.
The facade of the devastated building had collapsed completely.
"I have no more windows, no more doors," he said. "Everything is destroyed."
- Daily shelling -
Explosions like this one "happen every day", said Valeriy.
"They can come from anywhere, usually at night" the 62-year-old told AFP.
For him, simple physics showed that the strike had to have come from the Russians: the damage from the stroke came from the side where their troops were deployed, he argued.
Not everyone agreed.
"It clearly comes from Ukrainians" said one woman, pointing towards Ukrainian artillery positions.
In the Donbas region, pro-Russian sentiment lingers.
The Ukrainian presidency says the Donetsk region in the Donbas has been repeatedly shelled by Russians: not just Bakhmut but also Toretsk, Mykolaivka, Avdiivka, Krasnogorivka, Myrnograd and Chasiv Yar have been hit in the past 24 hours.
In Bakhmut city centre, electricity cuts have plunged the last working grocery store into darkness.
So its owner had set up a little table in front of his shop on which he set out his wares for the few people still around: canned food, bread, and batteries.
- Deafening explosions -
Local people barely pay attention any more to the mortar shells whistling past, landing with deafening explosions.
A small group of residents were busy filling water jugs at fire hydrants, for there was no other source of running water in the city.
And while they can still sometimes catch a phone signal, there was no electricity either, so people were charging their phones using generators.
On a bench next to the grocery store, 77-year-old Soviet army veteran Valentyn Zagudaylo was getting by selling milk.
The veteran now owns a herd of 35 cows at a farm in a nearby village.
Every day, he rides his motorcycle into Bakhmut to ensure milk is delivered to local people.
"The task of the ukrainian authorities is to destroy the city, so that the inhabitants leave," said Zagudaylo.
But, he added: "I don't want Russia here."
Valeriy Mamaltyrev meanwhile complained about the delays in humanitarian aid.
"We have no light, no electricity, the rubbish keeps piling up...," he said. But the main problem, he added, was the lack of firewood.
Still, the 70-year-old had at least managed to find a bouquet of flowers.
He was getting ready, he said, to give them to his sweetheart.
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