Ukrainian soldiers defend the eastern industrial city of Bakhmut as separatist forces advance in the war-ravaged Donetsk region after retaking a series of nearby villages.
Bakhmut — a wine-producing and salt-mining town on the main road from Donetsk to the capital Kiev, which was once home to 70,000 people — would be a big cost if Russia has any hope of securing the region after its February invasion of Ukraine.
Heavy shelling could be heard from the direction of Otradovka, Veselaya Dolina and Zaitsevo, which are now apparently in the hands of forces loyal to the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic now annexed by Russia.
A Ukrainian artillery commander named Serhiy told Al Jazeera that Ukrainian soldiers were in Bakhmut because “it’s an important point”.
“Our job is to destroy places where there is a concentration of manpower and batteries from firing positions,” he said.
The sound of explosions echoed through the empty streets of Bakhmut as Ukrainian troops went on patrol.
Another Ukrainian soldier named Nikolai said the Russians “threw all their troops to the city”.
“Artillery, air force and even helicopters are attacking our positions,” Nikolai said. “They try to approach day and night. And it’s their elite units and mercenaries. There are no ordinary Russian soldiers left.”
‘Deadly hide and seek’
The Ukrainian army has been pushing back against Russian forces across the south and east front lines, including parts of Donetsk, in recent weeks. Western weapons have helped the Ukrainian military reclaim more territory in the past month than Russian forces have taken in five months.
However, the defense of Bakhmut remains one of Ukraine’s biggest challenges on the Eastern Front.
Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Bakhmut, described the situation as a “deadly hide-and-seek” with both sides launching attacks.
Pointing to a mobilized cannon targeting Russian supply and artillery positions up to 30 km (12 miles) beyond Bakhmut, Stratford said: “It takes about 40 seconds for the grenade to reach its target. Its trajectory is adjusted after information is received from drones. and spotters guarding the target zone.”
Russian shelling over Bakhmut has been going on for weeks, forcing most people to flee.
“The shelling never stops,” said a local woman in the town. “I’m staying here to take care of my mother. She is old and weak. It has gotten much worse.”
“How can we leave?”
Residents of Bakhmut who remain behind are trying to stock up on a meager supply of food and water for the battle ahead.
Igor Maksymenko’s water barrel leaked as it tumbled from his wire cart, but he managed to get it right, determined to take it to an apartment building where 25 people still live.
“Sometimes they have [Russian-backed forces] fire very close by, next to that store, just above our heads, and shrapnel mixed in with dirt spray everywhere,” he said. “But we just keep looking at it. How can we leave? Where to?”
Ukraine has made rapid territorial gains in the east and south. On September 30, Ukrainian forces advancing from the captured city of Izyum surrounded the strategic city of Lyman in the eastern region of Donetsk and seized it the next day after Russian personnel withdrew.
The advance of Ukrainian troops has undermined the Kremlin’s claim last week that it has officially annexed Donetsk, neighboring Luhansk and the southern regions of Zaporizhia and Kherson.
The four areas form a crucial land corridor between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Moscow in 2014, and together they make up about 20 percent of Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin last month ordered a partial mobilization of Russian army reservists to bolster manpower on the front lines in Ukraine.
Under increasing pressure from his own supporters and others, Putin continued to reshuffle his army’s leadership. The state-run Tass news agency reported that a new commander has been appointed in Russia’s Eastern Military District.