Ukrainians mark somber Orthodox Christmas in Bakhmut as shelling goes on

Bakhmut, Ukraine

The shelter was packed with people on the eve of Orthodox Christmas.

Some were trying to warm up around wood stoves after moving in a freezing drizzle. Others lined up for a hot cup of coffee and cookies. Under the Christmas tree is a bunch of cell phone charging cords.

There has been no electricity, running water or mobile phone service in Bakhmut, in the Donbas region, eastern Ukraine, for several months.

This shelter, which has a generator, a wireless router connected to a satellite line, provides hot food and drinks, medicine and, equally important, volunteers with smart ears. have a cold. It is an oasis of comfort in a cold setting full of danger, destruction and deprivation. About 40 to 50 people were there when CNN visited.

A local priest celebrates Orthodox Christmas in the church crypt under the 'Church of All Saints' in Bakhmut.

Tetyana Scherbak, a volunteer in a high-visibility green vest hustling that Friday, stopped to speak to an elderly woman hunched over a stove, soothing her voice. giggles from others.

“Unfortunately, I am not the sun, unable to illuminate and warm people. I try to listen to them. I know many of their stories. I try my best,” Scherbak told CNN. But she can only do so much.

She managed to coax a wide smile from 9-year-old Vlodymyr, the only child in the shelter, with a bright orange and green octopus she gave him from the toy shelf. and games.

“Our entire roof was blown off,” he told CNN in the realistic tone you might expect from a veteran. “We had two visits.”

City volunteer Tetiana Scherbak gives toys to the only child in the shelter.

He said that he spent the evening playing cards with his mother, Lidiya Krylova.

Unlike 90% of Bakhmut’s original inhabitants who left, according to the head of the military government of Bakhmut, Krylova and her family have stayed in the city, which was once fierce fighting center between Ukrainian and Russian forces in recent months.

“This is our home, our hometown, my parents, my acquaintances and friends,” Krylova said of her decision to stay.

Volunteers set up a table with small cakes, cookies, apples, oranges and candy. Between the food plates are small cardboard Christmas trees. Everyone gathered around the table.

Scherbak told them: “We wish each of you salvation and peace. “We wanted to give you a little warmth and comfort. We wish you the best Christmas possible. Come and treat yourself.

A brief commotion followed as everyone grabbed what they could. In less than a minute the table was empty.

An elderly person sits at one of the shelters in Bakhmut city to receive warmth and a hot drink.

Andriy Heriyak watched it all from the front of the stove. A veteran cameraman for a local TV company, now retired, he recalls more merry Christmases in the past.

“It’s sad,” he said. “Sad, sad day.”

As the day went on, the temperature dropped below freezing. Heavy snowflakes fell from the lead sky. And all the while, one could hear the rumble of incoming and outgoing artillery and rockets, along with the constant explosion of small arms.

Hardly a soul ventures out. We came across a shepherd who was herding his flock through a park. He covered his face with a scarf to protect himself from the cold, stooping to pick up chestnuts on the snow.

Further down the road, soldiers scrambled between buildings with ammunition crates.

The shelling continued. Russian President Vladimir Putin last week proposed a 36-hour truce over Orthodox Christmas, but the unilateral move has been branded “hypocritical” by Kiev. Ukrainian officials said a salvo of Russian missiles were fired during that time.

As darkness descended on Friday, the CNN team found hiding in a basement where three of the last seven doctors left in Bakhmut were preparing their Orthodox Christmas dinner.

They moved down here many months ago. When bomb shelters or basements go, they are surprisingly comfortable. Each end of the basement is divided to make separate bedrooms. The generator provides the energy and warmth of the wood stove. They have erected a Christmas tree in the corner, equipped with colored lights.

Tarpaulins from the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, cover the cold concrete walls.

Elena Molchanova, an infectious diseases specialist on the left, and the neurosurgeon Elena Manukhina on the right, two of the seven remaining doctors in Bakhmut, toast at Christmas dinner.

Neurosurgeon Elena Manukhina witnessed up close the damage that the war raging around Bakhmut was causing. “It has changed a lot in the people here. They are worried, they are rethinking their lives. The war has caused a change in people’s psychology and health,” she told CNN.

We had dinner with the doctors. They toasted the holiday with Ukrainian champagne and strong cognac, but the mood had softened.

Elena Molchanova, an expert in infectious diseases, was the most lively person on the table, trying to lift spirits.

But even she flags. “I feel pain,” she said, her eyes blurring, “because I couldn’t be with my family. I can’t sit at the same table with you and your mother.”

The CNN crew spent the night in a separate room in the basement. They provided us with a tarp to cover the concrete floor, mattress and firewood for the fireplace in the corner. All night long, shelling rumbled from afar.

After that, Orthodox Christmas begins in Bakhmut with clear blue skies and bone-chilling cold.

And the bombardment continued.


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