Ukraine's other frontline 'fortress' resisting Russian capture
published : 20 Mar 2023 at 22:45
AVDIIVKA (UKRAINE) - There's a second frontline town in eastern Ukraine that the Russians are trying to batter into submission just like Bakhmut, but locals say Avdiivka is unlikely to fall anytime soon.
Pounded by artillery and latterly by air strikes, Avdiivka is another flashpoint in the Donbas region that Moscow's forces are trying to surround, just like in Bakhmut, 60 kilometres (40 miles) to the north.
"Every day is the same with these bombs and missiles," said 70-year-old Nadezhda.
She and a neighbour headed home with bags of food aid, passing close to a 15-storey residential tower ripped open during an attack the previous day.
"When I saw it, I was just staggered," said Nadezhda.
The Russian army has been trying to conquer Avdiivka since 2014 when fighting broke out between Kyiv's forces and Kremlin-backed separatists.
The town lies just 13 kilometres (eight miles) from Donetsk, the Russian-held capital of the eponymous region. Before the February 2022 invasion, the town had a population of 30,000.
After more than a year of fighting, only 2,300 people are left, including 1,960 living off aid, said local military administration chief Vitaliy Barabash.
"Over the last three weeks, with the help of the police and volunteers, we have evacuated about 150 people.
- 'Destroy everything'
"We had 47 children in the town, today only eight remain," he told AFP.
A few people still survive in the basements of buildings in the town centre. Some have stayed in the hundreds of homes spread across the east side.
They have had no running water, gas or electricity for months.
Outside a building destroyed by a missile, an old man is trying to cut up a doorframe and branches from a tree with a saw and an axe. He refuses help and works steadily.
He loads up his bag with wood and swings it on his arched back. He sets off slowly on old wooden crutches, his right leg limping.
"The situation is just getting worse. Now, (the Russians) use X-59s, X-101s, X-555s, C-300s," said Barabash, listing long range weapons.
"That was never the case before. They are hitting us with about 10 to 12 missiles a day, if not 14."
For Ruslan Surnov, who runs an aid centre, "the missiles are getting bigger and bigger, just like the damage. Buildings literally collapse... They will probably destroy everything here.
"We were not really frightened before, we had become used to the GRAD rockets, even if they are designed to kill people.
- 'Aerial attack' -
"But now, we are bombarded by missiles, we are under aerial attack," he said.
When the Ukraine conflict erupted back in 2014, pro-Russian separatists took Avdiivka before Kyiv's forces wrestled back control.
Its closeness to the front line made the town a focus of the fighting before last year's full invasion.
The town is now the theatre of some of the hardest fighting along the front, along with Bakhmut.
Last June, north of Avdiivka, Russian forces cut off one of the two main access roads and took up positions to the east and south.
They have advanced over recent months taking the villages of Vodiane and Opytne to the southwest as well as Krasnogorivka and Vesele to the north, creating a pincer movement to capture Avdiivka, if it cannot be seized by a frontal assault.
In the fields bordering the only access road, shells have left behind small, blackened craters.
For Barabash, missile strikes are the "biggest problems... obviously another problem is that they are still trying to surround the town".
All the same, Avdiivka does not look likely to fall.
- 'We have nothing' -
"The town has been on the front line for more than eight years. It's a very serious line of fortification, all concrete, with bunkers," said Ruslan Surnov.
"It's a real fortress. It's better protected than Bakhmut.
"Bakhmut mostly has trenches, here we have bunkers," he noted.
As the fighting rages, even the main hospital has not been spared.
"On March 8, our canteen was hit," but no one was hurt, said hospital director Vitaliy Sytnyk.
A surgeon still operates there, but the most seriously wounded are taken to other towns.
"Most people come to look for medicine, because all the chemists are closed," said Sytnyk, adding that some "ask for sedatives, sleeping pills" to cope with the stress.
Nadezhda has another worry.
"We would like to have a bit of rain for the garden," she said.
"We should already have already started planting but the soil is dry... All these explosions even affect the rain clouds. The result is we have nothing."