Hairdresser open, market closed: the double reality of Toretsk, at the gates of the Bakhmut front

With no gas or water and bombs falling from overhead, the great Russian invasion has aggravated the situation in many towns in eastern Ukraine, where the war has been going on for a decade

Bajmut Ucrania
School bombed by Russian aviation on the morning of June 24 in Toretsk, in the vicinity of the Bakhmut front.Luis de Vega
Luis de Vega

“What a stupid question. I was born here, and I live here,” said Oleksandr, a resident of Toretsk, a town three kilometers from the large front surrounding the city of Bakhmut (eastern Donetsk region), after being asked why he had not left for a safer place. The plastic sheeting that has replaced the glass in the hairdresser’s window flutters in the breeze as he sits to have his hair cut. The constant explosions that come from the artillery positions do not in the least alter the ritual of the comb and scissors in Tatiana’s hands. A plane dropped two bombs a short while before, thankfully without killing anyone, but causing significant damage to several buildings. Standing behind the other chair, Liuvob gives Irina highlights. Life goes on and one has to look presentable.

The counteroffensive that Ukraine has been developing since the beginning of June has hardly altered the gray area in Toretsk, where the two armies are colliding head on. In these last few weeks, local troops have clawed back 35 square kilometers (13.5 square miles) from the enemy in the battle for Bakhmut, of which four come from last week’s advances, according to data from the Deputy Minister of Defense, Hanna Maliar.

Amid sporadic civilian deaths, local authorities have decided to close open-air markets for safety after several attacks. The mayor, Vasil Chynchyk, says that they do not want crowds, but the half-gas life of these populations makes it almost inevitable that people will rush when there are deliveries of humanitarian aid, as happened when EL PAÍS visited.

Flocks of birds take over the deserted streets of Toretsk.
Flocks of birds take over the deserted streets of Toretsk.Luis de Vega

Flocks of birds have taken over the pavement in the almost deserted streets of Toretsk. A trickle of neighbors advances in solitude every once in a while, pulling carts in which they carry the food they have just received. If you head in the opposite direction, you come across an official building where the distribution takes place. Dozens of people gather on the stairs outside while being called inside in order. They don’t want their photos taken or to make any statements.

After leaving to pick up a box of food, Raya, 68, makes her way along a sidewalk carpeted with glass and remains of windows that no one bothers to pick up in the face of the enemy’s soul-crushing routine. The woman, wearing a hat, gives a smile that lights up her eyes behind her glasses. She is carrying aid provided by a Swiss Protestant church organization with the slogan “Bread for all.” Above her head, a metal blind on the second floor of a building hit by the shock wave rattles without falling. The façades display almost all their wounds, large and small. Raya jumps when asked about the end of the conflict. The attacks, she says, happen in the morning and in the afternoon. “I spend the day praying for the war to end,” she says before moving on.

Not far from that avenue, authorities have set up their headquarters in a former kids’ club. There, signing and sealing documents is Vasil Chynchyk, head of the civil and military administration, the closest thing there is to a mayor in wartime. Organizing evacuations is part of his daily work. Between 10 and 15 transfers are carried out per day by the means provided by the authorities and another five leave by their own means. That’s triple the number evacuated a few weeks ago, estimates Chynchyk, who sports a gun in a leather holster at his side. Shelling is the main reason that drives people to leave, he says. They are particularly concerned about the children, who “are forced to stay with their parents in dangerous places.”

Tatiana cuts Oleksandr’s hair at her hair salon in Toretsk.
Tatiana cuts Oleksandr’s hair at her hair salon in Toretsk.Luis de Vega

A disapora of residents of Toretsk, as with other areas of the front, is growing in other safer regions of the country thanks to the agreements that the authorities are forging. The mayor says that they are provided with transportation, temporary accommodation, medical assistance, and advice on getting ahead away from home. “There are free evacuations to any corner of the country,” he says. The town was already in the hands of pro-Russian separatists for a few months in 2014, when Moscow launched the war in eastern Ukraine. The region’s population in 2021, before the great Russian invasion began, was 70,000 people compared to the current 14,000, according to data from Chynchyk. Those who remain live in a place where for a year and a half there has been no water or gas, although there is electricity. Filling this supply gap is one of the tasks the authorities are also undertaking with the help of NGOs and international organizations.

But the main concern of the head of the region is to save lives. The more, the better. The latest decision taken by the regional authorities, and which he himself defends, is not to re-authorize open-air markets. They do not want to give the Russians the opportunity to make crowds of people a target, as they have been in the past.

Ludmila, 72, returns home after collecting humanitarian aid passing through the wreckage of a Russian air raid that same morning.
Ludmila, 72, returns home after collecting humanitarian aid passing through the wreckage of a Russian air raid that same morning.Luis de Vega

The decision unnerves Tatiana, the hairdresser. “The markets are closed and now there are dozens of people crowded waiting for humanitarian aid,” she says, referring to what she considers a contradiction. In an almost incessant stream, four civilians were bombed last week in the neighboring New York township and two siblings — a boy and a girl — lost their lives in the village of Druzhba (a word meaning friendship). Eight people were killed in the same attack on August 4 last year at a bus stop in Toretsk. “Someday we will rebuild those buildings, but those people will never come back,” sighs Vasil Chynchyk at his desk as Deputy Minister Maliar appears on television.

Death sometimes miraculously passes by on tiptoe without stopping in Toretsk. The two FAB-250 type bombs dropped by enemy aircraft have not caused any deaths. The damage is visible on the shattered façade of a three-story school. The explosions have also hit homes, garages, and some other administration buildings. Nothing that can’t be fixed, as the mayor emphasizes. What is surprising, however, is the astonishing passivity surrounding the bombing; had it occurred, for example, in a large city like Kyiv, it would have deserved more attention. Chynchyk does not give it any more importance than other everyday problems, and the neighbors stroll around with a certain indifference, as if instead of two bombs, two pine cones had fallen to the ground.

Through the debris of the attack that litters the road, Ludmila, 72, struggles to make her way with her humanitarian aid box on wheels. She complains that no one has helped her. The woman left home for the delivery point at six in the morning and, on her way back, she encountered the harsh reality: they have bombed the neighborhood. Ludmila, whose children are refugees in western Ukraine, lives alone. “In winter I sleep in the kitchen. I unroll a mattress and put it next to the stove and the firewood that the church gives me,” she explains.

Olga, 45, collects firewood in front of a school bombed by Russian aircraft that same morning in Toretsk.
Olga, 45, collects firewood in front of a school bombed by Russian aircraft that same morning in Toretsk.Luis de Vega

On the same road as Ludmila, another of the town’s residents, Olga, collects firewood. Taking advantage of broken tree branches from explosions and wood from door frames, she piles them up in a cart and ties them with an elastic strap. The largest, she says, are to keep warm in autumn and winter. The small ones are for cooking. The attack caught Olga in the shower and, when she got out, she found that the bombing had knocked down part of the walls onto her bed, in the house where she lives alone with four dogs.

Wartime loneliness has not pushed Olga or Ludmila out of Toretsk. Nor Tatiana, the hairdresser, or Oleksandr, her client. He is wary of the aid promised by the authorities for those who are evacuated. She, while trimming the man’s bangs, agrees: “Here you live well. I have a job that I wouldn’t have.” Meanwhile, through the plastic that is partially detached from the window frame, we can still hear the soundtrack of the fighting.

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