Editor’s Note: Warning: This story contains details some readers may find disturbing.
The streets outside Vyacheslav Tarasov’s home on Ukraine’s eastern frontline are pocked by shell blasts. The buildings around are mostly empty, windowless and cold.
Bakhmut has been facing the relentless firepower of a frustrated Russian army for months. In its pursuit of an increasingly rare battlefield victory, Moscow has leveled buildings with rockets and missiles and sent endless waves of infantry to fight among the destroyed homes.
Tarasov, 48, was sheltering from the shelling in his basement where he now has to live. But last week he dared to venture out – to buy vegetables to make the national dish, borscht.
“I don’t know what was used,” he recalls. “But the force was incredible because my arm flew off, just like that… I was holding my guts in my hands.”
His face pales as he relays the graphic images still fresh in his mind. “I was wearing a leather jacket and if it wasn’t for that, I would have blown apart. I mean, my guts would have been all over the place… I lost a lot of blood. I remember seeing it — a huge puddle.”
The blast that tore through Tarasov’s body killed his friend and as the shelling continued, he realized he might not make it either. “I’ll tell you the truth,” he says. “I prayed to survive.”
Tarasov is a devout Christian and believes an “invisible power” saved his life. He is also grateful to the Ukrainian soldiers who threw him in their pickup truck and drove him to a hospital in Kostiantynivka — one of the few remaining hospitals able to treat the war’s civilian wounded.
When Tarasov arrived, he begged the doctors to save his limb. “The first thing I asked was if I could have my arm sewn back on. I saw that it was completely torn off and was just hanging in the sleeve. And my stomach was burning. I figured it must be the intestines coming out. There was blood everywhere.”
Medical staff at Kostiantynivka have been continuing their work through power failures and water shortages caused by repeated Russian attacks on the energy grid. For eight hours one day last week, they had to rely on generators to keep the lights and heating on.
“Sometimes the power goes out,” chief surgeon Dr. Yuri Mishasty tells CNN, still dressed in his scrubs. “Water comes by the hour, not regularly. There was no water at the weekend because there was a catastrophic shelling incident.”
The surgeon, 62, has just finished operating on a woman who had been rushed in earlier that afternoon.
“She’s a resident of Bakhmut. She came under artillery fire and suffered a shrapnel wound to her abdomen with damage to several organs. We see people with these wounds every day. Every day.”
As the Russian army intensifies its campaign to take Bakhmut, the shelling comes ever nearer to Kostiantynivka, 25 kilometres (about 15 miles) to the west. Since the beginning of the month, the town has been hit almost every day, the hospital director says.
Meanwhile, medical staff hear the constant thud of artillery fired around Bakhmut – unwelcome signals that another patient may soon lie on the operating table.
“It’s been quite loud lately,” Khassan El-Kafarna, a surgeon from Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF), stationed at the hospital, says. His colleague, nurse Lucia Marron, agrees. “I think there’s more movement around in general – more troops, more people,” she says. “We are used to the sound. You get to a point where you understand what is dangerous and what is not.”
The local authorities have implored civilians to leave the region for months. But for Tarasov, as for so many in Ukraine’s old industrial heartland, fleeing his home for a safer area had seemed impossible.
“If I had a lot of money, I would rather live abroad,” Tarasov says. “But I have no money and everything I had saved up was invested there. I had no money and nowhere to go.”
To stay in Bakhmut was to cling on to what remained of the life he worked so hard for during peacetime. That life has now changed irrevocably.
A builder before war came to Ukraine, Tarasov says, “I was right-handed. Now I won’t even be able to roll a measuring tape.
“I’m half-man, half-zombie. Half-human to be exact.”