Bakhmut, Ukraine (CNN) – At first glance, Bakhmut does not appear to be a city at war.
As we drove into town in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine on a warm, sunny morning, men in orange jackets tended the flowers. The tall trees that shade the streets are full of leaves.
Traffic is light due to lack of fuel, so many residents commute by bike.
This peaceful facade is deceptive. Explosions reverberate regularly over Bakhmut: continuous bursts of artillery and rockets outside the city, and sometimes even inside the city.
Our first stop was at the town hall where volunteers were distributing bread. Since there was no gas for cooking, bakeries stopped working. A truck arrives every day after a 10-hour journey loaded with 10,000 loaves of bread, distributed free of charge, two per person.
Lilia brought her two grandchildren to gather bread. “We support them,” he says, explaining what he does to keep them calm. “We tell them there are some guys playing with tanks. What else can I tell them? How can I harm their mental health? You can’t do that. It’s impossible.”
Just as the last words left his mouth, the air vibrated with multiple explosions. She addresses her grandchildren with sweet words of condolence.
On a wooded hill nearby, thin filaments of black smoke billow into the sky from which the explosions come, most likely a Ukrainian missile launcher.
Nobody wince. Nobody runs for cover.
Volunteers from Titiana are responsible for distributing bread. A plump woman with an easy smile exchanges compliments when she passes the bread.
When I asked him if he intended to stay in Bakhmut if the Russian forces approached, his behavior changed. She shakes her head.
She insists, in a trembling voice: “We love our people. Our graves are here. Our people lived in them. We are not going anywhere.” Tears well in her eyes. “It is our land. We will not give it to anyone. Even if it is destroyed, we will rebuild it. Everything will be…” Here he points with two thumbs.
Bakhmut is located along the main highway to the twin cities of Lyschansk and Severodonetsk, which are now the epicenter of the fighting in eastern Ukraine. The latter was the scene of fierce street-to-street fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces. For weeks, Russian forces have bombed the highway and Bakhmut, in what is seen as an attempt to isolate the twin cities from the rest of Ukraine-controlled territory.
Ukrainian officials have said that most of Severodonetsk is now under Russian control and that Moscow plans to isolate it in the coming days. During the night, the Russian forces destroyed the second bridge between the two cities and bombed the third intensively. “As I understand it, they want to completely isolate Severodonetsk and leave it without any possibility of evacuating people, bringing in ammunition or assistance,” Serhiy Heidi, head of the Luhansk region’s military administration, said on Sunday.
Heidi says he expects the Russians to “dispose of all their reserves to seize the city,” and said they might cut off the main road to the city. If that city and Lysichansk fell, it was feared that Bakhmut would be next.
Unlike other parts of the country, here in the East it doesn’t make sense that the worst of this war is over. Russian forces made slow but steady progress.
The head of Ukraine’s intelligence told The Guardian recently that for every artillery piece the Ukrainian army has, Russia has between 10 and 15 artillery pieces. Others, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, claim that up to 100 soldiers are killed every day. Ukrainians, about 500 wounded.
In this cruel war of attrition, Russia, larger and better armed, is pressing its own interest.
All this is no secret here. In a city-run dormitory, Lyudmila prepares lunch for her two children, frying onions and boiled potatoes. He fled his hometown on the outskirts of Bakhmut in March to escape the bombing. The “house” is now a small and cramped room. Her husband died before the war.
She said she has nowhere to go, hardly any money, and asks with a bit of anger, what’s the point? The Russians are coming. “It’s the same everywhere,” she says. “When [los rusos] We’re done here, they’ll go further.”
He shrugs and walks away into the dark corridor. “That’s all I have to say,” he shouts over his shoulder.
On Thursday dawn, Russian warplanes attacked a complex of agricultural warehouses on the outskirts of the city of Bakhmut. This is the third attack on the compound in recent weeks. A gap in the pavement shows the place where the grenade exploded, shrapnel scattered in all directions, holes were made in the granary.
A plump pigeon swirled over his head, ready to eat on cereal. The weather has been good this year. There are only a few weeks left until the wheat harvest. However, the war threatens to cut production by a third.
Bakhmut police chief Pavlo Dyachenko spends his days documenting the effects of air strikes and artillery. He knows how random it looks. He told me with a sigh that attacks could happen “at any time. In the morning, at night.” [sabemos] when”.
A small group of people gather in the middle of the morning in a parking lot next to the town hall, waiting for a volunteer-run bus to take them to a relatively safe area of Dnipro, a four-hour drive to the west.
Egor, a peacetime beekeeper, was stunned by a huge explosion as he stood in the shade. She departs with her cat, Simon Simonyunich, who frowns through the bars of his blue and white cage.
Igor said Simon Simonyunich has lost his mind since Bakhmut was attacked.
“I left everything here: my bees and my house with all my belongings,” he said, clutching Simon’s cage as he prepared to board the bus.
Moments later, another explosion shook the ground. Soon the bus is loaded, and the passengers are seated.
“Is there anyone here with the army?” asks the driver. The bus is for civilians only. Passengers hear sarcastic laughter. Most of them are over the age of military service.
The door closes. The bus starts moving. After a final blast, the bus pulled out of the parking lot.
CNN’s Ghazi Belkez and Kesa Julia contributed to this report.