A woman cries as she searches for news about her wounded granddaughter in Bakhmut - Copyright AFP/File Prakash MATHEMACécile FEUILLATREUkrainians struggling to survive intense combat in the hard-hit frontline city of Bakhmut say President Volodymyr Zelensky’s surprise visit this week was a non-event — even if it lifted soldiers’ morale.
Residents said they didn’t know the visit had happened or were dismissive of the daring drop-in the previous day, during which Zelensky hailed soldiers for “protecting all of Ukraine” from their Bakhmut “fortress”.
They were also largely in the dark about Zelensky’s trip to Washington, his first international journey since Russia invaded Ukraine 10 months ago.
Zelensky’s trip to Bakhmut was easy to miss for most people in the eastern industrial city, which Russia has attacked relentlessly for months with frontal assaults, artillery barrages and air strikes.
Cloistered in shelters — often without working internet — residents said they saw and heard nothing.
“I didn’t know… I just came out to charge my phone,” said Dima Sachenko, a 45-year-old construction worker standing outside a humanitarian centre.
“It’s good that he came to give medals to our soldiers. They are real heroes.”
On the ground floor of the building, around 50 people gathered to power up electronic devices and take in the rare comforts of hot tea and television.
Several of those who spoke to AFP in Bakhmut gave only their first names over perceived security concerns.
– ‘Doesn’t change our lives’ –
“Zelensky’s visit? It doesn’t change our lives. It doesn’t make things easier,” another resident, Denys, offered before being interrupted by a man who sought his help removing a corpse from the street — a grisly and routine feature of life in Bakhmut.
Brutal trench warfare and artillery battles around the city — once known for its vineyards and cavernous salt mines — have flattened large portions of it.
In an old supermarket near the central square, a woman wearing a headlamp grew irritated when asked about the visit.
“Ah yes, Zelensky came?” she sneered. “Surely he went to a safe place, deep underground, where no one can reach him.”
In eastern Ukraine, a region that still bears hallmarks of the Soviet era and has often complained of neglect by Kyiv, Zelensky does not benefit from the high popularity witnessed elsewhere since the start of the war in February.
Some Bakhmut residents seem to echo criticism from Moscow.
“Zelensky’s visit is PR,” complained a man named Pavlo.
“It would be better if he started negotiating an end to the war,” he said, before asserting that Russia is not just fighting Ukraine but NATO.
While in Bakhmut, Zelensky met with soldiers, presenting them with honours and branding them “heroes”.
– ‘He did not hide’ –
It was not his first visit to the eastern front but it was nevertheless widely hailed as “historic” and “symbolic” by Ukrainian and foreign commentators because of the particularly fierce fighting Bakhmut has endured.
The city, which had a pre-war population of around 70,000, has become the hottest point on the front line, with the Russians trying to seize control since the summer.
The effort — somewhat puzzling given the city’s perceived strategic irrelevance — has involved mercenaries, prison conscripts and newly mobilised Russian soldiers, resulting in massive casualties for both sides.
In this tense context, all soldiers interviewed by AFP in Bakhmut and its surroundings said they were impressed by Zelensky’s trip, hailing his “courage”.
“Zelensky is a real leader. He didn’t run away in February and he’s leading us to victory,” said Yaroslav, leader of a military medical evacuation team.
“I didn’t vote for him (in 2019). I didn’t respect him. But he has become another man, a great man. And his visit gave a huge boost to the morale of those fighting in Bakhmut. Bakhmut is hell on earth”, the imposing soldier continued, waiting to take away a corpse resting at his feet, wrapped in black tarpaulin.
Another soldier, 27-year-old Oleksandr, said Zelensky was “the only president in the world to come to such a place”.
“He didn’t hide. He could have been bombed like all of us,” he said.
“It’s not Putin who would do that,” added Roman, another soldier.
Like the civilians in town, neither Oleksandr nor Roman actually met the Ukrainian president on Tuesday, but they were still convinced his presence would bring “real moral support” to all Ukrainian fighters.