Long before Bakhmut comes into view behind the gently rolling hills, you can hear the city. What initially sounds like an incessant cacophony piercing the winter haze begins to dissolve into a number of distinct noises upon approach – and learning to tell them apart can mean the difference between life and death. There are the dry blasts from outgoing Ukrainian mortar fire, sometimes vibrating as if the bang and its echo are overlapping. Then there is the deep thumping from incoming Russian strikes, longer detonations that are sometimes followed by the crunching of debris. In between is the clattering of heavy machine gun fire along with the occasional hissing of a Grad rocket, followed by a rapid series of smaller explosions.
From the top of the hill, the road leads in from the West, the last halfway secure approach to the city. It heads straight down the slope for several hundred meters into the Bakhmutka river valley. The last Ukrainian checkpoint on the outskirts of Bakhmut has been abandoned for the past several days, but not because the army has given up on the city. Every few minutes, tanks and armored personnel carriers rattle past, with soldiers also arriving in delivery vans and SUVs – and even a pale-yellow Lada trundles past, its trunk held shut with a piece of laundry line and covered in grayish-brown mud.