Special Envoy


    Vuhledar (Ukraine)

Updated Thursday,25May2023-23:12

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Andrey did not even have the fortune to be buried in a cemetery. His body, charred by the fire caused in his house by the Russian attack, ended up buried in a garden. It used to be a place of recreation. The swings were abandoned while the offensive of Moscow's troops was fueled. The impact that burst the center of the park left a crater almost five meters in diameter.

The last children in Vuhledar were evacuated in February. Toys for infants have

It has now been replaced by remnants of war paraphernalia. A rocket of several meters, broken and thrown on the asphalt. Two others embedded in the cement. Pieces of metal from similar projectiles. And a singular "collection" of several cones lined up in a corner that Sergei, 63, says are the "heads" of the Grad rockets that have hit the surrounding area. Right next to it is one of the shells of the numerous burned cars that remain immobilized in front of the buildings.

"In this community alone we have counted up to 140 missiles and bombs."

, explains the 63-year-old Ukrainian, referring to the traditional groupings of housing blocks of the Soviet years that were built in the form of a quadrilateral surrounding the green area.

Sergei is one of the residents of Vuhledar who have emerged from the ruins upon hearing the arrival of the armoured humanitarian aid vehicle driven by the chaplain.

Oleg Tkachenko

. They come out of the underground from which they hide as if they were a legion of zombies. With the expressionless face and empty look that characterizes those who have seen the horror.

That barbarity that Setvlana describes with tears in her eyes. "Do you know what fear is?

Fear is when everything is burning and you don't know where to run

. When an explosion shakes the house and the furniture appears (displaced) in the middle of the living room, that refrigerator that 'wrinkled' (sic) and ended up recessed in a window. That's fear," he says as he picks up the bread and the jug of water that Oleg gives him.

The devastation seen in this town in Donetsk province could rival the one it has suffered

Bajmut, Mariupol or Avdiivka

. Russian troops are using the same style book. Raze the population to the ground to try to subdue its defenders. Aviation has joined this effort for several months,

using new guided bombs of 500 and 1,500 kilos

capable of crushing large buildings.

The havoc caused by these contraptions is something omnipresent when circulating through the streets of the town.

A desolate landscape dominated by huge sinkholes

that could house a swimming pool or the mountains of rubble that break the line of buildings and leave an empty space where an eight-story cabin once stood.

Moscow has been primed in Vuhledar after the resounding failure it suffered in November, when a frontal assault to occupy the enclave ended with the death of hundreds of uniformed of the 155th Marine Brigade, who came to spread a letter of protest on the social networks of their country, and the new setback that the same elite unit had to face last February.

In the latest confrontation, according to Kiev,

The Russians lost about 130 armored vehicles

, unable to overcome the defense of local units equipped with modern anti-tank missiles and long-range batteries such as the Himars.

Moscow's efforts to capture Vuhledar are understood by its specific location, at the end of Donbas that connects with the province of Zaporizhia and the land corridor that connects it with the Crimean peninsula.

Ukrainian artillery can threaten the only railway from here

that links both territories in Russian hands, putting at risk the supply of its troops.

Oleg Tkachenko

It has become one of the last links with the outside world of the hundreds of people - last April the

Number Two

of the local administration,

Maksym Verbovskyi

, he estimated there were only 360 left who hide underground in this place, a town to which he usually goes every week if the continuous bombardment to which the Russian military subjects it allows it.

Valentina Gennadiivna, resident of Vuhledar.


The access road is a single route that runs between agricultural fields visible to Russian forces. The crossing passes through bunkers dug into the ground by Ukrainian soldiers. Starting from Kurahove, subsequent villages are marked by repeated salvos from enemy batteries. Damage meagre compared to the systematic destruction that has shaken

a villa that became one of the great projects of the Soviet Union

, which planned to erect a huge industrial center with 100,000 residents here. The reality ended up being much more weighted and the village did not accommodate more than 15,000 people.

"It began to be built in the early 60s thanks to the mines"

. Valentina Genadina was one of the first residents of this enclave that was built around two of the coal deposits with more reserves of what was then the USSR.

"Until the invasion (last year) life was very pleasant.

The mines employed nearly 5,000 people

. We had cinemas, three schools, kindergartens...". Sergei remembers the past as if he cannot assume the present. "No one could imagine this, not even in his worst nightmares," he adds.

"We all came to live here thinking it was going to be paradise and you see," Setvlana seconds.

The history of Vuhledar is linked like that of the rest of Donbas to the boom in mines, an industry that not only marked the development of this Ukrainian region but its own political evolution. The mining protest that erupted in 1989, first in Siberia and then reached its climax in what was then a Soviet region, was one of the factors driving the historic dissolution of the communist bloc.

After the independence of Ukraine, the protests of the workers of this sector became a constant throughout the decade of the 90s, until reaching its climax with the

march that led thousands of miners between Donbas

and Kiev, which took them more than 600 kilometers.

The two Vuhledar mines continued to operate until February last year.

The invasion cut off all possible normality

. The fields were closed and the bombings destroyed the supply of water, electricity, gas and telephone connection. "The only way to get a signal is to go out into an open field, in a corner of the city. But it is very dangerous. There are a lot of people buried there, who died hit by shells," says Setvlana.

A dozen neighbors have gathered around Tkachenko's van. Another Setvlana different from the traumatized elderly woman who expressed herself earlier, accompanies the journalists to her "residence". A precarious cabin has been built in the corridor of the building that led to the elevator. A bed, a gas stove and a car battery to power the electricity. Although here all the neighbors carry a flashlight around their necks.

The power supply is but a distant memory.

When the attacks intensify, they move underground.

A basement where they have kept tins, and sacks with potatoes and radishes.

All of them refer with some animosity to the local authorities. "They disappeared," they say, as quickly as basic supplies.

"The mayor? He was the first to run away.

. He and everyone else. There are no doctors, no police. The priest also left in autumn. The last time the mayor stopped by was in December. But surely they continue to collect their salary. They will say that they are working 'online'", says Setvlana generating an unusual smile among those present.

In the absence of assistance,

Tkachenko's food is the last hope

of this helpless clique. The cleric also brings them sacks with pet food. Ukrainians maintain a peculiar bond with their dogs and cats, even in times of misfortune like these. "I have five dogs and two cats in the shelter," says one of the ladies.

Many of the crossings can only be accessed by the race and jumping over trees uprooted by explosions and remains of houses. The cleric approaches another of the shelters enabled on this occasion in what was the old museum of the veterans of Afghanistan. The walls are still decorated with photos of Soviet soldiers who fought in that war and those of their "comrades" who also served in nations allied with the former Soviet Union such as Angola or Cuba. One of the paintings recreates a group of uniformed men of the USSR defending a snowy hill with the support of a helicopter under the title:

"Soviet paratroopers from Afghanistan"

. Another shows former fighters visiting the Latin American country.

In the past, this was one of the most significant destinations in Vuhledar. A meeting place for official visits, scene of competitions and conferences. Since the end of last year it has been the refuge of a dozen people commanded by

Valentina Genadina

despite the fact that an explosion tore off the entrance wall months ago.

"It was one of the most beautiful museums in Ukraine"

, relates the woman with some nostalgia.

Ironies of history. The year before the Russian invasion, Vladimir himself – who fought in that campaign – was in charge of presenting the prizes to the group of young people who won a contest entitled "We are against the war".

Tkachenko retains a close relationship with the urban core. He lived here from 2017 until the Russians launched their onslaught in February 2022. He had a small church set up in an apartment, which has been reduced to charred walls.

"A lot of people criticize those who don't want to be evacuated, but

Very few understand how difficult it is to leave your home and settle elsewhere

" he says.

The distribution of aid is carried out with some haste. The Russian positions are a few kilometers away. The explosions that shake the environment are constant. "If the (Russian) helicopter takes off, there is nowhere to hide," warns another of the locals.

"Here the only goal is to survive today. We'll see tomorrow."

Sergei adds.

The presence of the cleric generates a small verbal clash. Setvlana, the older of the two, reproaches him for the kind of help he brings them. Oleg tries to justify himself. "You have decided to stay here. No one forces you," he tells them.

"We thought everything was going to be over in three days," replies one of the women. "Where are we going to go?

No one likes to live in a hut to know where

" adds Sergei.

The brief altercation ends with several women crying. "We have broken nerves.

We've been living under the ground for a year."

, clarifies another of the women.

The religious nods his head. He understands the situation perfectly. To regain confidence, he gathers several of those present and urges them to pray. Half a dozen form a semicircle and hold hands.

"God, we thank You that even in dark times your light shines. Only you grant us some peace. You have to give ourselves strength to overcome our fears. We pray for all those who live in cities on the front line. So that they understand that there will come a time when they will recover happiness," he proclaims in chaplain, closing his eyes and directing his voice to heaven.

In the spoils of what was Vuhledar, faith is the only certainty.