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Towns near Bakhmut are bracing for its possible fall

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

The fighting in Ukraine has been especially intense in the eastern Donbas region, where Russia is trying to consolidate control. Well, a fierce nine-month battle over the town of Bakhmut still rages. Towns near the besieged city are bracing. If Bakhmut falls, they know they could be next on the path of Russian forces. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley sends this report from one such town in Donbas.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: People in the town of Slovyansk, about 25 miles from Bakhmut, are tired and tense.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR RAID SIREN)

BEARDSLEY: Air raid sirens are constant. Most businesses are shuttered. And half the town has left. Stray dogs roam the city center.

Mr. Liakh, hello. My card again.

BEARDSLEY: The last time I met Slovyansk Mayor Vadim Liakh was the day before the invasion, February 23, 2022. Today, he's no longer the smiling, energetic man from a year ago. Liakh's face is lined and haggard.

VADIM LIAKH: (Through interpreter) What can I say? The year was difficult. We haven't had a day off. We face different challenges at different times - to keep infrastructure in working condition, we didn't have heat or water for three months, to keep our citizens safe, to evacuate people when they were shelling, to provide food and to just defend our city.

BEARDSLEY: He says last spring and summer, Slovyansk was constantly shelled as the Russians advanced from three directions. But things improved in September after the Kharkiv counteroffensive, when Ukraine punched through Russian defenses and took back huge swaths of territory. As nearby towns like Lyman and Izium were liberated, Liakh says people returned to Slovyansk. But now he's fearful again.

LIAKH: (Through interpreter) Today, Russian forces are being held back in this town. But we feel the enemy pushing because we and our neighboring town of Kramatorsk were recently shelled from multiple rocket systems. This is an alarm signal.

BEARDSLEY: But Liakh, like many others NPR talked to, firmly believes that Ukraine will ultimately prevail in this conflict. A giant statue of Vladimir Lenin used to stand on the central square in Slovyansk. It was taken down in 2014 after Ukrainian troops liberated the city from a brief occupation by Russian backed separatists.

Do you speak English?

ANASTASIA: No.

BEARDSLEY: No. OK. How old are you? She's young.

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: (Non-English language spoken).

ANASTASIA: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Twenty-four-year-old Anastasia, who's pushing her toddler in a stroller, says the constant air raid sirens make her nervous. She doesn't want to give her last name because of the precariousness of the situation. She says she can't talk long because if her husband knew she was in the risky city center, he'd be furious.

ANASTASIA: (Through interpreter) Of course we are worried. We watch the news. My husband has a job, and we will try to stay. But if the front line starts moving, we will definitely not sit and wait.

BEARDSLEY: Residents here say they're waiting to see whether Bakhmut falls and also waiting for the much anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive.

KONSTANTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Sixty-year-old Konstantin is sitting on a bench near a monument dedicated to the Soviet Union's decade-long war in Afghanistan. He was a sniper with the Soviet army in that war. When we ask him who should win this one, he says he just wants peace. But when we ask if Ukraine should give up territory for peace, he is categorical.

KONSTANTIN: Nyet. Nyet. Nyet. Nyet.

BEARDSLEY: Hello.

TETIANA TSIVKOVSKA: Hello.

BEARDSLEY: Tetiana Tsivkovska is coming across the main square with her two children. The 36-year-old has long nails painted in Ukrainian yellow and blue. She says her family left Slovyansk last April but returned in December.

TSIVKOVSKA: (Through interpreter) How long can we wander the world? We wanted to come home.

BEARDSLEY: Tsivkovska says Indifference and ambiguity about Russia in this Russian-speaking region has always been Ukraine's problem. But she believes everything changed in one night last year.

TSIVKOVSKA: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: "We went to sleep February 23," she says - using the Russian word for February - "and we woke up on February 24," using the Ukrainian word for the month. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Slovyansk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.