'We are not alone': Wartime solitude on Ukraine's ghostly front
The east Ukrainian city of Soledar has been caught in the crossfire of a raging artillery battle with advancing Russian forces ARIS MESSINIS AFP

The ground shook and birds scattered moments after Natalia Timofeyenko climbed out of her bunker to reassure herself that she was not alone on the east Ukrainian front.

The thundering blast smashed apart a chunk of a mammoth salt mine where the 47-year-old worked with most of her friends and neighbors.

Another piece of Timofeyenko's old life had shattered in the crosshairs of an artillery battle raging around her home town of Soledar in the fourth month of Russia's invasion.

But the pale and visibly sleep-deprived woman seemed beyond the point of caring as more explosions rocked the salt capital of Ukraine.

She had found two of her neighbors outside the town's last functioning grocer and stood chatting while soot-black smoke spun toward the sky.

"I go outside just to see people. I know that there is shelling out there but I go," she said without even blinking at a close-range crack of outgoing fire.

"We all need confirmation that we are not alone and there is still life out there."

'Hardened by war'

Ukraine's ghostly frontline towns are home to an untold number of traumatized people who spend most of their time either hiding in dark basements or walking the ceaselessly shelled streets.

The psychological toll of wartime solitude worries one of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's former costars on a comedy show that propelled their careers seven years ago.

The actor now wears military fatigues and body armor after joining Ukraine's legion of volunteer soldiers and adopting the nom de guerre Franko.

But he still takes his guitar to entertain lonely survivors during visits aimed at delivering aid and taking out anyone still willing to start a new life somewhere else.

"People become hardened by war," Franko said on condition that his real name not be used for family safety reasons.

"They lose their senses and need to be brought back to life. They need to be able to feel happiness again."

A silent group of lost-looking people stood next to their bundled belongings on a town square where Franko was helping organize a new round of evacuations from the flaming front.

'They keep coming'

The square in Bakhmut -- a district capital absorbing the same wave of artillery strikes as Soledar five miles (eight kilometres) to the northeast -- is bearing daily witness to the anguish that accompanies uprooted lives.

"I do not know where we are going," store clerk Anastasia Lebedeva said while waiting for an evacuation bus with her school age daughter.

"We are just trying to get as far away from the war as possible," said the 44-year-old.

The artillery shells and rockets smashing into Bakhmut and Soledar with growing frequency represent the new leg of Russia's steady march across Ukraine's industrial east.

The biggest battles surround a crucial road running up from Bakhmut to the besieged industrial cities of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk.

Soledar and similar towns along the highway are being methodically razed to the ground by the ferocity of the Kremlin's resolve to conquer its pro-Western neighbor -- and the force of Ukraine's resistance.

"There are tank battles on that road now," Bakhmut's military administration chief Sergiy Kalyan said on the square.

"We keep beating them back and they keep coming."

'Abandoned and unwanted'

Ukrainian special forces commander Tornado climbed out of his foxhole after an afternoon nap and sounded resolutely unfazed by the brute force of Russia's new assault.

Russia's biggest guns are starting to sever junctions forming the last line of defenze for the eastern administrative capital in Kramatorsk.

Tornado's unit was fighting near a ring of forests the Russians have been blitzing to reach Kramatorsk and its sister city Slovyansk from the north.

"We have more volunteer soldiers than we know what to do with," Tornado said with a laugh. "We have the will to fight and fight."

The 33-year-old's lone complaint -- echoed daily by other soldiers -- was the lag between pledges of Western military assistance and the time they took actually to reach the front.

But more weapons are the last thing farmer Ruslan Krasnov wants to see on the destroyed outskirts of Bakhmut.

The 48-year-old's Russian-speaking neighbors had just convinced some Ukrainian soldiers not to set up a temporary base outside their home.

But their streets still ended up being shelled by heavy fire that leveled a hangar housing tractors and other machines.

"The people living here are a hardy bunch," said Krasnov.

"But the war has left us with nothing. We feel abandoned and completely unwanted sitting here in the dark."

© 2022 AFP