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The front line is 7 kilometers away. How Russians are trying to destroy Toretsk, and Ukrainians are trying to defend it

A view of the waste heaps near Toretsk, Donetsk region, Ukraine, March 18, 2024. Photo by Olga Kovaleva


Toretsk is a town in the Bakhmut district of Donetsk region, located about 7 kilometers from the contact line. Every day, the occupiers shell Toretsk, as well as every Ukrainian frontline settlement.


In 2014, Dzerzhynsk, now decommunized Toretsk, was a typical mining town between the waste heaps. Until recently, one of the mines was called St. Matrona Moskovska, but now it is abbreviated to St. Matrona.


The war came to Toretsk in 2014


Since 2014, the city has been located on the contact line and has been constantly subjected to Russian shelling. Pro-Russian militants held a so-called "referendum on the status of the DPR" on May 11, 2014. For three months, Toretsk was occupied, but on July 21, 2014, the Ukrainian military began to storm the city. The fighting lasted for 8 hours. There were no casualties among the Ukrainian military, four were injured. On February 18, 2016, Dzerzhynsk was renamed Toretsk.


War from February 24, 2022


The small mining town escaped a prolonged occupation in 2014, but living on the firing line could not ensure peace and tranquility. In 2022, Toretsk became a constant target for Russian shelling. As of March 2024, there was not a single surviving building in the city: high-rise buildings, private households, and civilian infrastructure were partially damaged or completely destroyed. The occupiers are also hitting the mines, which were the mainstay of the city's budget. Those who do not leave their homes risk getting injured or losing their lives.


A local resident of Toretsk walks along a road on the outskirts of the city, Donetsk region, Ukraine, March 18, 2024. Photo by Olga Kovaleva


A residential building destroyed by Russian shelling in the city of Toretsk, Donetsk region, Ukraine, March 19, 2024. Photo by Olga Kovaleva


Abandoned pets in the city of Toretsk, Donetsk region, Ukraine, March 19, 2024. Photo by Olga Kovaleva


Today, Toretsk has no gas supply, no water supply or sewerage system, and rainwater is used instead of industrial water. Rescuers are working in the city to eliminate the consequences of enemy attacks and deliver drinking water together with volunteers. 


A local resident walks past a tank with technical water installed for residents of Toretsk, Donetsk region, Ukraine, March 19, 2024. Photo by Olga Kovaleva


Lack of water supply


Since 2014, shells and mines have been constantly hitting the Toretsk-Horlivka water supply system. This often left the city without drinking water. During the full-scale invasion, the water situation became critical: only charitable foundations and organizations bring drinking water, and industrial water is available in tanks.


A local resident fills bottles with water from a tank installed for residents of Toretsk, Donetsk region, Ukraine, March 19, 2024. Photo by Olga Kovaleva


A local resident fills bottles with water from a tank installed for residents of Toretsk, Donetsk region, Ukraine, March 19, 2024. Photo by Olga Kovaleva


"What problems do we have here? The following: this house was thriving and this is what they did. Then, on July 26, 2022, a plane arrived and completely smashed the 4th entrance. There was also an arrival on May 12. On June 1, it arrived there, and so on... I can go on and on with dates and places," a local resident complains, "I think this war will never end. It will continue until Toretsk is wiped off the map. The next city will be Kostiantynivka, and then something else."

The man did not have time to introduce himself and tell more about life near the contact line, the conversation was interrupted by shelling.


A local resident transports water containers on a bicycle through a neighborhood in Toretsk, Donetsk region, Ukraine, March 19, 2024. Photo by Olga Kovaleva


Forced evacuation


Before the full-scale invasion, Toretsk was home to 70,000 people; as of April 2024, about 5 percent of them remained. Children's laughter has not been heard on the streets for a long time, and the community continues to be forced to evacuate families with children. Free transportation to safe regions is offered almost every week to anyone who wants to leave the frontline area. However, there are families who categorically refuse to evacuate. Police officers are going around the streets, interviewing neighbors and persistently reminding people of the possibility of escape.


Shelter


"There is more shelling now, but fewer people," says Lilia, who works as a supervisor at one of the city's shelters. The woman says that there are those among the locals who leave and then return to their broken homes anyway. "No one needs us anywhere," she sighs.


Liliia, the manager of the shelter in Toretsk, meets local residents with her dog Bona on the doorstep of one of the shelters, Donetsk region, Ukraine, March 19, 2024. Photo by Olga Kovaleva


Liliia and her dog Bona keep warm in a stove in a shelter where Torech residents come during active Russian attacks. The real excitement here is always around 10 a.m., when locals charge their phones. There is everything you need not only to wait out the shelling, but even to live here temporarily.

"No one is spending the night here at the moment, but everything is prepared for that. There are beds, and most importantly, there is electricity," the woman explains.


Recreation area in one of the shelters in Toretsk, Donetsk region, Ukraine, March 19, 2024. Photo by Olga Kovaleva


Lilia shows the generator and kettle, as well as the damage caused by the previous shelling. Then, part of the seemingly reliable and deep Soviet shelter was seriously damaged. As it turned out, even it was not adapted to protect against the weapons that Russia is using against Ukraine today.


One of the shelters in Toretsk, Donetsk region, Ukraine, March 19, 2024. Photo by Olga Kovaleva


Liliya, a shelter supervisor, points out the damage caused by one of the rocket attacks. Toretsk, Donetsk region, Ukraine, March 19, 2024. Photo by Olga Kovaleva


The number of Russian shelling of Toretsk has increased significantly since May 2023, after the occupation forces took control of Bakhmut, which they had completely destroyed. As a result, the contact line has moved and the war has become even closer to the people of Toretsk. All their problems with water, electricity, and unemployment remain unresolved due to the intensity of hostilities.


The battlefield


It is difficult for the Ukrainian military to defend settlements where civilians still remain. However, they continue to hold the line of defense in this area, where Russian forces are constantly trying to advance. To all the problems, there is a significant lack of ammunition.


Artillerymen of the 80th separate airborne assault brigade of the Galician Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine communicate near their position on the front line in the Donetsk sector, Ukraine, March 14, 2024. Photo by Olga Kovaleva


This problem exists along the entire 1,000-kilometer front line. Soldiers of the artillery unit of the 80th separate airborne assault brigade of the Galician Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine also talk about it. That's why the unit can only fire at precise targets to make the most of each ammunition. At the same time, the military is facing a continuous stream of Russian artillery attacks.


Artillerymen of the 80th Separate Air Assault Galician Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine operate a BM-21 Grad 122-mm multiple rocket launcher near the front line in the Donetsk sector, Ukraine, March 14, 2024. Photo by Olga Kovaleva


"The situation at the front is difficult. We lack ammunition. It would be much easier for the infantry if we had them," says Ihor, the commander of the artillery unit. He notes that they have to change positions frequently because of the activity of Russian drones in the sky.


Artillerymen of the 80th Separate Air Assault Galician Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine operate a BM-21 Grad 122-mm multiple rocket launcher near the front line in the Donetsk sector, Ukraine, March 14, 2024. Photo by Olga Kovaleva


Artillerymen of the 80th Separate Air Assault Galician Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine operate a BM-21 Grad 122-mm multiple rocket launcher near the front line in the Donetsk sector, Ukraine, March 14, 2024. Photo by Olga Kovaleva


The soldier with the call sign "Kapets" reiterates that it is very difficult to fight now, but that one should not relax, because the Russians have imperial ambitions and will go on to Lithuania, Latvia and other European countries.


"It's inevitable! This red infection will continue to spread, so it's better to stop them in Ukraine at the initial level, and not later on the global level."


Artilleryman of the 80th separate airborne assault Galician brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine "Kapets" explains to his comrades-in-arms the plan of combat operations near his position in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, March 14, 2024. Photo by Olha Kovaleva


The serviceman is convinced that ending the Russian-Ukrainian war through negotiations is not the best option, so we must fight to victory.


"I believe that if we agree to negotiate with the Russians, in 2-3 years they will come with such an invasion that they will stop at the borders of Poland," the soldier is convinced.


Armory


Until the weapons from Western partners arrive, the brigade's maintenance has fallen to the servicemen of the repair unit of the 80th separate airborne assault Galician brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. They can assemble a new vehicle out of several destroyed units of equipment. Every detail is worth its weight in gold. They disassemble damaged or trophy vehicles into the smallest pieces, patch them up, paint over Russian "Z" marks, and sometimes clean everything not only from dirt but also from blood.


A serviceman of the 80th separate airborne assault brigade of the Galician Armed Forces of Ukraine repairs a weapon at a position near the front line in the Donetsk sector, Ukraine, March 16, 2024. Photo by Olha Kovaleva


A serviceman of the 80th separate airborne assault brigade of the Galician Armed Forces of Ukraine repairs a weapon at a position near the front line in the Donetsk sector, Ukraine, March 16, 2024. Photo by Olha Kovaleva


With tired looks and black hands covered in grease, the soldiers continue to do their delicate work: repairing what seems to be beyond repair.


A serviceman of the 80th separate airborne assault brigade of the Galician Armed Forces of Ukraine repairs a weapon at a position near the front line in the Donetsk sector, Ukraine, March 16, 2024. Photo by Olha Kovaleva


Servicemen of the 80th separate airborne assault Galician brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine repair weapons at a position near the front line in the Donetsk sector, Ukraine, March 16, 2024. Photo by Olha Kovaleva


A serviceman of the 80th separate airborne assault brigade of the Galician Armed Forces of Ukraine repairs a weapon at a position near the front line in the Donetsk sector, Ukraine, March 16, 2024. Photo by Olha Kovaleva


The soldiers of the 80th separate airborne assault brigade of the Galician Armed Forces of Ukraine repair their weapons without complaining about fatigue. What can be repaired in the walls of the armory will save someone's life on the battlefield.


A serviceman of the 80th separate airborne assault brigade of the Galician Armed Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine talks about repairing small arms at a position near the front line in the Donetsk sector, Ukraine, March 16, 2024. Photo by Olha Kovaleva


"In other brigades, weapons are repaired in army workshops. These are military units where 30-50 people work. We repair everything ourselves - there are two of us. There is also a third person, a turner," explains a soldier who wishes to remain anonymous.

Within these walls, they talk not only about the lack of ammunition and equipment, but also about the lack of human resources.


The repair company of the 80th separate airborne assault brigade of the Galician Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, March 16, 2024. Photo by Olha Kovaleva


Although the military hopes that renewed military aid from the United States will stabilize the situation at the front, each of them is waiting for the mobilization of society to prevent the loss of another Ukrainian city. The stakes are now too high.


 

We worked on the material:

Researcher of the topic, photographer, editor: Olga Kovaleva

Author of the text: Vira Labych

Literary editor: Yulia Futey

Website manager: Vladislav Kukhar





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