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The Battle for Bakhmut, in Photos


Even for those who witnessed the battle for Bakhmut, the longest and likely the deadliest clash of the war in Ukraine, words often failed.

Soldiers who fought in the shell-racked city strained to articulate the carnage. The reek of the trenches around the city and the unceasing howl of shellfire, they said, recalled the Battle of Verdun in 1916, which lasted 300 days and was one of the bloodiest of World War I.

By the time the Russians declared “victory” on Saturday, relentless bombardment had turned former shops and homes to charred ruins. As Ukraine shifted focus to the fighting on the outskirts, President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged that the city was gone, saying “Bakhmut is only in our hearts.”

It was an arc of destruction captured by photographers from The New York Times over the past year.

The loss of Bakhmut started in earnest with a Russian missile strike in May 2022. The front was still some 10 miles away and artillery thundered in the distance. There were already few cars on the streets except for military vehicles; shops and banks were boarded up. Only one or two cafes and supermarkets were still open.

By June, the Ukrainian government was urging all those who remained in Bakhmut and other cities and towns in the path of the Russian advance to join a growing exodus of civilians fleeing for safety.

As the fighting raged, the authorities in Kyiv continued to try and convince civilians to leave. Fearing there might be no heat, gas or power as winter approached, Ukraine ordered a mandatory evacuation in August.

That meant thousands more joined the estimated 14 million Ukrainians displaced from their homes across the country, often fleeing on packed evacuation trains — a lifetime packed into a suitcase or two as they headed off not knowing if they would ever return.

By November, the city was a maze of rubble, barricades and hastily constructed blast walls. Military analysts continued to question its strategic importance and whether it was worth the cost Ukraine was paying to keep the Russians out. When The New York Times visited the city in late November, the hospital was packed with dozens of soldiers suffering from all manner of trauma. Gunshot wounds, shrapnel injuries, concussions.

“They came in batches — 10, 10, five, 10,” said Parus, one of the Ukrainian medics at the hospital.

But a new phrase was also entering the lexicon of Ukrainians across the country as soldiers battled to keep the city from falling: Bakhmut holds.

Despite suffering staggering losses, the Russians kept attacking, slowly choking off the city as they closed in on vital supply lines. By March, the main roads in and out of the city were coming under heavy shelling and thousands of Ukrainian soldiers were at risk of being cut off.

As Ukrainian soldiers secured a crucial road and then started to take back land to the north and south of the city, Russian forces intensified their already withering bombardment of the city and of the last blocks where Ukrainian defenders held out.

Almost every night for the first two weeks in May, sometimes twice a night, the Russian Army rained fire down on the Ukrainian positions in the form of incendiary munitions. As the fires burned, Russian artillery and tanks blasted away, and snipers hid in battered buildings to keep the Ukrainian forces from bringing in reinforcements or moving troops out.

The flames from Bakhmut lit up the night sky for miles, and smoke hung over the ruins in the early hours, so thick it looked like fog.

By Saturday, one year after the Russians first started shelling the city regularly, they had succeeded in razing it to the ground.

Bakhmut was no longer a city but a graveyard.

Bakhmut was perhaps an unlikely city in which to take a stand — for both sides. But over time, it took on an outsize importance: a symbol of Ukrainian defiance and of Russian leaders’ determination to blast their way to a small victory in a little-known corner of eastern Ukraine. It will long be remembered as place of unfathomable suffering.

Reporting was contributed by Carlotta Gall, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Gaëlle Girbes, Andrew E. Kramer, Evelina Riabenko, Michael Schwirtz, Maria Varenikova, Slava Yatsenko, Dmitry Yatsenko and Natalia Yermak.


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