In the war-torn Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, the chief of a small group of firefighters lines up his small team in front of the national flag, and wishes them a happy new year.

For the nine stationed permanently in the city centre fire station, it has been a year of war and fire. They are posted in the eastern region of Donetsk where Bakhmut has become the epicentre of fighting.

But their chief Oleksiy Migrin, jovial and good-natured, does not often complain.

"The year 2022 has been tough on a personal level, and tough for Ukraine," he tells the team.

"Take care of yourself, remember that your families are waiting for you. Next year we will win."

He rounds off his speech with a "Slava Ukrani!" ("Glory to Ukraine").

The firefighters are in one of the hotspots of fighting in eastern Ukraine, where Russian forces -- and the Russian paramilitaries of the Wagner Group -- have been trying to seize the city for the last six months.

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Inside the station, the men drink coffee near humanitarian aid boxes delivered from Kyiv, which are filled with duvets, medical kits, and cake.

There have been heavy losses on both sides here, and enormous destruction in Bakhmut, which had a population of some 70,000 before the war started in February 2022.

What was once "a pretty town full of flowers of trees" now looks like a wasteland.

 

A Ukrainian firefighter picks up a bag as firefighters receive New Year's gifts at their fire station in the city of Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine, on December 31, 2022. AFP.

- 'All they have left' -

 

"There is no longer any civilisation outside," says Nadya Petrova, who has been living for months in the back of her cellar.

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According to the fire chief, thousands of civilians are still hanging on there -- possibly as many as 10,000 living in terrible conditions.

 

"They don't have the means to leave," he said. "Their destroyed houses, their cellars, that's all they have left."

 

The nine firefighters in the barracks can describe their daily routine in a few words: "De-mine, evacuate, put out fires, provide water, clear the rubble," he said.

 

Others come in to reinforce from across the region, but they are apprehensive about having too many people based in the same place.

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Ukrainian firefighter Nikita Nedylko, 30 years old, poses for a photograph at his fire station in the city of Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine on December 31, 2022. AFP. 

"It's too dangerous," explains Nikita Nedylko, the second-in-command at the fire station barracks.

 

Eleven firefighters have been killed in the Donetsk region since the beginning of the Russian invasion, he said.

 

In Bakhmut, one of his own men was killed when a wall collapsed during a clearing operation after a bombardment.

 

Now the team do two-day rotations and then take a day out in "safer" towns a few miles away from the frontline.

 

- 'The hardest thing' -

 

Thirty-year-old Nedylko -- who is originally from Bakhmut and has a one-year-old son -- says one of the hardest things is coping with the emotional weight of their work in wartime.

 

"We've had a lot of pain, and suffering. We had no experience of that," he told AFP.

 

His family has retreated to Dnipro, about 260 kilometres (161 miles) west by car, where he goes every two months to see them.

 

He recalls a mother and her daughter they found embracing, dead under the rubble, and how they had to break the news to the father. 

 

He says they have had to listen to the cries of people calling for help.

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For Nedylko, the "slightest wrong move on our part" could cost a life.

 

"The hardest thing is to see people die before your eyes," he says. "The saddest thing is to see the children who have remained here."

 

This photograph taken on December 31, 2022 shows a Ukrainian flag covered in signatures of firefighters and officials as it is displayed on a wall at the fire station in the city of Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine. AFP. 

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