In an exclusive interview with Kyiv Post, soldier turned volunteer Petro Stone describes the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Bakhmut, the Ukrainian city turned into a “meat grinder” as Russia makes repeated attempts to take it.Stone says the city has been vastly depopulated by months of constant Russian shelling, those that remain are forced to live in basements or outdoors and there is little medical provision for locals, many of whom have been wounded. It is part of Ukraine’s frontline defense, and its capture could enable Russian forces to threaten the nearby cities of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.
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- You’re back from Bakhmut. What is happening there? Are the Russians advancing?
Bakhmut is now becoming the main theater of hostilities in Donbas and this war in general. The Russians are covering Bakhmut with fire 24/7.
I witnessed it myself. Rockets, artillery - everything flies into residential buildings, schools, and kindergartens.
There is no place for people to hide, and they live in basements.
- How many people are left there?
Up to 15,000 people remain in Bakhmut at the moment. Seventy thousand lived there before the war. I also saw children, young and middle-aged people. It shocked me.
How many children did you see?
I saw up to 300 children there. The living conditions there are terrible. There are no windows or doors in the houses.
- Isn't it freezing there?
They burn fires in their houses on the floor. There are not enough stoves and heaters. People burn fires to cook on the streets. Donbas has a harsh climate, with extreme winds, so -7 feels like -20. The fires lit on bricks are extinguished by the wind. People live there in very difficult conditions.
Our military repels more than 10 Russian attacks a day. The enemy throws newly-mobilized, untrained people in waves to overcome our fortifications, but they fail.
The massacre in Bakhmut has been going on for months, it’s a meat grinder - our military is fighting back successfully. There was a lot of misinformation that the Russians had captured the city.
In particular, when we drove around the city people run out of basements and asked - "have Russian troops already entered the other side of the city? What should we do?"
People are misinformed. They have no Internet, telephone connection and only get information from the military.
I told them: "Do not be afraid. We are here."
I posted videos from Bakhmut online, and people recognized their relatives in Bakhmut with whom they have no communication.
They saw familiar terrain on my footage and understood that Bakhmut is under the control of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
The price of these victories are titanic efforts, which are every day. The fact that we are repelling many such fierce Russian offensives is a victory.
Are there any civilian casualties?
Yes, unfortunately. People are dying because of constant, chaotic shelling of the city.
- Do people in Bakhmut have water and medicines?
There was no water or medicine, so we helped volunteers bring at least one bus with aid. It is worth a lot of effort and risk.
When we entered Bakhmut, the volunteers were hysterical because they were unprepared.
- Were they scared?
Yes, they were. I warned them that Bakhmut is unlike Kherson or Kharkiv Region. The situation in Bakhmut is much worse than in Mariupol. The Russians have totally destroyed the city.
I asked people there why they had not left. Their answer was "no-one needs us, where we will go?" It is a problem, and we want to help them. We do what we can and bring in aid. First and foremost, they need water and matches - the essential things.
- Can we evacuate these people?
Of course, groups of the military, including Americans, are working there continually to evacuate people. First they ask "do you want to leave or not?" At first the answer is "no". After that they are asked again, and some of the people cannot stand it any longer and say "we are ready."
Two, four, or three people usually go to their relatives or friends in Kramatorsk, Konstantinivka, Druzhkivka, or Sloviansk as it’s quieter there.
I am certain that we will defend the city. Everything is being done for this purpose by the command and the president - everyone is involved.
Of course, there are losses because it is war, but we will push out the Russians from Donbas.
- Have you seen the children there - what state are they in?
The living conditions are terrible.
First, there is no water - everyone looks dirty, and their clothes are very worn and disease-ridden.
I saw people and children with wounds, rotting flesh in their arms and legs.
There is shelling, flying glass, and pieces of slate. People are wounded, and there is no medicine to heal wounds.
- Why don’t they leave? Are they scared of evacuation? Is it dangerous?
Yes, they’re afraid. We evacuate those who want to - there is no forced evacuation. We take those out who express a desire to leave.
- Does anyone else deliver humanitarian aid apart from you? Is it possible to help those people somehow?
I saw on social networks that some volunteers also travel there, but this help is not enough. It is impossible to take a truck there.
Humanitarian aid can only be delivered in small minibuses. Even with larger buses it is difficult there because of constant shelling. Also, the roads there are destroyed.
Volunteers are attempting to get to Bakhmut from Izyum, Kharkiv Region, or from the side of Kramatorsk or Sloviansk in Donetsk Region. They try to break through when the military gives permission.
I’m going to Bakhmut again to help the people there. We usually leave on a daily basis at 8 a.m. and work until 3-4 p.m., because it gets dark then.
We need to get out before it gets dark because the vehicle's light can be spotted by drones, which is very dangerous.
We help, risking our lives, but much more help is needed.
If someone wants to help – they can join us.
I can show them, as we know what roads to take and how to drive to Bakhmut.
- You recently appeared in the Russian media. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Private Military Company, commented on your video, saying that the American Private Military Company Mozart operates in Ukraine. Is that true?
Yes, it is true. An American colonel of the U.S. Marine Corps Special Operations Forces who is now retired established a private military company in Ukraine called Mozart, in opposition to the Russian Private Military Company Wagner.
I met them when I was in Bakhmut. They are a very active group. Mozart has two wings - tactical military, which teaches military craft, where American commandos train our soldiers how to handle weapons and tactical skills.
The other wing is humanitarian, for the evacuation of people.
The Americans made an offer of cooperation, and we became friends.
When I was handed the chevron, the news got to the Russian public, and Prigozhin reacted to Mozart because it is the U.S. and there is strength.
We are now working together with the Americans to develop our team. We are going to team up to evacuate people from Bakhmut again. Every trip is a special operation to save people.
The Americans are helping a lot and teaching us evacuation skills. The most important thing when you evacuate is to see the gratitude of people.
So yes, it is true, and Wagner got scared because they have a serious competitor here in Ukraine. We are becoming a formidable force for the Russians, because they are facing losses every day. We are slowly getting rid of them.