BAKHMUT, Ukraine — In the embattled eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, there is no such thing as silence. Days are measured not so much by time, but by volume.
Yesterday was quieter, the morning was loud, but the afternoon, when the Russians like to increase their shelling in the city’s south and east, will certainly be louder. So goes the thinking of many of Bakhmut’s remaining residents.
“It’s louder than usual,” said Valeriy, a Bakhmut resident who declined to give his last name, as the crescendo of artillery reverberated off his apartment block on Tuesday. “But they’re shooting every day.”
In recent months, Russian forces have made Bakhmut one of the focal points in their quest to capture the eastern Donbas region. The city’s altered acoustics are one result of near-constant bombardment since the summer, and by far the most present: The thuds and blasts echo for miles.
With a pre-war population of around 70,000, Bakhmut once had a far different feeling, with children playing, tourists visiting the city’s renowned winery and walking paths bustling with residents.
On Tuesday, the sounds in the city center were howling dogs, sheared strips of damaged roofing clattering and a singing older woman, who was otherwise drowned out by the diesel engine of a Ukrainian tank lumbering toward the front line.
Beyond the ruined multistory buildings and the Soviet-wide roads, is the seemingly unending back and forth of artillery. Some people refer to it sarcastically as “rocket tennis.”
The shelling is background noise until it isn’t. Its seriousness is deciphered by determining distance, direction and volume.
Distant tapping: machine gun fire.
Loud bang nearby: outgoing mortar.
Muffled bang further away: outgoing howitzer.
Salvo of distant thuds: outgoing rockets.
Whistle overhead: artillery shell in flight.
Loud whistle followed by loud crump: incoming fire.
Ear-shattering blast that breaks windows and sets off car alarms: Run to the basement, throw yourself to the ground, do whatever it takes to live.
Further outside Bakhmut, the sounds merge together. In the distant hills, sharp crack of Ukrainian artillery break through the thuds in the city.
Irina, a retired nurse with a home on Bakhmut’s outskirts, stood in her living room as artillery rattled the windows and the door.
“Those are our boys firing,” she exclaimed. “God protect them.”