Russians have turned to a deadly tactic to advance in the Donbas and the intensity is merciless


Carpet bombing is indiscriminate – devastatingly destructive and utterly random.

But if you’re an advancing army, it’s a deadly and effective tactic, and it’s being used mercilessly against the townspeople of Soledar.

The town in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas has seen its topography alter dramatically in the last 72 hours as the Russians intensify their assault on the region.

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There are now craters and huge pitted holes in the town’s parks and high streets, and outside multiple apartment blocks.

Offices, shops, the main administration centre, the sanatorium and residential homes have all been left holed and gutted.

And the whole time we are in the town, there’s a constant rumble of war: grad rockets (Russian weapons) going out, grad rockets coming in.

The residents we meet are a mixture of those who appear completely inured to the booming thunder of missiles being launched and landing, and those who are understandably edgy.

There’s a dark, foreboding cloud hanging over Soledar, and it isn’t the weather. They can almost smell the Russian military advancing, and there are some very grim times ahead for them if this carries on the way it has for the last few days.

People are sheltering in a basement
People are sheltering in a basement

‘No mother’s heart can accept this’

Nila is bright and friendly when we meet – and almost certainly still in shock and grieving from the loss of her 28-year-old daughter Valentina, who was killed in shelling in Mariupol two months ago, when she was trying to cook food on a fire outside.

Nila hugs the photograph of her daughter as she shows it to us and kisses it.

“This is all we have left of her memory,” she says, then corrects herself. “No, her memory is in my heart and my mind. But my heart cannot accept it. No mother’s heart can accept this.”

She places flowers and her daughter’s favourite sweets in front of the photograph. She hasn’t even been able to bury Valentina. A friend buried her in a courtyard in Mariupol.

“We do this because we cannot visit her grave,” Nila tells us. She cries briefly, almost seeing it as a weakness. “We must be strong,” she says. “We live for my other daughter and our grandchild.” She is one of Ukraine’s strong, strong women.

Dimetri Yesypenko, an adviser to the local mayor, stands in the wreckage of Soledar's administrative building
Dimetri Yesypenko, an adviser to the local mayor, stands in the wreckage of Soledar’s administrative building

She takes us to her flat on the second floor. Outside – not more than five metres from the block – is an eight-foot crater where a bomb landed about 48 hours earlier.

“This is what is left of our flat,” she says, looking upwards at floors of blown out windows and broken frames on her block.

Her balcony is now “open plan”. No glass remains intact and half a wall is missing.

She, like a number of others, has relocated down to the basement and the exceedingly sturdy Soviet-built bunker below, in order to escape the increasingly ferocious attacks from the Russians they once viewed as “family”.

They certainly know how to build bunkers – perhaps in the knowledge of just how brutal and catastrophic a war can be.

The basement has lights and heat and provisions
The basement has lights and heat and provisions

The basement is curiously homely, with lights and heat and stacks of provisions. There’s a budgie and a very large dog, as well as mostly women and children and some elderly people who seem very quiet and subdued.

The liveliest person there is a 10-year-old girl called Diana, who is bubbly and friendly and excited to see us. She is still holding onto her dream of becoming a singer and entertains the adults there, and us, with her music.

She does a gorgeously infectious rendition of a TikTok tune she’s learnt, which is in Russian and seems to be about eating pasta.

It doesn’t matter. It makes the adults smile, and they surely need something to smile about. The irony of a Russian ditty bringing cheer is lost on this beautiful, innocent and remarkably happy little girl who charms us – as well as her fellow basement-dwellers.

The basement has a budgie and a dog along with mostly women and children
The basement has a budgie and a dog along with mostly women and children

‘I’m happy there’s no school’

“Obviously, I wish the war would end,” she says solemnly. “The explosions are scary …but it’s OK. I’m happy there’s no school,” and she flashes that engaging grin as her mother chides her from the sidelines.

There are three explosions above ground while we are down in the basement listening to Diana sing to us. We don’t hear them, and neither does she.

Let’s hope it stays that way, but the Russians are making advances into the Donbas. It is slow, but they are moving forward. They want to capture as much of the Donbas as they can, it seems, and one half – Luhansk – is already within sight.

It’s unlikely they are going to stop now – unless they are forced to.

Alex Crawford is working with cameraman Jake Britton and producers Chris Cunningham, Artem Lysak, Nick Davenport and Misha Cherniak.

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