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Despite the war, a food stand remains open in Bakhmut

Despite the war, a food stand remains open in Bakhmut

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It takes just over a minute to microwave the mini-pizzas that Andriy Shved sells in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. In the same time, a high-explosive shell could land, shatter windows, maim customers or destroy his diner in a neighborhood increasingly bombarded by Russian artillery.

But despite the risks involved with every order, the oblong pie with cheese, meat and dill is a big seller among the Ukrainian soldiers and residents who make up the dwindling customer base. Mr Shved believes his food stand is the last one open in the battered city, a crucial battlefield in the nearly 10-month-old war.

“The shooting is from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. in the morning. Afternoons from 2pm to 4pm,” sighed Mr Shved, 41. “When it comes, it comes – there’s no room for worry.”

Ukraine’s fierce defense of the city has become a symbol of pride and solidarity for the nation, with “Hold Bakhmut” emerging as a rallying cry. On Wednesday evening, during a high-profile appearance before the US Congress, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy presented a Ukrainian flag signed by soldiers fighting in Bakhmut.

The day before, Mr. Zelensky visited the city and met with some of the soldiers. Mr Shved, who was in his shop, said he had not seen his country’s leader and that the president certainly “didn’t buy a belyashi from me”, referring to his dumplings.

Mr. Schwed goes to great lengths to keep the diner open, ignoring his wife’s scolding and hiding from his daughter, 7, where he works. refers to the strays who wander around his store looking for handbills.

Every day at around 8am, Mr Shved drives from the neighboring town of Chasiv Yar to Bakhmut, a roughly 25-minute drive that includes at least one Ukrainian military checkpoint. His routine and face have become so familiar to him that soldiers have largely stopped asking why he is going to one of Ukraine’s most heavily shelled cities.

His snack bar has no name. Because of its location, Mr Shved simply calls it the ‘bus stop’ or ‘stop’, which he has been running since early summer when the previous owners left town and gave him the keys.

Summer was a different time for the bus stop. Bakhmut was occasionally shelled, but nothing like it is now. Russian forces were busy besieging the towns of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, some 30 miles to the northeast.

In warm weather, Bakhmut was a logistic center for the Ukrainian military, and it still retained a large portion of its pre-war civilian population. The bus stop’s main competitor (a shawarma stand called Dzhoker) was still open, and the flow of customers to both snack establishments – especially around lunchtime – seemed endless.

“Look, everything has changed since the summer,” Mr Shved recalled in an interview outside his stand late last month. The bang of shells echoed in the distance, along with the chatter of gunfire. “Buses used to drive here,” he remarked.

Russian troops captured Sievierodonetsk in June and Lysychansk in July, then turned their attention to Bakhmut. In the months that followed, the city’s buses stopped running. Moscow’s troops were approaching. More and more shells landed in the city. Many people were evacuated, then more. Dschoker closed his doors and put a handwritten “Closed” sign in his window (in Russian).

But meanwhile the bus stop stayed open.

Bakhmut once had around 70,000 residents, but it is unclear how many remain today. On a visit there earlier this month, the open-air market in the city’s western reaches drew dozens of people, but elsewhere in the city, many residents were locked in their cold basements and apartments with broken windows.

People stayed in Bakhmut for many reasons: sick family members, nowhere to go, no money, pro-Russian feelings, love of home. But whatever the reason, they must eat, although it takes courage to venture.

“People are afraid. You’re afraid to come out. You can sit all day and about five people will come,” Mr Shved said, referring to the days of heavy shelling. The night before, a grenade had hit Dschoker’s parking lot and damaged parts of the building.

Ukrainian soldiers used to line up in droves. Now some emerge from their underground bunkers, quickly cross the street, place an order, and return to their shell-protected dwellings. He charges about a dollar for a pizza. It tastes quite good.

“A lot of them say, ‘Thank you for still staying here,'” Mr Shved said of the soldiers. “In fact, there’s no hot water or anything, and when they’ve done something all day, they come back hungry, and there’s no electricity, and not everyone has generators.”

So Mr. Shved starts his generator donated by volunteers, sets the timer on the microwave for one minute and 20 seconds, heats up a pizza and immediately turns the generator off.

“You can’t live long on cold food,” he said.

In fact, the food and weather in Bakhmut have only gotten colder as thousands of Ukrainian and Russian troops scramble to either defend or capture the city, with both sides suffering appalling casualties.

The bus stop is not a one-person operation. There’s Vasya, a wiry and disheveled 70-year-old who goes to work from the east side of Bakhmut, one of the city’s most dangerous areas, where Russian forces, mostly Wagner mercenaries, are attempting to breach the defenses.

Mr Shved inherited Vasya when the shop owners left. With so few customers, Vasya has little to do, but he still sticks to his routine: trudging through his shell-ridden neighborhood, across the largely destroyed bridge in central Bakhmut, and to the bus stop.

“Vasia does everything. Chop wood, wash dishes, keep order. I just generally keep things clean,” said Mr Shved affectionately. “He’s a superhero.”

Vasya smiled at the compliment before his mood turned somber.

“My soul just hurts. Everything is pounding inside. Frightened? Of course I’m scared! What misery at my old age,” he sighed, his voice shaking, before returning to chopping wood for the small fire he and his boss had built behind the store to warm themselves.

And the bus stop wouldn’t be a diner without a chef. Irina, who lives in the center of Bakhmut, comes regularly and prepares the dumplings, pizzas and pastries with the generator or the gas stove before returning home.

As Mr Shved was explaining how to keep the station running during the war, a man in a dirty tracksuit approached the window to buy dumplings and some pork chops.

“I came for Belyashi,” said the man, Sasha. He was not a frequent customer as he was being held on the east side of town due to artillery fire and air raids that destroyed two homes in his neighborhood.

As he scooped out dozens of coins to pay for his meal, Sasha explained why he refused to flee Bakhmut.

“My grandmother lives at the train station. She doesn’t want to go, and my mother won’t go anywhere because of my grandma. And I won’t go because of mom,” Sasha said. “What should we do? We survive.”

Mr Shved asked his customer if he would like him to turn on the generator to heat his food. He refused. Shells thundered in the distance, louder and closer this time. It was getting close to 2pm and it was time for Mr Shved to go home. He hadn’t expected that tomorrow would be any different.

“A normal day?” Mr. Schwed sighed. “Today is Groundhog Day.”

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