‘If we get out of here it will be a miracle:’ a family at war in the hell of Bakhmut

When the war in Ukraine began, Viktor Shulik, a 57-year-old headteacher from Popasna – a town in Luhansk, a 30-minute drive from Bakhmut – had been busy overseeing renovations to Popasna School No 1, for which they had won a grant from the state.

Popasna had been on the frontline since 2014 and was briefly occupied by Russian and Russia-backed forces. For eight years, the school looked out on to the frontline and was damaged by shelling twice. But Viktor, his wife Valentyna and three of their children who all also taught at the school, made a conscious decision to stay, in order to, in their words, keep the territory as part of Ukraine.

Viktor had met Valentyna at Luhansk city university where they were both studying history. It was the late 1980s, a time when Ukrainian history started to be discussed and studied more freely. Viktor was always nationally conscious because of his studies, said Valentyna. She said both of them put an emphasis on teaching Ukrainian history to their pupils. When Popasna was occupied in 2014, Viktor refused to remove the Ukrainian flag from the school.

“He was always initiating things,” said Anatolii Beraslavskyi, the school’s PE teacher. “He changed the school system, so we had seminars. He painted the school in bright colours so that the school wasn’t grey and strict.”

When the invasion started in February 2022, everyone was in a stupor, said Dasha, his daughter, who taught special needs. “The evacuation trains came, but no one got on them, no one really understood what was going on.”

By March 2, the family were living in the corridor of their flat on the eighth floor. The artillery was so heavy that there was no more than a five-minute break between the shells exploding, said Dasha. On the second day, Dasha begged Viktor to leave. “I said: ‘I don’t care if they kill me on the way, I just can’t take it any more’.” Dasha told her parents: “Look at that, you’ll be the first ones to be taken” – and pointed to the stacks of Ukrainian literature and history books they kept at home.

Viktor and his son Denys, who taught PE, went out to check the family’s car. It had been hit by shrapnel and was undriveable. But their second car, which was very old, had escaped unscathed. When they returned to the flat to deliver the bad news, a piece of shrapnel flew through their window on the eighth floor and they decided to take their chances. “By the time we got to the Bakhmut checkpoint, one of the tyres was flat.”

But Viktor and Denys didn’t just want to run – they wanted to fight. They were not the only ones in Popasna. At least 16 former pupils of Viktor’s school signed up and are currently serving in Ukraine’s army. At 57, however, Viktor – who had some military training but was too old to join the regular army – and Denys – who had no military experience – said they had wanted to stay together “as that way it would be less scary”. So on March 6, Valentyna walked Viktor and Denys to the military recruitment office for Ukraine’s territorial defence forces, a sort of home army, in Bakhmut. Six months later, Viktor would be dead.

‘They have come to destroy us’

In July, the Observer met Viktor and Denys on the edge of Bakhmut. They had walked three miles from their positions in the fields. As a history teacher by training and a head teacher for more than a decade, Viktor talked about the historical reasons for Russia’s invasion.

“War is not new to us but this is the war of wars,” he said, under the cover of trees, his arms bearing a T-shirt tan from his time serving outside. “People need to understand that they have come here to destroy us. It is a cycle of history.”

The Ukrainian territorial defence forces, which they had joined, consist of civilian volunteers – accountants, businessmen, teachers – with some to no military experience. They were originally used in their home regions for manning checkpoints and other stationary positions. But since June, when Ukraine made it legal for the territorial defence forces to take part in active fighting, they have been deployed to boost manpower along the frontlines.

The situation around Bakhmut deteriorated in the months that followed our July meeting. The battle for the city has been the longest and bloodiest in terms of military casualties since Russia began its full-scale invasion a year ago. As Russia failed to capture Ukraine’s northern territories, including the capital Kyiv, and was then pushed out of the Kharkiv region in the north-east and a chunk of Kherson region in the south, it began concentrating its forces on attaining some sort of victory in the Donbas region.

In its attempts to conquer the remainder of the area, it has pushed through mile by mile, flattening town after town with its superior artillery power and forcing the Ukrainians to retreat. Bakhmut should have been another one or two month-long battle, given it was not a frontline town before 2022, but Ukraine says it has been determined not to let Russian forces go any further, on to the towns further west such as Chasiv Yar, Kostiantynivka and Kramatorsk.

Without the ability to mount a counter-offensive for the town, thousands of Ukrainian soldiers are estimated to have died attempting to hold defensive positions in muddy trenches and stop the Russians from advancing any further. Western officials estimate Russia’s casualties to be 20-30,000. As Ukraine’s deputy minister of defence, Volodymyr Havrylov, told the Observer, though the west’s support has been crucial for Ukraine’s defence, “we are paying with our blood, with the lives of our people in this war – and that is, I think, the biggest contribution”.

Casualties mount

Viktor and Denys, under-equipped and not trained as regular soldiers, were sent further into the heart of the battle, along with other territorial defence units.

On October 6, Viktor and Denys were moved to a factory on the outskirts of Bakhmut, only a few hundred metres from Russian forces. They were told that their task was to hold it for three days until the replacements arrived.

When they were dropped off, it was 7pm and getting dark. They were told to search the factory and collect any bodies they found, which they did. Then they were told to collect the bodies beyond the factory’s limits, even closer to enemy lines. By this time, it was dark and they were using the moonlight to guide them. The Russians spotted them and opened fire with artillery. They abandoned the bodies – three Ukrainians and one Russian – and rushed back to take cover in the factory’s basement.

“But they kept saying to us that we need to ‘collect the guys, collect the guys’. We said we will collect them but in the morning, when it’s light,” said Denys. When back in the basement, he remembers Viktor saying, “if we get out of here, it will be a miracle”.

The next morning, the Russians started firing again. An artillery round hit the door of the basement, said Denys.

“A fire started, panic. At first, people tried to wet cloths to breathe through. They tried to find a way out of the basement,” he said. “My father was in the middle of the basement at that moment, and I was right on the edge.”

Denys went looking for his father and found him, covered by another man’s body. Viktor told Denys it felt like his legs were above his head.

“I pulled him to the entrance of the basement and then the ammunition started to detonate,” said Denys of the pile of shells and mortars left behind in the factory by the previous regular army unit. “All this time, the shelling hadn’t stopped.”

By this point, their entire group was either wounded or dead, said Denys, including his father. Territorial defence forces who were nearby, rushed over to administer first aid. The most heavily wounded were evacuated, and the rest, including Denys, were told to wait.

“We were spread around the position, then there was more incoming,” said Denys, who received the first of several injuries.

Having escaped the detonating explosives but leaving his father’s body behind, Denys said he experienced complete disillusion. Lying on the floor outside the factory, he briefly removed his bulletproof jacket and helmet.

“Then a drone started flying above us and that’s really bad because they can see us from the sky and correct their line of fire,” said Denys. “After some time, someone said that the drone wasn’t ours. They said to hide in the shrubbery so it can’t see you.”

But the drone had spotted them, said Denys, and new rounds of artillery were launched. Denys, and those who were left, scattered. He leapt from one groove in the field to another – the trenches and camouflaged positions had been destroyed.

Denys sustained another wound to his neck but luckily, there was no blood. The impact of the wounds prompted a feeling of euphoria and then his blood pressure and temperature increased. Almost 12 hours later, Denys and the remaining men were evacuated from the factory to hospital. Viktor’s body, the only one recovered, was collected two days later. The rest of the unit who died were declared missing in action, said Denys.

Viktor’s death

Denys rang his mother from the hospital the next day to tell her that he was injured and Viktor was dead.

“I said: ‘Stop Denys, don’t tell me that, tell me that’s not true’,” said Valentyna.

Viktor had texted Valentyna every morning from Bakhmut, something along the lines of “Good morning! Everything is OK,” she recalled. He would also call Valentyna, but for that, he had to leave the trench and risk being spotted by Russian forces. She would beg him not to. That morning, unusually, he had admitted the morning was not so “good”. Less than 15 minutes later, he would be dead.

“I still want to get my phone and tell him [about things],” says Valentyna. “I just want five minutes with him. He wasn’t just a person or the father of my children – we thought the same way.”

News of Viktor’s death prompted an outpouring of grief from current and former pupils, with some of the younger students sending Valentyna their pocket money of 50 hryvnia (just over £1). The donations were so random and numerous that the bank blocked his wife’s card.

Valentyna, who has gone back to teaching, but online as her pupils are dispersed around Ukraine and abroad, said she could not stop crying for two months before seeking help. After the funeral, she did not go to work for three days. Her older students understood but some of the youngest did not.

“One said: ‘Oh, we’ve missed you so much, you’ve been gone for three days. Why have you been gone so long? Did you not have electricity?’ I said ‘Yes, children, I didn’t have light. I didn’t have anything. I couldn’t talk to you’.”

Following the incident, Viktor and Denys’s unit of the Bakhmut territorial defence forces was swapped with the territorial defence forces of Poltava, a region in central-eastern Ukraine which had not seen any fighting. Within a day, 200 out of 500 of the Poltava unit were injured.

“They wrote to us: ‘Lads, give us some advice, anything, what to do, how to hide?’ We told them there was nothing they can do. We said: ‘There are trenches and if it falls in the trench there’s nothing you can do about it. Fate will decide’,” said Denys.

Denys has returned to the frontlines in the Donetsk region, without Viktor but with a heavy heart. Though volunteers, members of the territorial defence forces are legally obliged to fight until the war is declared over.

Asked how he felt about going back, Denys recalled another member of their group, who had died earlier than his father. Denys said he had always been surprised that the man had never acclimatised to being on the frontline and would jump down “even if the shell was 100 metres away”, he said. “Now I understand him.”