Denys Kryvenko, a wounded soldier, in Lviv, Ukraine last month. (Sasha Maslov for The Washington Post)

LVIV, Ukraine — A Buddhist chef was sent to Bakhmut to cook for soldiers on the front line and ended up joining the men in the trenches instead, losing nearly all his hearing when a drone crashed into his chest.

A 24-year-old foundry worker turned soldier lost both of his legs and an arm when Russian shelling landed by his feet. A 28-year-old IT worker lasted less than two weeks defending the city before a rocket blasted off the lower part of his left leg.

They are among the soldiers who fought in Bakhmut — and are now living with the cost of the war’s bloodiest battle.

They arrived in the eastern city— some with limited training — and faced off against a ferocious army of Russian mercenaries and soldiers. They left with life-altering injuries.

And in recent weeks, they watched Russian forces declare victory and claim control of the ruined city — if only momentarily. In a new counteroffensive, Ukrainian troops are already pushing to take it back.

Ukraine does not publish running casualty numbers. But thousands were killed, and many more suffered permanent injuries, fighting for Bakhmut, even as analysts repeatedly said it held no strategic value. Over months, U.S. officials advised Ukraine to abandon the city. But Ukraine persisted in its defense, turning the city into a rallying cry: “Bakhmut holds!”

Five soldiers wounded in Bakhmut spoke to The Washington Post in rehabilitation clinics and hospitals in the western city of Lviv. They said the sacrifice was necessary.

Volodymyr Boyko, 32, a senior infantry soldier of the 10th brigade

Volodymyr Boykowas less than half a mile from the Russians on Aug. 10, when a blast near him sent shrapnel flying into both of his legs. A soldier next to him died instantly when a shell hit him in the head. Boyko, whose call sign is “Baby,” doesn’t remember exactly what caused the explosion. He just remembers his ankle dangling off the rest of his leg.

The lower part of his leg was amputated. He spent three months in bed recovering from shrapnel injuries in his backside. It would take more than nine months for him to begin to learn to walk again with a prosthetic leg.

He watched from afar as the battle intensified after he left.

“It was a meat grinder for both sides,” he said. “Frankly speaking, at some point we were fighting for what, ruins? There was no city left.”

The destruction of the city represents “a huge loss to Ukraine.” But he says the decision to hold Bakhmut was a tactical one.

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“I think it was important to keep them where we could stop them,” he said.

Ivan Garin, 47, senior soldier, 241st brigade

Before the war, Ivan Garin was known for helping open some of the first prominent Japanese restaurants in Ukraine. As a Buddhist, he lived by the belief that it was wrong to harm another person.

Then Russian troops invaded his country, and he was sent to Bakhmut as a chef, cooking borscht for soldiers. But as his unit lost more and more men his commanders asked if he could join the trenches. He agreed.

“I wasn’t trained enough for such battles,” said Garin, whose call sign was “Cook.” “There are some soldiers with an eagerness to fight. I’m not one of those. But I understood that I had to go, I had to fight.”

Russian corpses littered the trenches his unit captured; the smell so nauseating that he couldn’t eat for days. Then, on May 17, a drone barreled straight into his chest. His bulletproof vest saved him, but the blast knocked off his headphones. He lost consciousness for five minutes. When he woke up, he couldn’t hear.

Two weeks later, only 20 percent of his hearing had returned — and only in his right ear. During the day, he hears cicadas ringing; at night, all he hears is the buzz of the approaching drone.

When he thinks back on the battle for Bakhmut, he still chooses to believe it served a purpose.

“Our mission was to hold Russia … to give a chance to new brigades,” he said. “It had to have happened for some reason.”

Denys Kryvenko, 24, a senior infantry soldier of the 57th brigade

Denys Kryvenko, a freckled 24-year-old former foundry worker, knew what was waiting for him when he was transferred to Bakhmut. A friend had been on the city’s front line already. His main advice: “Start digging trenches immediately. Your life will depend on it.”

On Jan. 3, his unit was told to pull out of their position in a village nearby. As they retreated, a shell fell just in front of him. He looked down and saw that his hand was gone. He was missing one leg, and the other was badly mangled. Two soldiers helped search for his leg and arm, but Kryvenko shouted to them: “Just get me out of here!” The men carried him for more than a mile under Russian shelling.

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Doctors told his mother that there was a 50 percent chance he would not survive surgery. He now has prosthetics for his legs and arm.

He refuses to believe that the Russians are in control of Bakhmut. He’s still in touch with Ukrainian soldiers near the city and believes they continue fighting.

“The only thing I’m really sorry about is all the men we’ve lost,” he said.

Dmytro Ustymenko, who had worked in IT before the war, knew the battle for Bakhmut would be the fiercest in the war. The shelling was constantand the soldiers had no time for breaks. “You’re fighting and smoking at the same time,” he said.

Less than 12 hours after his platoon arrived at their position just north of Bakhmut, two of its men were killed.

At one point, when the Russians tried to capture a small village outside Bakhmut, Ustymenko found himself in gun battles with Russian mercenaries over control of a single house — fighting from across a bedroom.

When a new rotation of soldiers finally arrived, Ustymenko — whose call sign was “Fox” — was showing them their positions and moving to a bunker close by when a Russian rocket exploded just a foot away from his leg. After a grueling operation, he hopes to get fitted for a prosthetic leg.

While he knows it is unlikely, he hopes to rejoin his unit — perhaps to continue fighting for Bakhmut.

Bohdan Yatsyn, 47, platoon commander, 114th brigade

As a platoon commander, Bohdan Yatsyn knew his unit’s morale depended on him. To motivate his soldiers, he reminded them of their mission.

“While we have this very intense fight in Bakhmut,” he would tell them, “we are giving a chance to other forces to focus in other directions,” to train and prepare for the counter offensive.

On May 16, he was in the bunker of a nine-story building, preparing to evacuate his unit’s position in the city, when a blast caused the wall to crumble and a concrete block to fall on him. He broke his hip in six places. Doctors told him they could not operate; he would instead have to lie flat in bed for two months, hoping it would heal on its own.

Yatsyn, a former local official in his town near Kyiv, said he hopes to recover and return to his troops.

“Russians want to erase us,” he said. “So there is no other way than to fight back.”

Kamila Hrabchuk contributed to this report.


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