(Chassiv Iar) A small group of civilians emerges from an armored vehicle, some belongings in hand, a dog and a cat. After months under bombs in Bakhmout, they finally decided to leave the epicenter of the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Arriving in Chassiv Iar, a Ukrainian city also shelled by Russian forces, Lioubov cries as he hugs Margot, his chihuahua.

“We should have left sooner,” she repeats, “we thought this couldn’t happen.”

Since last summer, the Russian forces have been trying to take this city of 70,000 pre-war inhabitants, and where a few thousand people would have remained despite street fighting, constant shelling and efforts, at the cost of very heavy losses, of the Russian army and the paramilitary group Wagner to conquer the city.

Now the Russians say they have reached the city center, and Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigojine claimed to control the town hall and therefore the city “in the legal sense” of the term, a claim rejected by Kyiv and not confirmed by Moscow.

Lyubov says he doesn’t know how many civilians remain in Bakhmout: “We were in a cellar, we didn’t see anyone.”

The unit of Ukrainian soldiers that evacuated the group covered the 17 kilometers that separated them from Chassiv Iar in half an hour.

Lyubov now hopes to be able to settle, “the sooner the better”, in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, in the northeast of the country, a few kilometers from the Russian border.

She and her companions will first have to spend the night in a reception center for displaced people in Kostiantynivka, 20 kilometers away, a soldier said.

Because Chassiv Iar is far from being a haven of peace. Shortly after the departure of these refugees, a shell whistled over the heads of AFP journalists in this city where Ukrainian tanks and armored vehicles are circulating in large numbers to and from the front.

In Bakhmout, “it’s war, it’s shooting”, comments, while smoking his cigarette, a soldier who participated in the evacuation of civilians, two families and a single woman.

According to the soldier, who requested anonymity, it is difficult to estimate how many inhabitants live holed up in the cellars, advancing the number from 1,000 to 5,000. And the soldiers are not actively looking for them, some “come out and say that ‘they want to leave’.

Another soldier, his face splattered with mud, said it was the second time in a week his unit had taken out civilians. According to him, those who remained “hoped that everything would be fine”.

“But it’s a battle for each building, the chances of their home remaining intact are very low,” he said.

Despite the fighting, access to the city for the Ukrainian military remains “easy”, he further said, brushing aside the claim of the head of Wagner the day before.

“Hanging a flag doesn’t mean they’ve taken the city,” he said, “the situation is under control.”

“In our sector, the enemy tried to go on the offensive, but they suffered casualties. About thirty died and that’s it. In our sector, they don’t try anything anymore,” says the soldier, before acknowledging that elsewhere “the situation can be complicated”.

But even if Bakhmout were to fall, “we will take it back”, insists the soldier, citing the example of Kherson, a large southern city reconquered in November.