It takes just over a minute to microwave the mini pizza that Andriy Shved sells in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. In that same amount of time, a high explosive shell could land, shattering windows, maiming customers or demolishing his snack stand in a neighborhood increasingly bombarded by Russian artillery.
But despite the risks that come with any order, the oblong cheese, meat and dill pie is a top seller among the Ukrainian soldiers and residents who make up the dwindling customer base. Mr. Shved thinks his food stall is the last one open in the battered city, a pivotal battleground in the nearly 10-month old war.
“In the morning, the shelling is from 8 until 9. Then, in the afternoon, it’s from 2 until 4,” sighed Mr. Shved, 41. “If it comes, then it comes — there won’t be a place 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 night, in a high-profile appearance before the U.S. Congress, President Volodymyr Zelensky presented House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with a Ukrainian flag signed by soldiers fighting in Bakhmut.
The day before, Mr. Zelensky visited the city, meeting with some of the soldiers. Mr. Shved, who was at his shop, said that he hadn’t seen his country’s leader and that the president certainly “didn’t buy belyashi from me,” referring to his dumplings.
Mr. Shved goes to great lengths to keep the snack bar open, ignoring the scolding from his wife and concealing where he works from his daughter, 7. “I can’t abandon the dogs and cats,” he said, straight-faced, referring to the strays that wander around his shop, looking for handouts.
Every day around 8 a.m., Mr. Shved drives from the neighboring town of Chasiv Yar to Bakhmut, a roughly 25-minute journey that involves passing through at least one Ukrainian military checkpoint. His routine and face have become familiar enough that the soldiers have ceased asking, for the most part, why he is driving into one of the most heavily shelled cities in Ukraine.
His snack bar has no name. Given its location, Mr. Shved refers to it simply as the “Bus Stop” or the “Stop,” which he has been running since the early summer, when the previous owners left the city and gave him the keys.
The summer was a different time for the Bus Stop. Bakhmut was under occasional shelling, but nothing like it is now. Russian forces were busy laying siege to the cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, some 30 miles to the northeast.
When the weather was warm, Bakhmut was a logistics hub for the Ukrainian military, and it still had a large portion of its prewar civilian population. The Bus Stop’s main competitor (a shawarma stand named Dzhoker) was still open, and the stream of customers for both snack institutions — especially around lunchtime — seemed unending.
“You see, everything changed since summer,” Mr. Shved recalled in an interview late last month outside his stand. The thump of shelling echoed in the distance along with the chatter of gunfire. “The buses used to drive here before,” he noted.
Russian troops captured Sievierodonetsk in June and Lysychansk in July, and then turned their sights on Bakhmut. In the months since, the city’s buses stopped running. Moscow’s forces got closer. Shells started landing in the city more frequently. Many people evacuated, then even more. Dzhoker closed its doors, posting a handwritten “Closed” sign in its window (in Russian).
But through it all, the Bus Stop remained open.
Bakhmut once had a population of around 70,000, but it’s unclear how many now remain. On a visit there this month, the open air market in the city’s western reaches drew dozens of people, but elsewhere in the city, many residents were confined to their cold basement shelters and window-shattered apartments.
People have stayed in Bakhmut for many reasons: sick family members, nowhere to go, no money, pro-Russian sentiments, the love of home. But whatever the reason, they have to eat, though venturing out to do so takes courage.
“People are frightened. They are 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 shell had landed in Dzhoker’s parking lot, damaging part of the building.
Ukrainian soldiers used to line up in droves. Now, some will pop out of their underground bunkers, walk quickly across the street, place an order and return to their shell-protected abodes. He charges about a dollar for one 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 is no hot water or anything, and if they have been doing something all day, they come back hungry, and there is no electricity, and not everyone has generators.”
So Mr. Shved starts his volunteer-donated generator, sets the time on the microwave for one minute and 20 seconds, heats up a pizza and turns the generator off immediately afterward.
“You can’t live long on cold food,” he said.
Indeed, the food and weather have only gotten colder in Bakhmut, as thousands of Ukrainian and Russian troops struggle to either defend or capture the city, with both sides suffering horrendous casualties.
The Bus Stop is not a one-person operation. There’s Vasya, a wiry and disheveled 70-year-old who walks to work from the eastern side of Bakhmut, one of the most dangerous areas of the city, where Russian forces, primarily Wagner mercenaries, are trying to breach the defenses.
Mr. Shved inherited Vasya when the shop’s owners left. With so few customers, there’s little for Vasya to do, but he still sticks to his routine: plodding through his shell-racked neighborhood, across the largely destroyed bridge in Bakhmut’s center and into the Bus Stop.
“Vasya does everything. Chopping wood, washing dishes, keeping things in order. Just generally keeping everything tidy,” Mr. Shved said fondly. “He’s a superhero.”
Vasya smiled at the compliment before his mood turned sullen.
“My soul just hurts. Everything is pounding inside. Scared? Of course I’m scared! Such misery in my old years,” he sighed, his voice shaking before he returned to splitting wood for the small fire he and his boss had kindled behind the store for warmth.
And the Bus Stop wouldn’t be much of a snack bar without a chef. Irina, who lives in central Bakhmut, comes routinely and prepares the dumplings, pizzas and pastries, using the generator or gas stove, before returning home.
As Mr. Shved explained the inner workings of keeping the Stop going during wartime, a man in a dirty tracksuit approached the window looking to buy dumplings and some pork chops.
“I’ve come for belyashi,” said the man, Sasha. He was not a frequent customer, having been pinned down on the eastern side of the city because of artillery fire and airstrikes that had destroyed two houses in his neighborhood.
As he shoveled out dozens of coins to pay for his meal, Sasha explained why he refused to flee Bakhmut.
“My grandma lives at the railway station. She doesn’t want to leave, and my mom won’t go anywhere because of my grandma. And I won’t leave because of mom,” Sasha said. “What shall we do? We’re surviving.”
Mr. Shved asked his customer if he wanted him to turn on the generator to heat his food. He declined. Shelling thundered in the distance, louder and closer this time. It was nearing 2 p.m. and time for Mr. Shved to go home. He didn’t expect tomorrow to be any different.
“A regular day?” sighed Mr. Shved. “It’s ‘Groundhog Day.’”