In defiance of Russian bombing, three women walked for several hours from their homes on the front line in the village of Kamianske in southern Ukraine one morning to collect supplies from a humanitarian drop-off point in the village of Stepnohersk, about five miles away.
Svetlana, Lesya, and Natasha live in the so-called gray zone, a buffer zone between the Ukrainian and Russian positions on the Zaporizhia front in southern Ukraine. The front lines have changed little since Russia launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, when Kiev forces halted the Russian advance by blowing up a bridge in Kamiansk.
Russian forces positioned south of the village traded artillery day and night with Ukrainian forces stationed to the north and east. Although most of the residents left the hamlet after the invasion, the three women remained, subsisting on the crops of their gardens and tending to their dogs despite the almost constant danger of artillery bombardment that left the village largely in ruins.
The front line area has come under increasingly heavy bombardment since January as Russian forces prepare to defend against the long-awaited Ukrainian counter-offensive.
Lesya’s husband was killed in his garden when a Russian shell landed nearby in April last year. Svetlana’s house was destroyed by bombing last spring and she moved into a neighbour’s house. It was also hit in an explosion in April when bread supplies were being distributed to villagers. The women’s last names have been withheld for security reasons.
They had come to Stepnohersk, the closest place to which the government’s emergency services are providing humanitarian aid, mainly to collect bags of dog food, which they balanced on their bikes for the ride home.
“We’ve been walking since five in the morning,” Lesya said. We had to take cover from the bombing several times.
At home, they converted their basements into comfortable living quarters to protect from bombing.
“We’re used to it,” said Natasha. “We are sitting in the basements, which are really like hotels. We are waiting for victory. We are praying.” She started crying as she spoke.
“I was born there, I was baptized there. I will die there,” Svetlana said of Kamiansky.
Local firefighters are among the few who still venture into the village to put out bombing fires, rescue those injured in the blasts, and get humanitarian supplies to the remaining residents.
“Only stupid people are not afraid,” said Serhiy, 47, the commander of a local fire station in Stepnohersk. “But we are still working.” He also gave his first name only for security reasons.
He said his home, along with almost every building in Kamiansk, had been destroyed by Russian bombing. “There is nothing left of Kamianske,” he said.
He showed a picture of his pink garden on his mobile phone. “So it was before the ‘Russian world’ arrived,” he said, referring to President Vladimir Putin’s vision of a unified Russian-speaking territory that would include Ukraine. Serhie swiped his cellphone to show a picture of his yard as it is now — burnt and covered in rubble.
At a small street market in Stepnohersk, Alla Viktorievna was selling potatoes, onions, and tomatoes from her garden.
“The business is not very good,” she said, explaining that there were only a few people left in the village to sell.
“I never thought of leaving,” she continued. “How do you leave your house, your garden, your cats, your dogs? I have a big dog.”
When the bombing started, she said she usually hid in her basement.
“But sometimes at night, you don’t have time, you just roll under your sofa,” she said. “You hear it whistling and smashing.”
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