Russians gone from village, fear and hardship remain
KALYNIVSKE, (AP) :
When night falls in Tatiana Trofimenko’s village in southern Ukraine, she pours sunflower oil that aid groups gave her into a jar and seals it with a wick-fitted lid. A flick of a match, and the make-do candle is lit.
“This is our electricity,” Trofimenko, 68, says.
It has been over 11 weeks since Ukrainian forces wrested back her village in Kherson province from Russian occupation. But liberation has not diminished the hardship for residents of Kalynivske, both those returning home and the ones who never left. In the peak of winter, the remote area not far from an active front line has no power or water. The sounds of war are never far.
Russian forces withdrew from the western side of the Dnieper River, which bisects the province, but remain in control of the eastern side. A near constant barrage of fire from only a few kilometres away, and the danger of leftover mines leaving many Ukrainians too scared to venture out, has rendered normalcy an elusive dream and cast a pall over their military’s strategic victory.
Still, residents have slowly trickled back to Kalynivske, preferring to live without basic services, dependent on humanitarian aid and under the constant threat of bombardment than as displaced people elsewhere in their country. Staying is an act of defiance against the relentless Russian attacks intended to make the area unliveable, they say.
“This territory is liberated. I feel it,” Trofimenko says. “Before, there were no people on the streets. They were empty. Some people evacuated, some people hid in their houses.”
PEOPLE WALKING AROUND
“When you go out on the street now, you see happy people walking around,” she says.
The Associated Press followed a United Nations humanitarian aid convoy into the village when blankets, solar lamps, jerry cans, bed linens and warm clothes were delivered to the local warehouse of a distribution centre.
Russian forces captured Kherson province in the early days of the war. The majority of the nearly 1,000 residents in Kalynivske remained in their homes throughout the occupation. Most were too fragile or ill to leave, others did not have the means to escape.
Gennadiy Shaposhnikov lies on the sofa in a dark room, plates piled up beside him.
The 83-year-old’s advanced cancer is so painful it is hard for him to speak. When a mortar destroyed the back of his house, neighbours rushed to his rescue and patched it up with tarps. They still come by every day, to make sure he is fed and taken care of.
“Visit again, soon,” is all he can muster to say to them.
Oleksandra Hryhoryna, 75, moved in with a neighbour when the missiles devastated her small house near the village centre. Her frail figure steps over the spent shells and shrapnel that cover her front yard. She struggles up the pile of bricks, what remains of the stairs, leading to her front door.
She came to the aid distribution centre pulling her bicycle and left with a bag full of tinned food, her main source of sustenance these days.
LACK OF ELECTRICITY
But it’s the lack of electricity that is the major problem, Hryhoryna explains. “We are using handmade candles with oil and survive that way,” she says.
The main road that leads to her home is littered with the remnants of the war, an eerie museum of what was and what everyone here hopes will never return. Destroyed Russian tanks rust away in the fields. Cylindrical anti-tank missiles gleam, embedded in grassy patches. Occasionally, there is the tail end of a cluster munition lodged into the earth.
Bright red signs emblazoned with a skull warn passers-by not to get too close.
The Russians left empty ammunition boxes, trenches and tarp-covered tents during their rapid retreat. A jacket and, some kilometres away, men’s underwear hangs on the bare branches. And with the Russians waging ongoing attacks to win back the lost ground in Kherson, it is sometimes hard for terrorised residents to feel as if the occupying forces ever left.
“I’m very afraid,” says Trofimenko. “Even sometimes I’m screaming. I’m very, very scared. And I’m worried about us getting shelled again and for (the fighting) to start again. This is the most terrible thing that exists.”
The shelling is constant.