Frontline villages in Zaporizhia face the brutality of the Russian advance | International

Since the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, launched the invasion of Ukraine, the world of Mala Tokmachka’s neighbors has been divided into colors and pieces of land defined with military jargon. This village in the Zaporizhia region of southeastern Ukraine, planted along one of the roads leading south, is orange. It is the last locality with Ukrainian fixed positions in the area. The next settlement is already Gray zone, that is to say, the scene of battles between the kyiv Army and the Russian invaders, who are trying to conquer it by bombardment and artillery fire. The Kremlin forces maintain under military control almost 70% of this region, where they managed to advance in the first days of the war. From here, they are now trying to reach the city of Zaporizhia, the key to conquering this industrial area, after placing all the villages in their path under their command. And Mala Tokmachka is one of the next points on the road.

Tatiana confesses that she is terrified by the increasingly intense and continuous bombardments. She classifies and locates them on a mental map. A few days ago, an attack a couple of blocks from her house, where her bedridden husband rests, hit a two-story building. Another attack fell in a commercial area of ​​the town where there was no longer a soul after more than half of the village of just over 3,000 inhabitants fled after seeing other towns in the area fall into Russian hands. One more destroyed the roof of a neighboring farm a week ago. The traces of the war, already engraved in that mental scheme of the 63-year-old woman, are visible throughout the village, founded 239 years ago and which had just renovated the school that all the children in the area attended before the conflict. .

Tatiana Masluk (left) and Liutmila Skripnik stand next to a clinic destroyed by a Russian missile in Stepnohirsk, about 10 kilometers from Russian positions.
Tatiana Masluk (left) and Liutmila Skripnik stand next to a clinic destroyed by a Russian missile in Stepnohirsk, about 10 kilometers from Russian positions. Albert Garcia (THE COUNTRY)

Overcoming the initial outburst of shyness, Tatiana confesses that she needs new teeth. And medicines. If the bombardments allow it, the bread van frequently passes through Mala Tokmachka, with distribution of food aid, and a tanker truck with water. “And here almost all of us have a garden, so we can eat better or worse, but where to go to the pharmacy,” she says.

The Kremlin has set the next mark on its target to take control of the entire Donbas region, in the punished east of the country, and the south. And even connect the conquered terrain with the pro-Russian separatist region of Transnistria, in Moldova, where several attacks -which the Moldovan and Ukrainian authorities fear are a Russian maneuver to externalize the war- have increased these days even more the tension of a conflict that it could spread. After the failure of the Kremlin in its attack on kyiv, the Ukrainian government has warned that Moscow troops are now also preparing to launch an offensive on Zaporizhia, Dnipro and Krivoi Roi (the hometown of President Volodymyr Zelensky) from the flank south, where they have made the greatest progress in this war that has been going on for 63 days and continues to shake the world.

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Bombed shop in Mala Tokmachka, in the Zaporizhia region.
Bombed shop in Mala Tokmachka, in the Zaporizhia region.Albert Garcia (THE COUNTRY)

Russia already controls the entire coast of the Sea of ​​Azov and has devoured a C-shaped strip of land from east to south, beyond the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea – which it illegally annexed in 2014 – and dominates the city of Kherson , already in the Black Sea, and tries to advance towards Mikolaiv and reach Odessa.

The Ukrainian Army is now preparing more intense defenses in the green and fertile lands of Zaporizhia and around its roads, strewn with some modest and dilapidated vehicles full of belongings with families fleeing the occupied areas, or small buses – and even cars individuals—chartered by associations that organize evacuations, such as the Dnipro Volunteer Coordination Center, which reaches some particularly troublesome spots. However, despite the warning calls from the authorities, who fear that the small villages in the entire area will become devastated territory and their neighbors victims of atrocities such as those already infamous in Bucha or Mariupol, there is a good number of people who have decided to stay.

Water delivery truck to residents of Stepnohirsk, who have been without running water for weeks.
Water delivery truck to residents of Stepnohirsk, who have been without running water for weeks.Albert Garcia (THE COUNTRY)

The attacks are indiscriminate. In Stepnohirsk, about 10 kilometers from Russian positions, a shelling destroyed the small warehouse of the local doctor’s office, where there was a cistern with water and a generator, explains Mrs. Masluk, the janitor. She did not reach the office, where a woman with her daughter was miraculously ill, she says. Mrs. Masluk walks from one side to the other with two jugs of water next to her friend Liudmlia, who, dressed in a red fleece coat with multicolored drawings, has come out to receive the water delivery truck with great honors. They lost the supply at the beginning of the war and have not yet recovered it, they lament.

A house in Mala Tokmachka bombed by the Russian Army.
A house in Mala Tokmachka bombed by the Russian Army.Albert Garcia (THE COUNTRY)

“They are making it very difficult for us,” says electrician Anatoli Panski, who fixes his neighbor’s car in the midday heat. From time to time, there is the sound of an explosion, but Panski barely flinches. He is 32 years old, although his gray hair and lean body make him look much older. He lets out a sad laugh as he acknowledges that he has fear but also faith in the Ukrainian Army. “We will resist. We will win,” he says. He says that when it gets dark the noise is enormous. Because of the Russian attacks, but also because of the work of the Ukrainian anti-aircraft defenses. The whole area is sensitive, about 80 kilometers away is the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, in Energodar, occupied by Russian troops at the beginning of March, and a place of passage for Russian planes on their way to the city of Zaporizhia (740,000 inhabitants) , target of attacks and where a bomber killed one person on Tuesday.

At Nadezhda Babesheva’s house in Stepnohirsk, the calendar was frozen in 2020. The almanac with the photo of a very blonde girl praying hangs on the kitchen wall, full of crockery and where a bucket full of small, earthy potatoes rests. Bavesheva says that at 87 years old she has already lived a lot, but every night she remains paralyzed in bed trying to differentiate whether the explosions are coming in or going out. She no longer spends her nights in her house – the one where her daughter grew up and which her husband, who passed away five years ago, built in the 1980s; Not even in her bed. When Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, she went to live with a widowed neighbor a couple of blocks away. “We help each other and keep each other a lot of company,” she says. Still, leaning on a cane with one hand and a hoe with the other, he trembles each day to his farm to look around, tend the poppy-clad orchard, and feed his grumpy dog, which he loves. who doesn’t like strangers. “I pray to God every day, every hour for all this to end,” she sobs.

Nadezhda Babesheva, 87, does not want to leave her house.
Nadezhda Babesheva, 87, does not want to leave her house. Albert Garcia (THE COUNTRY)

Babesheva fears that Stepnohirsk will suffer the same fate as Vasilivka (12,000 inhabitants before the war), one of the neighboring towns, already occupied by Russian forces. Her daughter and her granddaughter lived there until a couple of months ago. They left their home when Putin’s soldiers took over the Energodar nuclear power plant and now live temporarily in the city of Zaporizhia, which has become a host center for internally displaced people from the entire southern flank: Melitopol, the port city of Mariupol, Berdyansk. “My daughter calls me every day to convince me to leave, but I don’t want to. I pray that they don’t come, but if they do, I’ll be here,” she says with conviction. “All I have is this. My husband is buried here. I will not leave”.

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