The skeleton of a charred and twisted car protrudes from the side of a dusty, desert road in the Zaporizhia region. It is an old car, with history, one of those that have traveled many kilometers, probably with many occupants. A few days ago, a Russian attack hit him as he was leading a family from the occupied southern Ukraine to the relative safety of the city of Zaporizhia. The shelling killed four of its occupants, according to Ukrainian authorities. And the car stayed there, like a warning, on the side of the dusty road surrounded by grass and earthy trenches, four kilometers from the front in the vast southeastern province where Russian troops have already occupied more than 70% of the territory. and they hold the line firmly while trying to eat up some more ground little by little. Village to village.
At the last outpost of the Ukrainian Army before reaching Kamianske, a small town in the middle of the battle, where the kyiv forces and Vladimir Putin’s soldiers are fighting street by street, Andrii and Mikola’s battalion prepares for the change of guard while the sun goes down. “It’s going to be a busy night. Like the previous one, and the previous one”, says another uniformed man, red-haired and bearded, shrugging his shoulders, finishing a cigarette in the middle of a labyrinthine trench, full of bends, small wooden parapets and holes to store dry provisions or mattresses and that already know like the back of your hand. He was assigned to the battalion on the first day of the war, February 24.
Russian troops advanced very quickly then, in a region that was not ready for a full-scale invasion. When Andrii and Sasha’s battalion and the rest of the Ukrainian forces managed to contain the advance —at a very high cost—, Russia had already taken the city of Kherson, on the Black Sea and the regional capital. It had also seized more than half of Zaporizhia province, including the strategic Enerhodar nuclear power plant and Berdyansk, a port town on the Sea of Azov.
Since March, the Kremlin Army has made little progress. On the road that connects the industrial city of Zaporizhia with the Enerhodar power plant and goes down to occupied Melitopol and the coast, the troops have stayed in the town of Kamianske, where artillery fire sounds like a hammer and where barely one soul remains. Given the complications in the offensive, Moscow had focused on crushing the resistance of the city of Mariupol, neighboring Berdyansk, on the Sea of Azov. A resistance that has been much stronger and longer than Moscow predicted and that has caused deep Russian losses.
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Now, after the fall of the Azovstal iron and steel plant in Mariupol and the surrender order of the Ukrainian fighters who had become strong there and maintained the last redoubt of Ukrainian control in the city devastated by Russian bombs in the enormous steel plant, intelligence Ukraine fears that part of the already unoccupied Kremlin troops will launch an offensive to try to enlarge the strip of occupied territory also in Zaporizhia.
Expanding to the north would allow Russia to enlarge the long-awaited land corridor with which it has managed to connect the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea — annexed in 2014 and illegally occupied ever since — with the areas controlled by Russia in Donbas. Although the Ukrainian Army, says Deputy Minister Irina Verschuk, is prepared to hold the line. “The appetite of the Russian invader has not decreased,” Vereschuk remarks in a short conversation in the parking lot of a shopping center in the city of Zaporizhia, which has become the reception point for displaced people from the occupied southern territories. Also of the hundreds of civilians who survived two months sheltered in Azovstal and who now fear that the Russian troops continue to gain ground. Moscow’s priority, however, analysts and intelligence services believe, is the Donbas region.
Four kilometers from the Russian positions, on the Kamianske front, Subcommander Sasha, who wears two pristine tourniquets pinned to the lapel of his uniform, explains that the Russian strategy has changed for a few weeks and has become “somewhat more sophisticated.” . Now, Kremlin troops rely on the use of observation drones to spot positions and then launch a wave of artillery strikes against army outposts and positions around the front line. The sun is going down and soon the most dangerous moment will come, he says. Dusk and dawn are particularly hot.
Russia maintains the line in Zaporizhia, where it has also settled, at some points, in defensive positions, says Governor Oleksandr Staruj. One of the scenarios, he points out, is that attacks in the city increase, which has become a safe zone for the thousands of displaced people from occupied and bomb-ravaged areas. “Zaporijia has been fighting and resisting for more than two months,” he says in an interview at the heavily guarded and sandbagged regional government headquarters. “This is Cossack land and the Cossacks never knelt before anyone. Only before God”, settles the governor, who denounces “terrorist behavior” of the Russian invaders.
Although the Kremlin denies it, it indiscriminately bombs towns and residential areas. The invisible line closest to the front is now lined with almost deserted villages inhabited by elderly people who do not want to leave despite the bombs, empty supermarkets, buildings with broken glass, streets pockmarked by shrapnel.
The Pivenkos’ apartment is almost as they left it in the city of Orijiv. The double bed is full of hangers, like when you pack quickly. The closet, semi open. Two medicine bottles, on the counter in the hall. And all the broken glass. The living room floor, full of rubble. A hole in the wall. The kitchen, covered in rubble. The retired couple – he a doctor, she a nurse – had already hurriedly left the small town, a crossroads in Zaporizhia province and wedged under attack and just three kilometers from the front Russian positions, when 10 days later, a bombardment reached his apartment building and his flat.
Volodymyr Gerashinko, a retired electrician who came to the city in the 1990s, was caught in the attack sitting at the living room table, eating a cold snack. If he had been in the kitchen, he says, he probably wouldn’t be up to tell the tale. Two people died in another portal. Gerashinko was left in charge of taking care of the Pivenko apartment and other neighbors who have also left. The Pivenkos will no longer return. The doctor died shortly after leaving his home “from the sadness and nerves of the war,” says Gerashinko. Galina, the nurse, no longer wants to return to Orijiv, to a city under constant attack, where she depends on the help of volunteers for food, where supermarkets are out of stock and ATMs do not work. A city, in the path of Russian troops if a new offensive begins or on the front line if the conflict stalls and Zaporizhia ends up becoming a contact zone between territory controlled by Ukraine and the part under Russian occupation.
Instead, 80-year-old Valentina Petrovna does not want to leave. She loves her house, particularly her living room, decorated with a red carpet hanging on the wall. “Where am I going to go”, she ponders. “In any case I’ll get my wheelbarrow, my things and I’ll go to the basement,” she says. Her husband, her two children and her grandson have passed away. She is “alone in life”, she says: “War or not, whoever buries me I will give everything”.
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