Braving Russian shelling, three women walked for hours on a recent morning from their front-line homes in the southern Ukrainian village of Kamianske to collect supplies from a humanitarian drop-off point in the village of Stepnohirsk, five miles away.
Svitlana, Lesya and Natasha live in the so-called gray zone, a buffer zone between the Ukrainian and Russian states of Zaporizhia in southern Ukraine. The front line has changed little since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, when Kyiv’s forces halted the Russian advance by blowing up a bridge in Kamianske.
Russian troops are south of the village, trading artillery fire day and night with Ukrainian troops to the north and east. Although most of the residents fled the small village after the invasion, the three women stayed, growing from their gardens and tending to their dogs, despite the near-constant danger of artillery bombardment, which left the village largely in ruins.
The front line has come under increasingly heavy shelling since January as Russian forces prepare to defend against a long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Lesya’s husband was killed in his garden when a Russian shell fell near him in April last year. Last spring Svitlana’s house was destroyed by shelling and she moved in next door. In April, he was injured in an explosion while distributing bread to villagers. The women’s names have been withheld for security reasons.
They had arrived in the nearby Stepnohirsk, where government emergency services were providing humanitarian aid, mainly to collect bags of dog food, which they balanced on their bicycles for the ride home.
“We’ve been walking since 5 o’clock in the morning,” said Lesya. “We had to hide from shelling several times.”
At home, they have converted their cellars into comfortable living spaces to shelter from shelling.
“We’re used to it,” said Natasha. “We are sitting in cellars, which already look like hotels. We are waiting for victory. We are praying. She began to cry as she spoke.
“I was born there, baptized there. I will die there,” Svitlana said about Kamianske.
Local firefighters are still entering the village, putting out fires from shelling, rescuing those injured in the explosions and bringing humanitarian supplies to the remaining residents.
“Only idiots are not afraid,” said Serhiy, 47, commander of the local fire station in Stepnohirsk. “But we’re still working.” He gave only his first name for security reasons.
All buildings in Kamiansk were destroyed by Russian shelling, he said. “There is nothing in Kamianske,” he said.
He showed a photo of a rose garden on his cell phone. “That’s how it was before the ‘Russian world’ came along,” he said, referring to President Vladimir V. Serhi swiped his cell phone and showed a photo of his yard, which was burning and covered in rubble.
At a small street market in Stepnohirsk, Alla Viktorivna was selling potatoes, onions, and tomatoes from her garden.
“Business is not good,” she said, explaining that there were only a few people left to sell in the village.
“I never thought about leaving,” she continued. “How can you leave your house, garden, cats, dogs? I have a big dog.
He said he usually hides in his basement when the shelling starts.
“But sometimes at night, you don’t have time, you roll under your sofa,” she said. “You hear it whistling.”