KALYNIVSKE, Ukraine (AP) — As night falls in Tatiana Trofimenko’s village in southern Ukraine, she pours sunflower oil given to her by charities into a jar and seals it with a wick lid. A match and the make-do candle is lit.
“This is our stream,” says Trofimenko, 68.
It has been over 11 weeks since Ukrainian troops retook their village of Kalynivske in Kherson province from Russian occupation. But the liberation hasn’t lessened the hardship for residents, both those returning home and those who never left. In midwinter, the remote area near an active front line has no electricity or water. The sounds of war are never far.
Russian forces retreated from the western side of the Dnieper, which bisects the province, but retain control of the eastern side. Almost constant fire from just a few kilometers away and the threat of mine debris leaving many Ukrainians too scared to venture out have turned normalcy into an elusive dream and eclipsed their military’s strategic victory.
Nonetheless, residents have slowly trickled back to Kalynivske, preferring to live without basic services, dependent on humanitarian aid and under the constant threat of bombing than elsewhere in their country as displaced persons. Staying is an act of resistance to the relentless Russian attacks designed to render the area uninhabitable, they say.
“This area is liberated. I feel it,” says Trofimenko. “There used to be no people on the streets. They were empty. Some people were evacuated, some hid in their homes.”
“Now when you go out on the street, you see happy people walking around,” she says.
The Associated Press followed a United Nations humanitarian aid convoy into the village on Saturday when blankets, solar lamps, jerry cans, bedding and warm clothing were delivered to a distribution center’s local warehouse.
Russian troops captured the Kherson province in the early days of the war. The majority of Kalynivske’s nearly 1,000 residents stayed in their homes throughout the occupation. Most were too infirm or ill to walk, others had no means of escape.
The story goes on
Gennadiy Shaposhnikov is lying on the sofa in a dark room, plates are piled up next to him.
The 83-year-old’s advanced cancer is so painful that it is difficult for him to speak. When a mortar blasted the back of his house, neighbors rushed to his rescue and patched it up with tarps. They still come by every day to make sure he is fed and cared for.
“Visit us again soon,” is all he can tell them.
Oleksandra Hryhoryna, 75, was moving in with a neighbor when the rockets hit her small house near the center of the village. Her frail frame steps over the spent shells and shrapnel that litter her front yard. She struggles up the pile of bricks, what is left of the stairs leading to her front door.
She came to the aid distribution center on her bike and left with a bag full of canned goods, her main source of food these days.
But the lack of electricity is the biggest problem, explains Hryhoryna. “We use handmade candles with oil and that’s how we survive,” she says.
The main street leading to her home is strewn with the remnants of the war, an eerie museum of what was and what everyone here hopes will never return. Destroyed Russian tanks rust in the fields. Cylindrical anti-tank missiles glow embedded in grassy areas. Occasionally the tail end of a cluster munition is buried in the ground.
Bright red signs with a skull and crossbones warn passers-by not to get too close.
The Russians quickly retreated, leaving empty ammunition boxes, trenches, and tarpaulin-covered tents in their wake. A jacket hangs from the bare branches and, a few kilometers away, men’s underwear. And as the Russians wage constant attacks to reclaim lost territory in Kherson, it’s sometimes hard for terrorized residents to feel as if the occupying forces ever left.
“I’m very scared,” says Trofimenko. “Sometimes I even scream. I’m very, very scared. And I’m worried that we’ll be shelled again and that (the fighting) will start again. It’s the scariest thing there is.”
The hardships endured in the village are reflected throughout Kherson, from the eponymous provincial capital to the villages separated by farmland that surrounds them. Ukrainian troops retook territory west of the Dnieper in November after a major counter-offensive led to a Russian troop withdrawal that was hailed as one of the greatest Ukrainian victories of the 11-month war.
The UN stepped up aid, providing cash and 150,000 food assistance to 133,000 people in Kherson. Many villagers in Kalynivske say that food aid is the only reason they have food.
“One of the biggest challenges is that the people who are there are the most vulnerable. It’s mostly older people, many with some type of disability, people who haven’t been able to leave the area and really depend on aid organizations and local authorities working around the clock,” says Saviano Abreu, a spokesman for the UN office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs.
The fire is constant.
The Defense Ministry of Ukraine reports almost daily incidents of shelling in the city of Kherson and surrounding villages, including rocket, artillery and mortar attacks. Most are closer to the river banks, closer to the front lines, but that doesn’t mean those farther away feel safer. On Friday, a rocket fell in the village of Kochubeivka north of Kalynivske, killing one person.
“Kherson has managed to resume most essential services, but the problem is that hostilities keep creating challenges to ensure they are sustained,” says Abreu. “It’s been getting worse since December. The number of attacks and hostilities there is only increasing.”
Without electricity, there is no way to pump piped drinking water. Many queue to fetch well water, but much is needed for daily chores, local residents complain.
To keep warm, many in the village look for firewood. That too is not without risk.
“We used to be able to easily get wood from the forest, but now there are mines everywhere,” says Oleksandr Zheihin, 47.
Everyone in Kalynivske knows the story of Nina Zvarech. The woman was looking for firewood in the forest and was killed when she stepped on a mine.
Her body lay there for over a month, her relatives were too afraid to find her.
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