The overnight train is packed as everyone clambers on. I’m heading to the industrial city of Zaporizhia, one of the main staging posts for Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Russia. Zaporizhia is a mere 50 kms from the front line, as a hub for soldiers and equipment. In recent weeks, the British media have kept mentioning “compassion fatigue” amongst Ukraine’s allies. A crucial turning point has arrived this October, where western nations must decide whether to continue backing a Ukrainian victory or retreat into domestic policy.
The train stops at countless stations through the night, with a female voice announcing our arrival. It seems that cities are gendered female in this male-dominated war.
At 7.30 am, the train pulls into Zaporizhia. Oleksiy Stoyanovsky, my translator for this trip, picks me up and drives along the wide straight Sobornyi Avenue. Oleksiy has been “at war” over the past years on his own front line, against Russian-propagated corruption within Ukraine. As National Coordinator for the Union of Baltic Cities, he’s passionate about forging new relations with Europe. He takes me to the Intourist Hotel to check in. Many of the windows are still covered in chipboard from a previous bombing.
We follow mauve and green roads into the countryside past flat dry fields and grain stores. Clouds of dust fly from a harvester in a corn field. In the roadside margins, a smattering of sunflowers are growing, coaxed out by the autumn sun. The sight seems too peaceful to belong to a war-blighted nation, but I’m about to be disabused of that notion.
We arrive at a water distribution centre in Myrove village in the Nikopol district. It’s thronging with locals signing in to receive their bottled water. We meet Irina, who says that after Russia destroyed Kakhovka Dam in June, the whole region lost its water supply. One eighty-year-old villager, Lidia, is standing by her wheelbarrow, waiting for technical water for her chickens and garden. The last time Lidia was here, she had to wait so long that she fainted.
Volodymyr, a local community leader, explains that there’s a lack of government funding to irrigate this farming region because it’s in the “red” war zone. Charities are also too afraid to enter. Volodymyr shows me “gifts from Russia”, remnants of missiles which have hit local villages. One twisted metallic lump “combed the hair” of a villager who was lucky to survive.
We don’t tarry long as we’re within artillery range of the Russians
We follow Volodymyr to a school in Vyvodove that was partially destroyed by a Russian missile. The steps leading up to the former front doors have been obliterated. Julia, the head of community education, tells us there are no funds available to rebuild the school even though petitions have been signed. A common Ukrainian saying is “no school, no village”. Local schooling is currently online, but Julia is anxious to restore the building for when the war recedes. If not, children will have to travel to Zaporizhia, an impossible feat in winter due to the ravined roads.
“Please help us,” Julia says in English. As we chat outside, she reveals that her son, her only child, died last November on the front line in Vuhledar.
“I couldn’t stop him and his cousin from going,” she says, loss etched in her eyes. “He had only just graduated. My dream was to travel with him as soon as the war was over. I wanted to take him with me to the UK and Ireland.”
Leaving Vyvodove, Oleksiy’s car slaloms through the potholes. The trees are crisped brown by the drought. There are parched trenches in the earth where a new water pipe is being built, although it won’t be completed for months.
Suddenly we see the expanse of swampland where the Dnieper has dried into narrow streams. Ukrainians used to call it the Kakhovka Sea before the Russians destroyed the dam. From here, it’s possible to see the nuclear power station occupied by Russia on the opposite side of the bank in Enerhodar. In the distance, it looks like a series of hazy blue hills. We don’t tarry long as we’re within artillery range of the Russians.
A couple of miles down the road, a signpost is concealed in pale material, a vestige of the early days of the invasion. The village is called Vyschetarasivka. It seems idyllic on the surface, full of rural houses with apple and pear trees, but every night for the past fortnight it has been attacked by artillery. Some villagers live here by day, tending their gardens, but sleep in their cars under a treeline outside the village.
Soon we see rooftop damage. One house acts as a donor house to provide materials for the others. The community leader, Oleksandr, laments, “We are like lepers. Most workmen refuse to come as it’s too dangerous.” The Ukrainian army used to be stationed in Vyschetarasivka, but they left as some villagers claimed that the army was actually attracting Russian attacks. Oleksandr, however, contends that the absence of soldiers makes no difference as the Russians continue firing regardless.
We continue our road trip to Vilniansk, a small city north east of Zaporizhia. A radio presenter, Olga Vakalo, jumps in on the way as she’s finished recording for the day with Radio On Touch.
The mayor of Vilniansk, Natalie, and the hospital manager, Oleg, show us the destroyed maternity unit of the local hospital. On 23 November, the Russians struck just after midnight. A mother was sleeping next to her two-day-old son when the explosion lifted them out of bed. The dead baby was later uncovered from the rubble along with a doctor, who was badly burnt and frozen but alive. Oleg has been a surgeon in this hospital for fifty years. He says that what happened that night was a terrible wound upon the city, but the rescue mission helped unite the community. As with the Vyvodove school, there is no funding for the rebuild, but Oleg is “determined to see it restored in the next year or two”.
It’s dark by the time we return to Zaporizhia, a cool autumn bite in the air.
“Have a boring night,” Olga wishes me as I’m dropped off at my hotel.
The building itself looms silently, its balconies shorn off
The following day, Olga’s colleague Olena points out an apartment building that was hit instead of the intended target of the TV tower. The tragic repercussions of Russian inaccuracy are a common theme in Zaporizhia. We stop at a shrine of teddy bears and toys at the foot of a tree. The teddies are muddy and dishevelled, but nobody dares remove them because of the children who died. The surrounding grass is littered with vodka bottles and stray tomato plants. Olena recalls the night of 9 October 2022 when she heard the explosion. She ran down to the bomb site and saw people’s belongings scattered far and wide through the rubble. The building itself looms silently, a huge hulk of emptiness, its balconies shorn off and ghostly lace curtains floating in and out at the open windows. Insulation protrudes through the temporary roof like animal fur.
Olena has experienced her own personal loss. Her son’s best friend died at the age of twenty whilst serving in the army. She shows photos of him and relates how his father was sent home from the military as he couldn’t bear the pain.
“I’d like to ask Russian women this,” says Olena with deep feeling. “How can you let your men become murderers of innocent children? Don’t you care? We had dreams for life but it’s all ruined now. It’s just survival now. I was in total shock that the Russian … ” She takes a long pause before going on. “… people, if I can call them people, would invade us. War has left its footprint on everyone’s soul.”
To ease the mental pressures of war, she’s learnt to enjoy the simple things of life, like the sun through the window. She has joined a Facebook group, “Beautiful Zaporizhia”, and takes photos of nature so that her soul is “not deadened”.
That afternoon, a convoy of ambulances races through the city. It’s two soldiers per ambulance, meaning eight casualties from the Zaporizhian front line. A soldier, Alex, tells me that he has no choice other than continuing to fight. If Russians invade Zaporizhia city, they will kill him. In the news, Biden has promised that the US “will not walk away” from Ukraine in spite of the promised $6bn military aid that’s been cut from the last-minute congressional budget deal. Here, close to where the conflict rages, the need for aid feels acute.
Later, we visit the imposing hydro-electric dam. It was targeted by Russia early in the war, and its windows are boarded. It is eerily dark at night; we’re the only people traversing it. We stop at one point to chat whereupon two patrolling soldiers command us to keep moving.
Overnight, explosions reverberate through the city, five in all, each one alarmingly closer than the last. When I meet Olga the next morning, she says with a grin, “So, it wasn’t a boring night after all, was it?” A factory was apparently targeted by Russian missiles, but no details have been released. The problem with the information vacuum is that people resort to mil-blog channels, which leads to misinformation.
I ask Anna Chupryna, a Zaporizhian journalist with MIG, when she thinks the war will end. She looks down somewhat dispiritedly. “We don’t make plans any more,” she discloses. “We make hopes. We are thankful for our defenders and pray for our partners. We are no longer naïve and depend on people outside Ukraine.”
Anna says that few journalists have made the trip to Zaporizhia. The UK hears regularly of Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson, but Zaporizhia is the forgotten city. On boarding the intercity train back to Kyiv, I think about what needs to be done. Firstly, the West and the Kyiv government should expedite funding to rebuild vital infrastructure in Zaporizhia and its surroundings. Secondly and more importantly, the West should support Ukraine’s next military push. No one wants Putin’s “forever war” within Europe, so we must urgently provide the weapons to enable Ukraine to regain more of its own territory in the south east. It’s vital to free regions like Zaporizhia and Nikopol from bombardment. Only then can we talk about peace.
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