Russian troops have left this Ukrainian village, but fear remains
Liberation has not diminished the hardship for Kalynivske residents, both those returning and the ones who never left.
When night falls in Tatiana Trofimenko’s village in southern Ukraine, she pours sunflower oil that aid groups gave her into a jar and seals it with a wick-fitted lid. A flick of a match, and the make-do candle is lit.
“This is our electricity,” Trofimenko, 68, says.
It has been more than 11 weeks since Ukrainian forces wrested back control of her village in Kherson province from Russia. But the war in Kalynivske remain ever present. In the peak of winter, the remote area not far from an active front line has no power or water. The sounds of war are never far.
Russian forces withdrew from the western side of the Dnipro River, which bisects the province, but they remain in control of the eastern side. A near constant barrage of fire from only a few kilometres away and the danger of leftover mines have left many Ukrainians too scared to venture out. The fear has cast a pall over their military’s strategic victory.
Still, residents have slowly trickled back to Kalynivske, preferring to live without basic services, be dependent on humanitarian aid and under the constant threat of bombardment than as displaced people elsewhere in their country. Staying is an act of defiance against the relentless Russian attacks intended to make the area unlivable, they say.
“This territory is liberated. I feel it,” Trofimenko says. “Before, there were no people on the streets. They were empty. Some people evacuated. Some people hid in their houses.”
“When you go out on the street now, you see happy people walking around,” she says.
Russian forces captured Kherson province in the early days of the war. The majority of the nearly 1,000 residents in Kalynivske remained in their homes throughout the occupation. Most were too ill or elderly to leave. Others did not have the means to escape.
The Russians left behind empty ammunition boxes, trenches and tarp-covered tents during their rapid retreat. A jacket and men’s underwear hangs on bare branches.
And with the Russians waging attacks to win back the lost ground in Kherson, it is sometimes hard for residents to feel as if the occupying forces ever left.
“I’m very afraid,” Trofimenko says. “Even sometimes I’m screaming. I’m very, very scared. And I’m worried about us getting shelled again and for [the fighting] to start again. This is the most terrible thing that exists.”
The deprivation suffered in the village is mirrored all over Kherson, from the provincial capital of the same name to the constellation of villages divided by tracts of farmland that surround them.
Ukrainian troops reclaimed the territory west of the Dnipro River in November in a counteroffensive. It was called one of the greatest Ukrainian victories of the war, which is now in its 12th month.