On the route traveling east and north from villages on the Gulf of the Dnieper to the battered but never-occupied city of Nikopol, the width of the river ranges from several miles to fewer than 1,000 feet, putting the Russians close enough to strike with mortars and shells or sniper fire. They hit some villages dozens of times a day. Ukrainian forces are firing back.
Before the war, the journey would have amounted to about 150 miles — and taken a few hours to drive. But with damaged roads and bridges over the river’s inlets, the journey through former Russian occupied territory has become difficult. Roads are still littered with abandoned Russian checkpoints and military equipment. Russian trenches and firing positions are dug into farmers’ fields. Signs warn of mines. At village entrances, Ukrainian troops warn the chances of being shelled are high.
Washington Post journalists spent several days traveling along the Ukrainian-controlled main and back roads that connect these towns and villages to see how civilians are surviving winter, frequently without gas or electricity. Often only the elderly are left, surviving without heat on food handouts. Residents fear they could be killed at any moment, and still whisper of collaborators living among them.
Many of the villages here withstood months of Russian occupation, and are in territory President Vladimir Putin claims, illegally, to have annexed. The Kremlin now insists they must be “liberated” — signaling Moscow’s resolve to return, possibly in new offensives this spring.
The damaged road into this recently liberated village is a harbinger for what lies beyond. Burned-out cars and carcasses of a cow and dog are scattered on the side of the road. Soldiers shouted frantically to stay on hard ground — the marsh below still hasn’t been demined.
Before the war, 2,123 people lived in this peaceful enclave on the Gulf of the Dnieper. But fighting grew so fierce here that by last spring, only 16 residents remained. Russian forces controlling the town evacuated most others to villages deeper inside Russian-occupied territory.
Once Ukraine retook the village late last year, civilians started to return and assess the damage. But most found there’s little left. More than two months after liberation, only 150 people now live in the wreckage.
“If there was a hell, it was here,” said village leader Natalya Kamenetska, 36. Some residents were executed. Four are still missing. Exhumations are still underway, but the village remains so heavily mined that the process is slow.
Residents who need repairs to their homes must visit Kamenetska’s office at the village council to fill out questionnaires and register for aid. Many are impatient.
In a damaged kindergarten nearby, Yaroslava Kusherenko, 81, was trying to drag a large, dirty rug out of a brightly painted classroom. Kusherenko spent seven months in the nearby village of Bilozerka after Russian forces moved her there during heavy fighting. “I spent the first three months crying,” she said.
When she returned home after liberation, all that remained of her house was her kitchen. Her cows had been slaughtered and she and her son now live off humanitarian aid. Her stove still works, which has saved them from freezing. But she needed the carpet, she said, to warm up her makeshift bed.
She worried she would be punished for taking it, even though it wasn’t being used. But she was so cold, she said, she did not know what else to do.
“We had such a beautiful village. People were so happy. There was so much green. And see what has happened to it now,” she said, gesturing to the bombed-out kindergarten behind her. “In one second, I lost everything. Who will return it to me?”
In the three months since Ukrainian forces liberated Tiahynka, Helena Horobets, 72, has prepared carefully for the possibility that daily Russian shelling from across the river might destroy her home.
She and her son wrapped their valuables in plastic — including the dress she wants to wear to her own funeral, should she be killed — and moved themselves and their belongings to their cramped basement where they now spend most…
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