Rural rhythms disrupted by war on the road to the Ukrainian front lines

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Liudmyla Kulinich rides her bike under the barrels of an anti-aircraft gun parked near a local store on the road to the eastern Ukrainian town of Lysychansk on June 24.  (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)
Liudmyla Kulinich rides her bike under the barrels of an anti-aircraft gun parked near a local store on the road to the eastern Ukrainian town of Lysychansk on June 24. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)
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NEAR LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine – On the road to the Russian front – just a few miles from Ukraine’s desperate battle to slow the enemy’s advance – Liudmyla Kulinich rode her bicycle to the village store, past the a burnt-out delivery truck and under the barrels of an anti-aircraft gun parked near the gate while its crew stocked up on chips and soda.

“I hope they have bread,” she said, pulling a shopping bag out of her basket. She wore a pink sweater and nothing over her windblown gray hair, and stood a foot shorter than the soldiers in body armor and helmets surrounding her. Artillery blasted, an army ambulance sped past, and a woman on the way sprinkled dusty roses outside her front door.

This cratered road, the last road connecting the rest of Ukraine to the beleaguered stronghold of Lysychansk, is both a military lifeline, pumping soldiers and weapons into the fight, and a narrow country road, connecting a chain of rustic villages where hundreds of civilians still live amid the chaos.

For weeks, Russian forces have targeted this vital supply line with shells and missiles, leaving houses with tidy gardens side by side with others that have been destroyed. Farmers plod along in tractors and push wheelbarrows full of hay, while soldiers rush at high speed to avoid Russian targets. The road is lined with wreckage of vehicles that have collided.

Most residents have left. Those who remain – sleeping in basements, cooking over open fires – seek normal routines amid the chaos of war. The crane market opens almost every day, even without electricity. At least one priest holds up to five masses each Sunday, donning a bulletproof vest and conducting the sacrament from church to church.

These holdouts know they are squarely in the way of Russia’s relentless drive to seize control of the entire eastern Donbass region. Three villages within 20 miles of here fell to the Russians late last week, and a key bridge was destroyed. On Friday, Serhiy Haidai, head of the Lugansk region’s military administration, said Ukrainian forces were withdrawing completely from Severodonetsk, leaving its twin city of Lysychansk and military forces roaring on this road as the last line of defense of those hamlets.

“This is my home, this is my land, this is my country,” said Yurii Polchanov, 71, who was milking his cow, Fiona, in a field outside the village of Verkhnokamianske. He and his wife, Lida, 68, cycle here twice a day to fill a bucket. Several cows abandoned by fleeing residents grazed nearby as a bombed oil refinery billowed smoke on the horizon.

Later, at his roadside farmhouse, Polchanov stood in the shade as a self-propelled artillery unit rumbled on. The group of chickens behind him jumped and flapped their wings when a nearby Ukrainian artillery battery fired a strong barrage towards the east.

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A year ago, this stretch of road was almost deserted, he said. Now the road is constantly filled with green vehicles speeding up and kicking up dust. “It’s hard to breathe when a convoy passes,” he said.

Polchanov said he learned to live with traffic and cluster bombs, which blew out several windows and left what he thinks was an unexploded canister in the grass near his driveway.

“War is war,” he said. “No one can escape the destiny that God has written.”

Letters written, tanks in position as battle of Lysychansk looms

Just down the road, a large pig farm looked peaceful in the sun, except for a jagged hole blown through the concrete wall by a rocket. Inside, there is no evidence that humans have fed or watered the animals since the explosion in mid-June. Dozens of pigs swarmed in the yard and more than a hundred more were herded into dark sheds. Many were dead, their bodies partially eaten by others.

In the nearby village of Zvanivka, an elderly woman sat on a bench next to the Church of the Transfiguration of Jesus, crying.

“It’s all gone! ” she says. “I have nothing. I wish they all died, that Russian plague!

Valentina Osychenko, 75, had fled Lysychansk the day before as the artillery shelling became unbearable. A Ukrainian commander, leader of a unit camped in her garden, insisted it was time to go and drove her to this church.

She brightened up when she spoke of ‘my soldiers’, the dozen fighters who built a shower in her yard and slept in her spare rooms – she cooked for them and they cooked for her and they all ate together around his dining table.

“It was like having 14 new children,” she said.

Later, as the sun set over the rolling fields and the pace of artillery fire slowed with dusk, despair returned and his appetite waned.

“They gave me enough for three people,” she complained to the priest, holding a bowl full of potatoes and meat.

“Just eat as much as you can,” he said softly. “You need food.”

“Do you have any salt? she asked after a pause.

“She is very old for that,” the priest, Marko Fedak, said after leaving.

She was unconscious when the soldiers pushed her inside, overtaken by the race along the sunken road. More than once, Fedak, 33, has taken villagers to army medical posts for blood pressure medication or painkillers.

Most of those still in the villages are elderly people, who may have nowhere to go or no desire to uproot themselves from lifelong homes. Fedak knows of only three families with children in his parish.

Not far from the church, a mother, Svitlanna, held a toddler on her arm and watched her school-aged daughter run along the road while she talked to two elderly neighbors. She wanted to give her surname or explain why her family had stayed in the village.

“Everyone left; only us grandmothers stayed here,” said one of the neighbours, Maria Schevtsova, in tears as she looked towards Lysychansk, where her son remains with no way to contact her.

A bloody retreat as a Ukrainian unit is hit by Russian cluster bombs

The next morning, Fedak rose early to drive Osychenko for six hours to Dnipro and safety. But first, as he does most of the time, he got into his Volkswagen to watch over the few parishioners left in the village, distributing the food and water that the volunteers bring to the church. Normally, about 1,300 people live in Zvanivka. Now there are only a dozen left.

“God bless you,” the priest called over a garden gate. In an instant, a shirtless man and a woman in a red checkered dress opened the latch.

“I brought you something for your tea,” Fedak said, handing her a bag of Italian cookies. “How are you?”

Anya Fokin shrugged with a smile. “We have to live, but today I feel a bit depressed.”

For two days, her electricity had suddenly returned, allowing her to cook on her stove. But now that it was off again, she had gone back to heating a coffee pot over the embers of a brick grill. Overhead, a Ukrainian rocket streaked east.

The couple – he was a cement truck driver before the war, she worked for the army – are the last civilians on their street. They tend to their flowers and a vegetable garden full of corn, eggplant, tomatoes and potatoes. She had just put together 14 jars of cabbage and 50 jars of cooked chicken, all canned so they wouldn’t spoil.

Things got better when a unit of soldiers moved into a house down the block. They brought coffee and meat and helped the couple connect a borrowed generator to the well so they could pump water for their garden. Fokin made them pizza and okroshka – cold chicken soup. With a 100-pound sack of flour and five liters of cooking oil that the soldiers brought her, she frys four dozen donuts for them every morning.

“She’s like my mother,” said one of the soldiers, David Zatuashili. “It’s good to be with people who speak Ukrainian here.”

At the Crane store, where Kulinich stopped to buy bread, the woman behind the counter explained that there was none that day because the bakery truck never arrived. So Kulinich rolled his bike past the anti-aircraft gun and continued pedaling down the road.

Heidi Levine contributed to this report.

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