"We put crosses for every day spent here alive," says Nadia Ryjkova, 76, in the darkness of an underground shelter in the village of Kutouzivka, in northeastern Ukraine, where about fifty people live. , mostly older women.
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The dean of the shelter points to a calendar marked with red crosses since February 24, the day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, then strokes her stretching cat “Mourtchik” (“Purrer”).
The beds are lined up in three large rooms. Electrical wires hang from the concrete ceiling, connecting a few dim light bulbs to car batteries tucked under chairs. A wood stove gives off a stifling heat, but as soon as you move away from it, a cold humidity takes over.
However, Marfa Khyjniak, 72, is satisfied with this Spartan comfort, after the countless shells fell on the village of 1,500 inhabitants on March 25, during the start of the Ukrainian counter-offensive.
“It was scary, I was so scared. There are no words. It was unbearable. I was in my bathroom sitting and praying. So I came to take refuge here. Even a small space, a chair would have sufficed,” she recalls.
“Today, some come back to the village, but why? Everything is destroyed”. The septuagenarian sheds a few tears and admits to suffering from “depression” and taking medication.
Deprived of a telephone connection, she has no news of her children and loved ones, but assures: “I live with the hope that they are alive. It's the only thing keeping me alive."
The Russians have ceased their offensive on Kharkiv, but they maintain positions to the east of the city, firing on its eastern part and the surrounding villages. Artillery exchanges continue, especially at night.
The school, the town hall and many houses have been devastated in recent days, but also during the Russian advance and during the Ukrainian counter-offensive.
"It's dangerous for sure. There are shots, shells, but we got used to it. We don't pay too much attention to it anymore,” says Vlad, 35, a tractor driver, delivering a tank of water to the inhabitants of the shelter, who rush to fill cans and bottles. "Before, they had to fetch water from the well."
Several hundred meters away, soldiers are resting in a house that has taken in a shell leaving a gaping hole in a wall.
Despite some sporadic cannon fire, the mood is relaxed with men and women lounging on chairs. They come back from the first line located about twenty kilometers away.
“It's hot on the front line. Very hot. We were there for seven days, I don't really remember for me it was like one long day, ”says Laska, military nurse, 36 years old.
A businesswoman preparing a scientific doctorate, she gave up everything to get involved. “I don't see what else I could do. Everyone must either be a volunteer or defend the country, ”she says with conviction, waiting to go back to the front.
"Training at the front"
"I'll be back for sure, as soon as the orders come in. Our guys are there, we can't leave them alone!” she adds courageously.
In the same court, the “Tchekist”, as he is nicknamed, deputy squadron leader, around fifty years old, is experienced in combat.
“I spent a lot of time in the war. It is my job. I defend my native land”, confides this soldier who had already faced the pro-Russian separatists in the East of the country since 2014, before the invasion of the forces of Moscow.
When “I am in combat, the images of my children scroll by and I know why I am fighting,” he adds while revealing that the Ukrainian army now calls on young, inexperienced soldiers.
“Many arrive and have never held a weapon. Before, we could train them, but now they have to train on the front. We lose a lot of people unfortunately,” he said, lighting a cigarette.
“We are going to win the war. It will be hard, but our morale is unbreakable. Unbreakable! Unbreakable!”, he repeats, adding “We will not bend!”