Sleepy Ukrainian town finds itself on front line and under fire as Russian troops push advance in southeast

·7 min read
A village near the town of Orikhiv, just a few kilometres from the front lines of Russian fighting in Ukraine. As shelling continues, thousands have fled, and many farmers have stopped tending their fields because of the danger. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC - image credit)
A village near the town of Orikhiv, just a few kilometres from the front lines of Russian fighting in Ukraine. As shelling continues, thousands have fled, and many farmers have stopped tending their fields because of the danger. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC - image credit)

There is still, between bouts of artillery fire, a sleepy feel to the town of Orikhiv, nestled in among the wheat fields about 60 kilometres southeast of Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine.

The buildings — at least those that have avoided being shelled — wear peeling paint and a faded charm. A daily market still clings to life, catering to an ever-shrinking number of residents and nearby farmers.

There are fruit and vegetable stalls. There's someone selling fish and a few people offering butchered meat straight out of their car trunks.

Ivan Vasilovich, 72, sells his own handmade brooms, saying he offers them to soldiers for free — so they can sweep the Russians away.

He'll stay in Orikhiv, he insists, "until I'm dead."

Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC
Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC

But there are few young people at the market aside from Ukrainian soldiers buying bags of vegetables. The emptiness of the roads leading to Orikhiv point to a front line now almost on top of the town, with Russian troops less than five kilometres away.

Wedged between those troops and Ukrainian forces trying to push them back, Orikhiv can turn into a battleground in the few seconds it takes to register the sound of a missile whistling overhead, landing with an earth-shuddering crack a heartbeat later.

Jason Ho/CBC
Jason Ho/CBC

Life below rockets

"Oh, shit," said social worker Valentina Los, clasping a hand to her mouth when she heard the first missile in a barrage last week.

She was just setting out on her bicycle from the town's main administrative building to deliver food to vulnerable residents when it began. Some people can't leave for health reasons while others simply won't.

"That's all," she said optimistically before the familiar whistle sliced through the air again, signalling another rocket.

Jason Ho/CBC
Jason Ho/CBC

There are no air-raid sirens to warn residents and when missiles start to hit those caught on the street scatter in search of whatever cover they can find. Los wheeled her bike behind a tree at one point.

"It's dangerous here," she said, starting to count the rockets.

And so it goes.

WATCH | Civilians take cover as rockets hit:

Many farmers in the surrounding area are no longer tending to their crops because of the danger. Fields next to the town are pockmarked by shelling. Natalia Omelchak, who runs a general store in a nearby village, says she sleeps in her clothes.

"So that you are always ready," she said. "And you listen to where it will fall, and you don't know where to go."

Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC
Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC

More than half the town has fled

Some 70 per cent of the Zaporizhzhia oblast, or region, is now occupied by Russian troops according to Captain Andriy Bystryk, communications officer for the Zaporizhzhia Separate Territorial Defence Brigade.

"We know that [the Russian troops] will try to take away those parts of Zaporizhzhia and [neighbouring] Dnipropetrovsk regions that are still free," he said.

"The grouping of Russian occupation troops is very large south of Orikhiv."

His brigade is being asked to fight on two fronts now, he says, as Russian lines push north from the coast where they hold several cities, including the stricken Mariupol, and from the east in bordering Donbas region, where Moscow has set its sights and is pushing to gain territory beyond the separatist-held areas it controlled before the war.

If Orikhiv and other cities around it fall to the Russian push, there is more or less a clear shot to Zaporizhzhia city.

Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC
Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC

"Units of our brigade carry out heavy fights, but part in the Zaporizhzhia region and part in the [Donbas] region," Bystryk said.

Los and other social workers in Orikhiv insist they will not abandon the town or those still in it depending on their services. But others are leaving.

Orikhiv's population was somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 pre-invasion.

Local authorities say well over half have left.

CBC
CBC

A small crowd waits outside the administrative building to see loved ones off, the driver of a mini-bus headed for Zaporizhzhia calling out passengers names.

"Saying goodbye to your home is very difficult," said Natalya Ivanovna, 62, already seated on the bus by herself. Like many in the town, she'd already sent her children away for safety.

She's finally leaving, she says, because the shelling is nearly constant.

"Many houses have been destroyed," she said.

Ihor and his 12-year-old daughter, Anna, are also on board.

"What can I say?" said Ihor. "Like everyone else, we had a normal life until they started shooting. We lived normally, studied, worked, and now, there is no opportunity to study or work."

WATCH | Unease in Orikhiv as war draws closer:

Zaporizhzhia: 'another world' from fighting

Between 1,000 and 3,000 displaced people are arriving in Zaporizhzhia city every day depending on whether or not humanitarian corridors are open from occupied areas. The journey is fraught either way.

Bystrik says the military still struggles with what advice to offer people living in occupied areas, especially after the atrocities Russian troops are accused of in the towns they occupied around Kyiv before withdrawing in early April.

Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC
Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC

"It's all situational," he said. "Depending on where they are, who is going to drive. We know of cases when enemy vehicles, tanks, crush civilian cars. We know of cases where they just shoot oncoming cars. Just shoot cars that do not pose any danger."

Yulia Musatova, 38, made the decision to leave the occupied city of Tokmak with her young daughter over a week and a half ago.

"It wasn't possible to stay in our town," she said, watching her daughter Marina play in a special children's zone run by volunteers in Zaporizhzhia's main registration centre for the displaced.

Jason Ho/CBC
Jason Ho/CBC

"When you go out to the street [in Tokmak], you only see cars with 'Z' on them," she said, referring to Russian-marked vehicles. "You see soldiers with guns. There's no life in the city.

"The Russians said it was forbidden to enter the graveyards because they were mined. They said you can only use this one street."

Some of the tales echo the early reports of people who lived through the Russian occupation of the towns near Kyiv.

"We spent all of our time standing in line to buy food and the rest of the time trapped at home," said Musatova. "We heard that they were searching apartments and the tree-lined boulevards."

WATCH | Zaporizhzhia is a refuge but Russian threat draws closer:

The single mother has already found a job in Zaporizhzhia and says they'll stay as long as the fighting doesn't get any closer.

"People are walking freely on the streets here, and cars are driving around," she said. "We can't believe we've arrived in another world."

"There's no sense in running further," said Alyona Zinchenko, another of Ukraine's displaced who fled the town of Huliaipol a month ago. "If [Russian President Vladimir Putin] wants to come here, he will go anywhere in Ukraine."

Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC
Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC

The fate of the cities to the south weighs particularly heavily on those in Zaporizhzhia. Long lines of cars trying to leave are held for days on the edge of the city.

They're often people who've risked journeys north to stock up on supplies and medicine they can't get living on the Russian side of the front line and are anxious to get those supplies back to loved ones.

The Ukrainian military seems loath to let them return, perhaps for security reasons.

Bulletin boards in the refugee centres are crowded with pictures of people who've gone missing in Mariupol or elsewhere, and even requests for volunteers to try and get elderly parents out of the besieged city.

Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC
Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC

It's not clear how long Zaporizhzhia will manage to maintain that "other world" feeling Musatova referred to, as towns like Orikhiv come under pressure.

Capt. Brystik insists that Zaporizhzhia is well fortified, lines of trenches dug around it. But there is no doubt, he says, that this part of Ukraine is now under extreme pressure.

"So now it's a difficult situation," he said. "A hard situation. But I still believe that we will break this situation and return our territories."

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
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