Braving Russian shelling, three women walked for several hours from their homes on the front line in the southern Ukrainian village of Kamianske on a recent morning to collect supplies from a humanitarian drop-off point in the village of Stepnohirsk, about five miles away.
Svitlana, Lesya and Natasha live in the so-called gray zone, a buffer area between the Ukrainian and Russian positions on the Zaporizhzhia front in southern Ukraine. The front line has changed little since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, when Kyiv’s forces stopped the Russian advance by blowing up a bridge in Kamianske.
Russian troops are ranged south of the village, and trade artillery shells day and night with Ukrainian troops positioned to the north and east. Though most residents left the small village after the invasion, the three women stayed on, living off produce from their gardens and caring for their dogs despite the almost constant danger of artillery bombardment that has left the village largely in ruins.
The front line area has come under increasingly heavy bombardment since January as Russian forces prepared to defend against the long-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Lesya’s husband was killed in his garden when a Russian shell landed nearby in April last year. Svitlana’s house was destroyed by shelling last spring and she moved into a neighbor’s home. She was also wounded in a blast in April when handing out supplies of bread to villagers. The women’s last names have been withheld for security reasons.
They had come to Stepnohirsk, the nearest place that government emergency services deliver humanitarian aid, mainly to collect sacks of dog food, which they balanced on their bicycles for the journey home.
“We were walking from 5 a.m.,” Lesya said. “We had to take cover from the shelling many times.”
At home, they have converted their cellars into comfortable living spaces to shelter from the shelling.
“We are used to it,” Natasha said. “We sit in the cellars, which already look like hotels. We wait for victory. We pray.” As she spoke, she began to weep.
“I’m born there, baptized there, I will die there,” Svitlana said of Kamianske.
Local firefighters are among the few who still venture into the village, putting out fires from the shelling, rescuing people injured in the explosions and bringing in humanitarian supplies for the remaining residents.
“Only the stupid are not afraid,” said Serhii, 47, the commander of the local fire station in Stepnohirsk. “But we still work.” He also gave only his first name for security reasons.
He said his home, along with almost every building in Kamianske, had been destroyed by Russian shelling. “There’s nothing left of Kamianske,” he said.
He showed a photograph of his rose garden on his cellphone. “That’s how it was before the ‘Russian world’ arrived,” he said, a reference to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s vision of a united Russian-speaking territory that includes Ukraine. Serhii swiped his cellphone to show a photograph of his yard as it is now — burned and covered in rubble.
At a small street market in Stepnohirsk, Alla Viktorivna was selling potatoes, onions and tomatoes from her garden.
“Business is not very good,” she said, explaining that there were few people left in the village to sell to.
“I never thought to leave,” she went on. “How can you leave your house, your garden, cats, dogs? I have a big dog.”
When the shelling begins, she said she usually hides in her cellar.
“But sometimes in the night, you don’t have time, you just roll under your sofa,” she said. “You hear it whistling and smashing.”