Life, Death, And A Dilemma On Ukraine’s New Front Line: Stay Or Go – Analysis


By Kollen Post

(RFE/RL) —  A three-kilometer shell shot from the Russian border, the boom of artillery fire rumbled over the village of Kozacha Lopan from both north and south every 10 minutes or less on a day in mid-May.

The central buildings were crumbling, many of them razed to the ground. Most of the homes bore obvious scars from shelling, and almost all had been abandoned in the face of an impending Russian advance across the northern edge of the Kharkiv region.

One of them, still occupied, was surrounded by two gardens of almost surreal loveliness against the backdrop of war and destruction. Sprigs of lavender and the broad leaves of hostas cropped up amid neat little hedges and statuettes.

But the flowers are in a bad way, said Tetyana, who lives there with her husband and adult daughter.

“All the rockets, they’ve thrown the atmosphere out of balance,” she said: A late frost took the cherry buds and the grape vines. And despite a continuous overcast sky, there hasn’t been a real rain.

Tetyana, who turns 87 in June, remembers the land suffering similarly under Nazi occupation in World War II, when she was a child.

“The same thing happened in that war,” she said. “I lived through that war. There wasn’t a drop of rain, it was a drought, and there were the same cracks in the earth, just like those.”

Two weeks ago, Russia opened up a new front in its war against Ukraine, sending troops across the northern border of the Kharkiv region and attacking cities and towns near the frontier from the ground and from the air.

Tetyana has lived in Kozacha Lopan her whole life. Now, signs all over town offer evacuation at no cost — but she, her 93-year-old husband, and their daughter, Natasha, don’t want to leave.

On the morning of May 17, they woke and left the damp cellar in which they sleep, detached from the main house and relatively safe underground, to find themselves surrounded by smoke.

“The fields in back had caught fire. We thought our house had finally burned down too. Thank God [the fire] burned itself out,” Tetyana said.

“[Russia’s] trying to make this a gray zone so that everyone goes to Kharkiv,” said Natasha, referring to the regional capital a few dozen kilometers to the south, which itself has been pounded by Russian missile and drone attacks. She has counted up to 60 hits on the village in a single day, she said.

The back vegetable garden was strewn with shrapnel from a large pole barn that was hit by a glide bomb in February. The mangled remains of three trucks that were inside the structure are exposed to the elements, and Natasha pointed out “iron leaves” – pieces of the destroyed building and garden walls — hanging from the trees. Meanwhile, the strawberries were ripening.

“And these are the potatoes. Still here, as long as the Colorado beetle doesn’t gobble them up,” Natasha said. It’s a play on words: The black-and-orange stripes on the beetle’s shell resembles the St. George Ribbon, a bellicose Russian symbol, which has turned the insect’s name into a go-to pejorative for pro-Russian separatists and suspected collaborators.

After waking up amid the smoke last week, the family found someone to take many of their possessions to an apartment in Kharkiv. But they don’t want to move there: It’s on the eighth floor of a building with little protection from drones, glide bombs, or – if Russian forces advance further — artillery that could come within striking range of the city.

“Because of that, we’re at a crossroads,” Tetyana said. “We don’t know what to do.”

They sent their possessions in case of a mandatory evacuation – in many cases, people ordered to evacuate are told to take only their official documents and leave everything else behind.

For now, the family is living in the dark and getting by with their own produce as well as boxes of canned food from the World Food Program. They do not venture outside the walls that wrap around their home, gardens, and a jumble of sheds, outhouses, and wash basins, as well as a water tank that was punctured in a blast.

Down the street, Mykola pointed to fresh craters from shells that struck his backyard a few days earlier. “They hit down in broad daylight,” he said.

A double amputee, Mykola has planted nothing in his garden this year. His wheelchair shielded a yellow-eyed kitten named Timukha, who flinched as explosions rung out in the distance.

“When they’re shooting from somewhere, he doesn’t even know where to hide anymore,” Mykola said.

Many of their neighbors, as well as people from other villages in the Kharkiv region, have been squeezed out by the Russian advance. Since they launched the cross-border offensive on May 10, Russian forces have taken two chunks of territory on the Ukrainian side of the border to the east of Kozacha Lopan. They are attempting to seize Vovchansk, a town with a pre-invasion population of 17,000, and have destroyed much of it with intense bombardments.

Russian progress in the area has slowed after an initial push forward. On May 24, the Ukrainian military claimed its forces “have stopped Russian troops in the Kharkiv sector and are conducting counteroffensive actions.”

Oleh Synyehubov, the governor of Kharkiv Oblast, said on Facebook that more than 11,000 people had been evacuated across the region as of May 24.

The newly displaced go mainly to Kharkiv — despite the danger in the city 30 kilometers from the Russian border — and weigh their options for getting further away from the front. Most of those who remain are elderly, with limited prospects for starting over in a new city.

Nina, a pensioner, was evacuated from Vilcha, outside of Vovchansk. For now, at least, she and her deaf mother live in the yellow dormitory of a former secondary school that has been converted into a hub for displaced people in Kharkiv, operated by the International Rescue Committee and the UN.

They provide everything she and her mother need, Nina said, but the pair remain in limbo. After about a week in the dorm, she found an apartment in the city.

“But I don’t know how I’m going to live there,” she said. “I’m not used to that life. I need to be in my crop rows, digging up grass, with flowers around.”

It was not the first time Nina has been uprooted by disaster: Many residents of Vilcha were moved there from their homes near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986.

Back in Kozacha Lopan, there’s something else that makes Natasha reluctant to leave: her own pets and the strays she takes care of.

When a particularly loud explosion sounds out, her dogs take cover in small cement cylinders that serve as their homes in the backyard.

And she takes it on herself to feed the dogs whose owners have been evacuated when they show up at her front gate – including a puppy with chocolate-colored fur that is, she says, afraid of strangers.

“They’re my darlings,” Natasha said. “How can I go and leave them behind?”

  • Kollen Post is a freelance journalist in Ukraine covering the burgeoning tech industry and its role in the war. He spent the previous five years in Washington, D.C., writing for the Block, Foreign Policy Research Institute, and Science Advances. A native of West Michigan, he lived in Moscow from 2015 to 2017.


RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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