In Bakhmout, in eastern Ukraine, the 26 cows that feed Oksana Bout, her sister Lioudmila and their two children are both a blessing and a curse at a time when the Russian tie is tightening the region.
On the one hand, the cattle, installed on a hill a few minutes’ drive from the front lines, provide this 40-year-old woman with a steady income and milk. On the other hand, this means that Oksana cannot leave her land to flee the fighting without losing her entire herd.
Missile trails in the sky are a reminder that the Russians are approaching from almost all sides of the city of Bakhmout, about 55 kilometers southeast of Kramatorsk, the main regional city.
The presence of Oksana and her sister, after three months of conflict, shows the ferocity of the Ukrainian resistance and the unwavering confidence of the Ukrainians in the ability of their army to win the war.
“When a bomb goes off not far away, I get really scared,” admits Oksana, though, who watches her daughter playing with a cow’s tail out of the corner of her eye.
“What do you want me to do? For every cow, it’s hours of work. We can’t just drop everything, hand it to someone else and move on,” she continues.
– Shaved houses –
The perseverance of the two sisters is, however, fraught with pitfalls.
Bakhmout, home to 77,000 people before the war, is close enough to the front line for Western aid organizations to settle there.
But its position, deep in a valley, also makes it difficult to defend against enemy attacks.
The Russians are very close today, on a road leading to the eastern outskirts of the city.
In the village of Pylyptchatyne, dozens of wooden houses hidden behind stockades along a quiet river were razed to the ground.
In one of them, not completely destroyed, you can see the remains of a meal on a table, no doubt the sign of a hasty departure.
A dog visibly wanders around looking for its owner as pieces of chicken are squashed by all that remains of a broken blue wall.
– “I do not care” –
In the blue sky above Pylyptchatyne, white streaks indicate the firing of missiles exchanged by Russian and Ukrainian forces on either side of the city.
Sitting at a bus stop, a soldier, Viatcheslav, watches this aerial table tennis, next to an old lady.
None of them seem particularly shaken by the destruction of this abandoned village.
“We know the Russians are trying to surround us. But believe me, we are ready,” said Vyacheslav, 49.
“Do you really think all the soldiers here intend to be taken prisoner?” asks the soldier aloud.
Next to her, the old lady approves of the neighbor’s words and tenderly puts her hand on the soldier’s shoulder.
“I’m not worried”, guarantees Valentina Litvinova: “The Russians will never get that far”.
– “Cows ignore war” –
The roads leading north to Bakhmout are closed. Along the way is Natalia Pouzanova’s Soviet-style hardware store.
This 58-year-old woman would likely have joined her staff as they left the village of Pokrovsé if Ukrainian soldiers hadn’t come to stock up on socks and soap.
“They still need to wash and do laundry,” she explains. “It still allows me to continue working.”
On the roads, all you can hear is the hum of trucks pulling huge tanks behind them.
This one-way traffic of reinforcements indicates that the Ukrainian army is not yet ready to abandon the besieged cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, the scene of some of the fiercest battles of the entire war.
Against this backdrop, Lioudmila says even her cows are getting used to life on the front lines.
“They don’t run away,” she smiles. “This has been going on around us for a month, but the cows have started to ignore the war.”