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“My sister from Moscow region did not believe me when I told her we were shelled “: how life is in the villages of Sumy and Chernihiv regions and what has changed with the onset of war.

By Olga Chytaylo

The military asks us to drive the last few kilometres to Senkivka in the Chernihiv region as quickly as possible. The road is dangerous. Russians see who is coming. “There is a hazardous area; they have already shot many times at it and will easily hit a target,” says our escort, a soldier from OK Pivnich, who advises us to put on our helmets.

When the film crew gets to the centre of the village, an enemy drone drops explosives next to our car. As a result, a window and a door are broken.

We wanted to believe that there were friends on the other side of the border.

Senkivka is a unique village located on the border of three countries. Both Russia and Belarus are very close by. There is even a sign depicting three sisters at the checkpoint. A cafĂ©, “Three Sisters”, decorated with three flags, used to welcome visitors until the enemy tanks crossed the border. And the locals used to believe they had friends on the other side of both borders. 

We drive for a few minutes along empty streets until we meet Volodymyr. The man carries water home. He lives alone.

“We were shelled with Grads, the windows flew out, the gate.” He and many people here speak a mixed dialect of Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian. We found Volodymyr’s commentary for a local TV channel online just a month before the war. He did not believe in the attack – he believed in the friendship of the three states.

On the morning of February 24, Grads shelled his house from the side where he thought his friends lived. The man shows the broken windows of his house.

– I covered them with plastic. In autumn, I will need to replace it. I have plastic but not glass, so I can’t replace the windows. I did not expect this: we lived together as friends. But it is what it is now. I decided not to leave since I had nowhere to go.

Another resident, also Volodymyr, is working in the field nearby. He has a small farm; an old horse Orlyk grazes in the field that overlooks the border. “That’s where they mostly shell us from” – is a blue and white border sign where Volodymyr points.

We used to have good relations with our neighbours. And now everything is bust, and there will be no relations.

As in all border villages, there were strong family relations with neighbouring countries. On one of the streets, we meet Tamara; she lives here with her retired husband. She speaks quickly, in a very pronounced local dialect.

Our film crew talked to the woman last year when we made a story about the weapons being gathered at the border. Then she assured us that war was impossible.

It is hard to believe that you’ll be shelled by people from the land where you were born.

– I am originally from Russia, from the Bryansk region, but I married and lived here for 38 years. And I consider myself a Ukrainian – my children and grandchildren grew up here.

Now Tamara says the exact words with tears. The woman has a lovely house, and the yard is planted with flowers. Despite the war, she did not abandon the farm, although her home was hit.

– The windows and the roof were smashed. My cow was killed. It was standing here, our breadwinner. We are planning to move to the next village over, where we also have a house, after we collect the potatoes we planted here.

The biggest tragedy, Tamara says, is that her relatives in Russia do not believe in her trouble. “My sister lives in the Moscow region, and she doesn’t believe me, doesn’t call me anymore.”

When we talk to Tamara, several explosions are heard. The woman is crying again, and her husband, listening to the sounds, concludes: the shell arrived in Khrinivka.

Anatoliy has been watching our conversation from a distance for a long time. He is an older man who has lived here all his life. We talked to him two years ago and in 2014. He then said this about the neighbours, Russians and Belarusians: “There, when you arrive, people are hospitable. They will give you a drink, feed you, and if you get lost, they will lead you home.”

He repeated almost the exact words when we met last year. Now he is reluctant to talk about the war: politicians will sort it out; politicians are to blame for everything.

– You said earlier that people here are very connected with Russia.

– Well, connected how – we have family ties there. Someone married there, and someone married here; we also speak a mix of languages.

– Have you suffered from the war yourself?

– Yes, I suffered. Everything is damaged. My daughter barely escaped from the damaged house without a penny to her name. 

– Do your relatives in Russia know? 

– There are no ties left. We do not talk. On the first day, my wife called them, but they did not believe her. She told them that our whole street was destroyed, and the relatives did not believe her, they said it could not be.

Next to Tamara’s house, the neighbour’s house was destroyed. A whitewashed village stove is visible through the hole in the wall. The village was sparsely populated even before the war. Now the locals are not sure it will be around at all.

The occupiers expected a warm welcome.

“Be careful, do not ride off the road to avoid hitting a mine” – we are wished a safe journey at the last checkpoint near the village of Velyky Bobryk in the Sumy region. The navigator takes our car along a bad field road, and it gets worse when we approach the village.

I have been here twice since 2014 and have taken the same road every time. Larysa Kremezna, head of the town, meets us in its centre.

– There are a few places we won’t be able to reach. There is a checkpoint here. It’s too dangerous. The border is behind that land strip – she nods to the forest belt about a kilometre away.

And then Larysa asks us not to point in that direction because the Russians see everything.

Larysa is showing us around the village. She tells us that Russians caused issues with water and destroyed one of the water towers. Here a house was hit by a Grad. A farm was shelled. Some equipment was damaged.

A farmer, who asks not to share his name, shows us a video of his farm equipment cut by debris. The village was not occupied; Russians were passing through.

– We heard a rumble near the border for three days before the invasion. They warmed up their vehicles. And we thought they were doing drills. We realized it was not a drill at four in the morning of the 24th. There were a lot of them, long columns. They entered the building of the village council. And I was inside at that time, and I said: “Close the door behind you, don’t let the heat out”, – Larysa tells about her audacity.

– They asked me to collaborate with them. “The government will change, but you can keep your job”, they said. And I replied: “No, guys, I serve the Ukrainian people”. The Russians from the other side said: “Now we will visit you by car”. No, they won’t come here.

Our family ties with them were close; their kids went to our school. And the Russian villages on the border speak Ukrainian.

Near the village council, there is a museum of Pavlo Hrabovsky. The outstanding poet was born here. Nadiia Skoropad has been the head of this museum for many years, and fortunately, everything was saved, and nothing was damaged.

She leads us to the stand that tells about the joint celebrations in the village.

Here are Russian grandmothers, look. I, by the way, was born in Russia. But I have lived here all my life. My parents’ house is there, and you know how painful it was to realize that your supposed mother became a stepmother.

– Locals wanted to keep the border checkpoints working, but only because their relatives lived on the other side. That was our only concern. But now everything has changed – we have no ties left there.

When we visited Hrabovske last year, a saleswoman in a local store complained that there were no Russian buyers because of the closed borders, and her income decreased. When the occupants came, they robbed this store.

Ryzhivka, a village divided by the border in half, is under constant shelling.

Probably, you can’t go there today. They started shooting in the morning.

We have been sitting in the office of the head of Bilopillya, Yuriy Zarko, for an hour now. We are waiting for the enemy to cease shelling. But Ryzhivka has been constantly shelled since the morning. We wanted to see Ryzhivka because the village is divided in half by the border. One of the houses there is in the two states at the same time.

Pensioner Halyna Budilina, who lives in that house, was often interviewed about life at the border.

The head of Ryzhivka, Oleksandr Chekh, comes to the office to solve current issues. “No comments,” – he replies to our request to talk. And he leaves. We already talked to him a year ago, when the man spoke about two problems: bad roads and a closed pedestrian border crossing.

Locals wanted to keep the border checkpoints working, but only because their relatives lived on the other side.

The trip had to be cancelled. We decide to go to the neighbouring village of Iskryskivshchyna instead. “That’s where the border is; we are driving along the street that is shelled frequently,” says Oleksiy Miller. The village centre is burnt almost to the ground. Only walls remained from a local school.

– It hasn’t worked for a year, but the school is the centre of the village, and we wanted to restore it someday. Here is the workshop, our place of work, and burnt machines. Across the road, the school is smashed to pieces. But there are people in the village, and a paramedic stayed here. Repairers regularly come here to fix the Internet after the shelling.

We celebrated the village day in September to honour the village’s liberation from the Nazi invaders. The monument to those who died in that war was damaged during the Russian shelling. I do not know whether it can be restored or rebuilt.

Any relationship with Russia is impossible.

64% of Ukrainians believe that it will never be possible to restore friendly relations with Russia. This is confirmed by the research conducted by the “Reityng” group in April. Another 22% believe that the restoration of ties is possible in 20-30 years.

In July, the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology studied the moods of Ukrainians in this aspect. 79% of respondents believe that the borders should be closed. And compared to February, the number of such people has increased by 35%. 89% are currently against the restoration of any relations. Only 52% of people upheld such beliefs even before the full-scale invasion. 

The mood of Ukrainians toward Russians becomes more irrefutable almost every day. You can find out whether our people are ready for territorial concessions to the enemy in our material. And you can also decide for yourself whether you are prepared to concede our territories to the imperialists.