Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of Ukrainian territories in a ceremony in the Kremlin. In a village just a few kilometers away from what is now the Ukraine-Russia "border" in Putin's eyes, life continues amid constant shelling and the fear of what comes next.
INHULKA — The trail leads over a gravel road, a rickety pontoon bridge past a checkpoint. Here in the remote village of Inhulka near Kherson in southern Ukraine, soldiers sit in front of the village shop. Inside, two women run back and forth behind the counter, making coffee, selling sausages, weighing tomatoes. "Natalochka, where are the cookies," calls a dark-haired lady across the room.
But Natalochka, her colleague, is about to lose her nerve. "What kind of life is that?" she says, finally reaching up to grab the cookies from the top of a shelf. What kind of life can it be, she asks, when something is constantly exploding next to you and you don't know if you'll wake up in the morning.
Inhulka is the center of a rural community. 1,587 inhabitants, as the village chief says, one school, one kindergarten, one doctor, two stores. Since March, nothing here is as it used to be. That was when the Russian army came to the village.
The soldiers were there for two weeks. Today they have moved on, the front is about 20 kilometers away. Bullets are constantly firing around the village while life goes on. Somehow. Fishermen try to fish in the small pond on the outskirts of the village, some farmers farm the fields, and Natalochka makes coffee for the Ukrainian soldiers who are now stationed here.
"The men are at war, the children are gone, only the old people are left," she says. And then again after a pause, "This is not life." Inhulka is a nest. One of so many on the front lines in southern Ukraine. As in the nearby big city of Mykolaiv, rockets and shells from Russian artillery strike here daily. On this day, the intersection of streets in the center there was hit, as well as a park — with cluster munitions, which are internationally outlawed.
Daily shells and rockets
There, in Mykolaiv, at the point of impact, a man stands in front of his cheese store and talks as if a storm had merely swept over him: "Nothing bad, damage can be repaired, the important thing is that we're all alive." Outside the door, civilians sweep up the broken glass.
Mykolaiv is the region in Ukraine where Russia's war first came to a halt. A region in which the Russians had hoped for a rapid advance – but which stalled in the suburbs of Mykolaiv. That was the early stages of the war, when the region became known for farmers who were not afraid to use their tractors to tow Russian tanks.
But now there is a fear that Russia will "do something" after the supposed "referendums" that are taking place a few kilometers away. There is Kherson, one of four regions where such staged polls have been scheduled. The expected result came in the middle of the week – a yes to joining Russia. Moscow has announced that it will annex these areas in violation of international law – and then possibly consider acts of war as an attack on Russian territory.
The inhabitants of the Mykolaiv region are worried that Russian soldiers will "do something."
Living with war
Moscow has openly threatened to use nuclear weapons. But here, so close to the front, there would be no need for such a horror scenario. Any intensification of Moscow's warfare from within the occupied territories would have existential consequences for the people here. Russian President Vladimir Putin made the annexation of the territories official with a ceremony in the Kremlin on Friday afternoon.
Natalochka is no longer able to watch the news. And she doesn't really want to talk at first. She has work to do, she says. But then she tells us. The Russians came, shot open the lock on the entrance door to the store, and looted the store. The holes in the steel door are still visible. There was nothing left. After the Russians had finally left the village and the first aid transport with bread had reached the village, it was also shot at.
The important thing is that we're all alive.
Across the street, Alla Mironova sits in her office on the second floor. She has just finished sorting humanitarian goods downstairs. She is the head of the district municipality of Inhulka. On the one hand, there is the shelling, she says. But above all, there are the consequences. There are no jobs. In addition, there are practical problems. For example, there is only one bus a day to the larger city of Mykolaiv, and not one every hour as in the past.
The village of Inhulka has fared comparatively well. There was no fighting in the village, so there was no major damage. There is gas and, after two months of darkness, electricity. There was only "some looting," but the whole area around the village is now mined. But it wasn’t "something like in Butscha or Irpin", at least this village was spared. Only two men were shot.
Russian collaborators disappearing
Alla Mironova tells all this with a stoic look, her eyes fixed on the table in front of her. She recounts how the soldiers came and searched the town hall for weapons. How she negotiated the release of three captured men with the Russian commander. How he once warned her very clearly to change her attitude, because otherwise something would happen.
A few days later, the same commander forced her into a car and drove her out of the village. Silence. Only when she tells how one day the Russians shot at each other because one unit got drunk and just started shooting does a smile appear on her face. Then the air alarm goes off. She slowly raises her cell phone, looks at the display, puts her arms on the table and says that many people couldn't stand it here anymore and left Inhulka.
But the place is by no means empty. There is also something going on in front of the store on a dusty side street, Natalochka's competitor. A woman walks holding a child by the hand. A man pushes his old bicycle with groceries past. Dogs are barking. A brawny gentleman with a gray beard draws four five-liter cans of drinking water from a faucet and rails as loudly as he can at "those maniacs over there." He means the Russians, of course. Next to him stands a lad of 16 with a bun in his hand, not wanting to say much. The woman holding a child by the hand doesn't want to talk either. She is silent, nods wordlessly and leaves with an embarrassed smile on her lips.
On the door of the shop hangs an unmistakable message, printed on a crumpled A4 piece of paper: "Collaborators are not welcome." They should move there, just as the "Russian warship" has moved there, it says in conclusion. The radio message "Russian warship, f*** you" from the attack on Snake Island has become a cultural treasure in Ukraine.
Inside the store there is food, hygiene products, a few dolls – and headlamps, flashlights, red lights, batteries in all sizes. All the things you need when there's a bang in the middle of the night. And then there's a lady in her 50s, perfectly straightened hair, discreet makeup, apron. Want to give her name? No, rather not, she says. Because the mobilization in Russia, the threats – that scares her. But Ukraine is a strong country. A united country. And those who collaborated with the Russians disappeared from one day to the next. Where to, she doesn't know either.
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