The fate of Mykolaiv and surrounding areas of southern Ukraine are crucial in the next stage of the war. A reporter visits local villages ... and the troops on the front line.
MYKOLAIV — This large port city in eastern Ukraine carries great strategic importance for the war. After the Russian army managed to destroy Mariupol and occupy most of the Kherson region, which has access to the annexed Crimea, it leaves Mykolaiv, along with Odessa, as the largest port cities with access to the Black Sea.
If these cities fall, Ukraine will not only lose control over the eastern territories, but also access to the Black Sea, which will completely halt exports and imports by sea.
Needless to say, the fate of Mykolaiv is highly important. And with hundreds of thousands of people still living in the city and surrounding region, a reporter from the Ukrainian media Livy Bereg visited one of the villages on Mykolaiv's outskirts to see for herself how Ukrainians live in close proximity to the Russian army.
Natalia Panashiy, the head of villages of Lyman and Luparevo in the Mykolaiv region noted that they share the border with the Russians. "The first month after the beginning of the war was quiet, and now we are under constant shelling," she said. "So far, the Russians have tried to break through six different times.”
It is very picturesque here with the steppe on the one side and the estuary on the other. There are 15 kilometers across the bay to Pokrovsky (Kherson region), occupied by the Russian army.
A gray zone
According to Panashiy, the enemy is three kilometers away. After the head of the neighboring community surrendered to the Russians, Oleksandrivka became a gray zone, and Lyman, in fact, became the front line.
Why didn't I leave? This is our home!
“Why didn't I leave? First, my mother-in-law is 82 years old. Secondly, I have three huge dogs. Thirdly and most importantly, this is our home! The Ukrainian army are motivated to protect us,” says the head of Lyman and Luparevo villages.
She noted that a few weeks ago, two people who passed on to the Russians the positions of our military in exchange for money were identified, and are now in the hands of the Ukrainian forces.
Loud explosions are heard nearby the village around-the-clock, and the Russian army had already destroyed the village center with air strikes. Near the village council headquarters, Panashiy, with her sister and volunteers, are packing up humanitarian aid and loading it into two cars. Accompanied by the military, they go to the villagers to distribute food and deliver cash payments.
Only 500 people now live in Lyman which is a quarter of the pre-war population. In neighboring Luparevo there are only 130 out of 1,500 inhabitants left.
More and more destruction
The village politician, accompanied by an army chaplain, several soldiers and a reporter, arrive at the nearby house of a large family — and are greeted by three girls who've run outside: Diana, Artem and Kyrylo. The oldest girl is nine years old. The kids smile broadly; they are not afraid of people in uniform. The soldier asks if they have learned the song "Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow." The children speak Russian, but say they are learning Ukrainian patriotic songs.
We can hear explosions. The children are not worried, as if they do not notice the shelling, and are very happy to see guests. The adults suddenly get silent for a moment, and see smoke in the direction of Kherson. The surrounding steppe is burning.
Even as others fled, some stayed behind because they believe that Ukraine will win soon. “However, there are more and more destructions in the villages. Five intact houses remained in Pribuzky, the rest were damaged. We also bring food there," explain the chaplain Maksym. "People in that village did not even plant gardens. They are overgrown and people are worried about what will happen next. The most important thing for them is that the local authorities and the Armed Forces of Ukraine do not forget them.”
Rescuer in Mykolaiv, Ukraine
Shelled with artillery
When the military chaplain and politician arrive in the neighboring village of Luparevo, people do not immediately come out to collect the humanitarian aid. We find out shortly after that they were preparing a basement for shelter.
For the last three days they have been under constant fire from enemy artillery. A missile has recently exploded over the houses of eight villagers. Serhiy, a local resident says that, fortunately, everyone survived.
Serhiy shows a missile that exploded over his house. “The car was hit. It's good that nothing worse happened," he says. "The main thing is that the roofs survived and we survived. I used to respect the Russians, but now they have become my worst enemies.”
With the troops
Next stop is to join the position of Ukrainian troops. This is the Kyiv 206th TRO Battalion, the Peacemaker platoon, which was relocated to the South. The area is densely covered with debris from enemy shells - cluster munitions and missiles. The Russians launch them to "greet" Ukrainian defenders every morning.
They offer strong coffee.
There is a veritable underground army kingdom: loopholes, trenches and a "living room." Right here in the cauldron they cook dinner, on the walls there are Ukrainian flags and children's drawings. The military leaders sit down at a wide table and offer strong black coffee.
“The Russians tried to break through three weeks ago. For two days they shelled with artillery, then their column tried to enter, but was stopped. The enemy retreated," says Chaplain Maksym. “It's no secret that this is now a war of artillery: missiles, multiple launch rocket systems. Today the Russians have more weapons. But when we strike and neutralize their weapons, they quickly 'lick their wounds.' But so far, they outstrip us with long-range artillery."
In the Lord's hands
Maksym offers some insight into the morale of the Ukrainian soldiers, which he says is reinforced by faith. “Our boys are spiritually motivated. We constantly have a prayer, because we believe in a really living God who will protect, intercede and help us," he says. "Some say that they believe in their machine guns, in their position, in their dugout, but still the Lord will have the final word. This is our land, given to us by God, and we have nowhere to retreat."
On the way back, our guide, Dmytro Davydenko, a volunteer from the Mykolayiv humanitarian headquarters of the Naval Officers’ Club (*abbreviated as DOF in Ukrainian), recalls that in early May, Kyiv battalions and units from other cities began to be redeployed to the region.
"When we realized there were so many soldiers here, it became much easier to face reality," he said. "Before that, it seemed that Mykolaiv might not be able to withstand the next attack. Now people are even ready to deliver humanitarian aid under fire. The fact that the region and the city are still ours inspires hope and optimism."