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Were it not for the wrecked buildings and constant crack and whip of shells outside, Orikhiv could be mistaken for a quaint English country town. Roses, poppies and other spring flowers bloom throughout the town, and the outskirts are dotted with well-maintained stone cottages. This prosperous town was the centre of the Zapporizhzhia region’s agriculture and the 14000 pre-war inhabitants lived well.
Now the horrors of the Russian invasion have left their scars. “In this town, we have no gas, no electricity, no water… says Svitlana Mandrich, a 52-year-old woman who is the coordinator of the town’s last humanitarian aid centre, “but we have hope”.
The hope comes in the form of a major Ukrainian counteroffensive that was launched last week, just two days after Byline Times visited the town. Ukrainian troops have poured from their positions around the town towards Russian lines to try and liberate the cities of Tokmak and Melitopol.
Mandrich keeps a log of casualties and says that 40 civilians have been killed by Russian shelling since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, and more than have been 200 injured. On Monday another person was added to that list, killed by a new Russian bombardment.
The slightly over 1000 remaining residents have lived 7 to 8 kilometres away from a static frontline for more than a year. The Russian push into the Zaporizhzhia region was stopped at the town’s gates in March last year. Rather than push towards the regional capital, the Russians turned east towards Mariupol and the remainder of the neighbouring Donetsk oblast. Russian forces kept occupied regions of Zaporizhzhia as a ‘land bridge’ to supply the Crimean Peninsula, which they annexed in 2014. It is this, the only real strategic gain of the Russians since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, that appears to be Ukraine’s major military target.
What is left of the community regularly gathers into a former educational institute that has been turned into both a bomb shelter and a humanitarian aid hub. It is well stocked. They have a kitchen, extensive supplies of canned and other non-perishable foodstuffs and a spare room full of warm clothing donated by volunteers. One of the women cooking sits us down and brings endless plates in front of us.”You’re too skinny, you need to eat more!” she tells me while pilling my dish with potato pastries, borsht and buckwheat.
While there is no running water in the town, there is a well in the basement that extends 40 metres underground where they can draw fresh water. When we visited, there was a group of around twenty residents watching a TV screen that is variously flipping through Ukrainian News channels and Ukrainian entries from the Eurovision song contest posted on YouTube. We are out of cellphone reception, but a local Starlink provides internet to the facility, and electricity comes through a noisy diesel generator outside.
Thankfully, all of the local children have been evacuated from the city. Mandrich says she has no plans to leave Orikhiv no matter how bad the fighting gets. “My mother is 85 years, too old to leave. Plus, I have all my dogs and my cats here. Where would I take them? We have everything we need here”. There is a small room full of toys and stuffed animals, that was used for children but they say that all of them have long since been evacuated.
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Tales of Resistance
In Orikhiv, there is a noticeably more positive mood among the resident than in Donbas. Everyone who has reported from Ukraine’s troubled east has met those who care little for whether they live in Ukraine or Russia, and others like the infamous ‘zhdunny’ who are actively hoping for the Russians to take over.
Shelters like these in towns like Bakhmut or Lysychansk could be squalid places, full of destitute and hopeless people. But here, people were singing, and shouting patriotic slogans, one middle-aged woman yelling at us with a huge grin, “We love Ukraine, it is our home, we will win the war!” People are speaking a large amount of Ukrainian, despite Zaporizhzhia having previously been a mostly Russian-speaking region.
In a side street in the town, we came across a small group of soldiers from a Lviv-based unit. They had taken fire from Russians in the region, which had damaged their vehicle but had escaped unharmed. The soldiers here have not been kitted out with the latest Western gear.
One of the soldiers puffs on a cigarette as he shows us his gun, a World War II era MP40, more familiar from video games than modern warfare. Their vehicles are old and rusty, many with cracked windshields and busted tires. When we step outside the shelter, explosions ring out, intermingled with birdsong. None of the locals reacts, and when I ask them if they are scared, they simply say “Ours!”
When listening to the stories of those whose towns were less lucky, you understand the Ukrainian determination to fight for every inch of their land. Serhii Kaliman, the exiled mayor of the city of Vasilivka survived 47 days of Russian occupation before he was able to flee with his city administration team to Ukrainian-controlled territory. He reported a long list of Russian crimes against residents, the most common of which was the regular use of torture.
“They would torture anyone who wouldn’t cooperate with them,” Kaliman tells Byline Times. Despite this, he says that the townsfolk almost universally resisted the occupation. “Of 3000 people in the town, no more than 30 have been collaborators” with the Russian authorities. “After our victory, they can all leave, and go to Russia, that country they seem to love so much.”
He proudly introduces his executive assistant, Marta, a 20-year-old student who would go and post videos of Russian military objects and upload them to a Ukrainian app that allows their Armed Forces to target invading troops. As he explains, the Ukrainian Army sometimes fights with one hand tied behind its back. “Ukrainian artillery, even if they see an entire armoured column, if there is a civilian building nearby, they will not touch it.”
Zaporizhzhia is yet another example of a Ukrainian region that had close links with Russia before the invasion, that has now turned bitterly against Moscow. “When the war started I was really afraid for Zaporizhzhia” said Tetyana Drobotia, a 33-year-old marketing manager who has remained in the city since last February.
Pro-Russian parties were strong here, as you know this part of Ukraine is Russian speaking, I know that politics and big industrial parts were very orientated to Russia. Most of the metal, and engines for helicopters and planes, were focused towards the Russian and Belarusian industries. I know a lot of people who had business with Russia… even in Melitopol, 80% of agricultural things like cherries, tomatoes, they were sold to Russia.”
Yet the full-scale invasion caused a huge sea change in a region that was already drifting westwards. “When the war started I understood we have a different air in the city. Because historically Zaporizhzhia is the land of the Cossacks, a free people who struggled for their independence from the Russian and Polish empires. I cannot describe with words, but I felt it, I understand in February and March 2022, that this is the best and the right place that I need to be.”