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The Road to the Frontline
Under the Russian guns in an old British ambulance
Last week I set off in an old British ambulance to visit the frontline Ukrainian town of Orikhiv, which the Russians have been attacking. On the way I witnessed a Russian plane shot down by a Ukrainian missile. In the shattered town itself I talked to Lyubov, a 59-year-old community organiser, who has been living underground in the dark for the past six months.
On the road to the frontline Andrii, 36, managed to coax the tired old British ambulance up to 80mph.
The tarmac ahead was scarred with the impact of artillery shells and some of the holes were big enough to blow a tyre, or even pitch us off the road, but he navigated around them skillfully.
Suddenly, far in front of us and high above, we saw the contrails of an airplane. An innocuous sight in a peaceful country, here it almost certainly meant an incoming Russian strike, and spelled danger. Andrii and his helper, Oleksandr, 29, donned their body armour.
And then from our left a new contrail appeared: a Ukrainian missile. The first contrail made a sudden and tight 180 degree turn, revealing that it was a Russian jet-fighter. The pilot must have suddenly become aware of the incoming missile.
For a while it seemed like the Russian would get away. But the missile was moving faster than the plane and, as we watched, it closed in. Then the contrails merged. The two thin white lines turned into a thicker, billowing trail. Then there was nothing except blue winter sky.
I was travelling with a Canadian colleague and we watched mesmerized. But the Ukrainians we were travelling with barely battered an eyelid. “There’s always something going on on this road,” Andrii said.
For an outsider the run to Orikhiv, a small town on the frontline an hour east of the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, is an eye-opener.
The last 10 miles of the road are deserted except for military traffic, in the background there is the constant thud of incoming artillery shells, and sometimes the distinctive sound of a multiple rocket launcher releasing its load.
At the entry to the town itself we were greeted by two unsmiling soldiers at a checkpoint, several shops with their roofs blown off, a burned-out car, chunks of debris and strands of dangling wire.
But for Andrii and Oleksandr this is their daily commute.
War, like so much news, is often presented in dramatic highlight: a tank firing, a civilian running, western aid workers feeding begging, starving people. But the day-to-day reality is more prosaic, even humdrum.
“I do this run Monday to Friday every week,” Andrii said. “I’ve been doing it for months.”
Andrii is one of a network of many thousands of local volunteers that keep supplies running to Ukrainians still living in and around the frontline. Each day the volunteers head out on battered roads, sometimes under fire, in vehicles that would never pass a safety test in the west.
The previous day, while interviewing officials in Zaporizhzhia, we had been told about an aid convoy into Orikhiv.
The town was of interest as it had been the scene of fierce fighting a few days before when Russian assault troops tried to break the lines of Ukrainian soldiers dug in on its eastern perimeter.
Before the war Orikhiv and the surrounding villages had 13,000 residents. Now four of its satellite villages are occupied by the Russians. But as many as 1,800 residents still live in the area under Ukrainian government control.
I naively imagined we would be travelling with a lorry laden with food and medical supplies.
As it turned our transport was the battered English ambulance. My seatbelt didn’t work and I sat in the front middle seat, my protective helmet banging against the roof.
In the back was our cargo: a few dozen wooden planks - residents had asked for them to fix their damaged roofs. There was also an ancient wheelchair destined for an 83-year-old.
Eleven months into the war, Orikhiv, like many frontline towns in Ukraine, has settled into an uneasy if not entirely predictable rhythm. During the morning the shelling is usually light, it often picks up in the afternoon, and then intensifies overnight.
So we aimed for an early departure. Our destination in the town was to be the point of resilience – a sort of municipal centre that the Ukrainian government has mandated should be set up in every community in the country.
Supplied with a generator and a wood stove, and sometimes a satellite internet connection, these centres – the one in Orikhiv was only a few tiny rooms with a dozen chairs - offer residents hot drinks, power and warmth.
For those living under the Russian guns there may be constant fear and danger, but there is also the simple daily struggle of keeping going: finding water to wash with, firewood to heat with and, for the lucky ones, diesel to keep a generator running.
When we arrived at the centre we were greeted warmly by two local women. Lyubov was the 59-year-old head of the centre. Svetlana, 39, who had worked in a pastry shop before the war, was helping her. They brought us hot coffee.
Svetlana said she had decided to stay in the town because her parents, both in their eighties, were still living in an outlying village, only a couple of miles from the Russian positions. “Twice a week I take them wood and bread,” she said.
Lyubov said they were among many elderly locals were simply unwilling to leave, despite the risks. “Even if they get no help at all they will not leave,” she said. “They will eat vegetables from their gardens, even starve, but they won’t go.”
Others had stayed to look after pets. One lady said she had taken in 16 stray cats and dogs.
Lyubov lives about half a mile from the centre in a block of flats that once housed a hundred residents. Now there are only three left.
Six months ago, fed up with patching up her broken windows and the noise of the shelling that kept her awake at night, Lyubov cleaned out the debris in the unused basement of the large Soviet-era building.
“I needed to sleep,” she said. “And it was simply too noisy in my flat.”
She gave us a tour of her underground home by torchlight. Outside news was beginning to filter through of a fresh wave of Russian missile strikes that killed 11 civilians in different parts of Ukraine.
In the West countries were agreeing a new military aid package to Kyiv which will include main battle tanks.
In Lyubov’s basement cuddly toys, cosmetics, lotions and perfume had been carefully arranged in front of a mirror. There was a fruit bowl with bananas and apples. Lyubov had placed hangings on the wall to cover the bare concrete.
“I go to the city once a month,” she said. “I go to attend a city council meeting – and get my nails done.”
Her husband, who was the local chief of police, died 10 years before of cancer. Her son is married and lives in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city. She hasn’t seen him for 18 months. Her only companion is a cat called Tana.
Nevertheless she had two beds carefully made up. “One of them is in case I ever have a guest,” she said proudly.
Please add comments, offer corrections and share this with your friends. Thank you to all paid subscribers - your support makes these posts possible. A version of this article also appeared in the Spectator online.
NEWS & UPCOMING
+ I have spent the last few days in Kyiv and will now be heading to western Ukraine to do some research for our Wild Bear Lodge soldiers project this autumn. Click here to read about the last Wounded Veterans Programme we ran in 2021. This year we plan to take wounded Ukrainians to the lodge for recuperation and vocational training.
+ In the coming days I will tell the story of a day spent combing the mine-strewn fields of eastern Ukraine with volunteers looking for bodies. We found, catalogued, and bagged two dead Russian soldiers. Then tragedy struck.
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