By Gleb Garanich and Serhiy Takhmazov
ZAITSEVE, Ukraine – Ukrainians eking out a precarious existence in the shadow of a possible Russian invasion have got used to not knowing if they will survive from one day to the next.
Their village of Zaitseve lies, half-abandoned, a kilometre (less than a mile) from the front line that separates Ukrainian forces from Russian-backed separatists, many of its homes damaged during more than seven years of on-off conflict.
“Here there was incoming fire,” 47-year-old resident Maryna Serheyeva said as she walked across her courtyard, pointing at a damaged wall.
“A mine dropped just nearby. The fence is holed with shrapnel … We have done what we could, fixed the window. But there is no one who can restore the wall.”
Of far greater concern is what lies across the border.
Russia has moved tens of thousands of troops nearby but rejects Ukrainian and U.S. charges that it may invade as early as next month, while saying it will be forced to act if Western powers do not stop military cooperation with its neighbours.
Serheyeva and other villagers subsist on their vegetable plots and chickens, getting water from wells and fending off the cold with stoves fuelled by wood and coal. Early in the conflict, when fighting was at its peak, they spent months underground.
“On the other street, there were houses shelled by GRAD missiles. But people somehow managed to survive. Basements helped,” Serheyeva said.
“There was massive damage. House extensions, sometimes even half of a house was wiped away. Massive craters,” she said. “Many houses were on fire. A lot of them. Almost half of the houses on my street.”
With her parents dead, most of her relatives gone and no more cows to take care of, she says it would be easier to leave this time if the conflict flared up.
“I will take what I can if I realise that the threat is imminent and serious,” she said, while wondering aloud where she would go and how she would survive when she got there.
Serheyeva’s 90-year-old neighbour Viktor Kudla says he’s seen 10 leaders in his lifetime, starting with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
He laughs as he recalls a lawyer asking him if he would like to sue Russia for damage to his house.
He does not think Moscow will invade, although he also cannot see an end to the conflict.
“It has dragged on for eight years and will keep dragging on,” he said. “We are fed up with it, you know, while they (Russian and Ukrainian authorities) over there don’t know what the war has because they can’t see it.”