Frontline milkmaids tell tale of Ukraine's trust in outgunned army
The 26 cows feeding Oksana But and her sister in the east Ukrainian war zone are both a blessing and a curse.
The dreamy animals grazing on a grassy knoll a few minutes' drive from the frontline provide a steady income and a source of milk for her two children.
But they also mean that the 40-year-old is tied down to the land and cannot flee the invaders without losing her entire herd.
Hollow booms rolling in from the horizon and missile trails streaking across the sky deliver a daily reminder that the Russians are creeping closer from nearly every side.
That Oksana and her sister are still here in the third month of war -- despite their fears -- points to both the fierceness of the Ukrainian army's resistance and the people's seemingly undying trust in their ability to ultimately win the war.
"When it hits somewhere close I get very scared," she said while watching her daughter play with a cow's tail out of the corner of her eye.
"But what else can you do? Every cow involves a lot of labour. We cannot just drop everything, leave them with someone and move on."
- Levelled by shellfire -
The two sisters' perseverance in the east Ukrainian town of Bakhmut is fraught with risk.
Bakhmut's proximity to major flashpoints across the war zone has made it the preferred base of Western medical aid groups.
But its position at the bottom of a valley also makes it that much harder to defend.
Very little currently stands between Bakhmut and the closest Russian advance down a road leading to the eastern edge of town.
A map shows the village of Pylypchatyne sitting roughly half-way between Bakhmut and the Russian forces occupying parts of Popsana about 20 kilometres (12 miles) to the east.
The few dozen cottages hiding behind picket fences along Pylypchatyne's quiet river have nearly all been levelled by shellfire.
One partially standing house still had the remains of a meal on a table -- the telltale signs of inhabitants leaving in a rush.
A scruffy dog sniffed around for signs of its missing owner. The headless torsos of chickens blown apart by the incoming fire lay scattered among the shattered remains of a blue wall.
- No prisoners -
The azure sky over Pylypchatyne was being pierced by white vapour trails of missile fire being exchanged by Russian and Ukrainian forces situated on the opposite ends of town.
Middle-aged soldier Vyacheslav sat at a bus stop next to an elderly lady and watched these volleys of fire like a tennis match.
Neither seemed particularly shaken by the abandoned village's destruction. Both doubted the Russians would ever make it very far down this road.
"We know that the Russians are trying to encircle us. Believe me, we are ready for it," the 49-year-old career soldier said.
"Can you imagine how many soldiers are standing here ready to fight? Do you think they all intend to be taken prisoner? They would never be standing here if there were."
The elderly lady nodded and put her hand on the soldier's shoulder.
"I don't spend a second worrying about the Russians," Valentina Litvinova said. "They would never reach this far."
- Reinforcements -
The roads leading to various points north of Bakhmut are cut off by two other major Russian offensives.
Natalia Puzanova's Soviet-era hardware store on the way to one of the battlefields has peeling blue wallpaper and a fraction of its old customers or supplies.
But the 58-year-old would probably have joined all the other staff and left her village of Pokrovske had it not been for the soldiers coming in to stock up on socks and soap.
"They still have do the same things we all do. They still have to wash and do their laundry," she shrugged. "They keep me going."
The roads north rumble with the sounds of heavy trucks pulling huge tanks to the front.
This one-way traffic signals that Ukraine is still not ready to give up besieged cities such as Severodonetsk and Lysychansk -- scenes of some of the fiercest battles of the entire war.
Milkmaid Oksana's sister Lyudmyla says that even her cows are growing used to frontline life.
"They do not run away anymore," she said with a smile. "We have had a month of fighting in these parts and our cows have started to ignore it."
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