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Andriy Chernov, 36, an Orikhiv city councillor, in Orihiv, Ukraine, on Jan. 25.Anton Skyba /The Globe and Mail

A contrail stretches over the horizon as Andriy Chernov speeds his donated British ambulance toward Ukraine’s southern front line.

The white line moves slowly from west to east, then starts to curl. It could be a warplane or a Russian cruise missile, twisting to evade Ukrainian air defences. A second line then appears in the sky, possibly an anti-aircraft missile. Whatever is happening above, Mr. Chernov presses his foot down on the accelerator and carries on toward his battered hometown of Orikhiv.

The front line in this part of Ukraine has been static since the early days of this now-11-month-old war. Russian troops seized control of three nearby villages in late February and began their assault on Orikhiv, which sits astride a key crossroads on the highway to the regional capital of Zaporizhzhia. The stalemate that has persisted since then is one both sides now seem intent on breaking. Moscow is believed to be massing forces for a spring offensive expected to focus on the four provinces of Ukraine – including Zaporizhzhia – that Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed to have annexed last year.

Ukraine, meanwhile, is hopeful Wednesday’s announcement that the United States and Germany will deliver NATO-standard main battle tanks to the Ukrainian army will enable it to mount a counteroffensive to liberate the 15 per cent of this country under Russian occupation. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said his government will also allow other countries, including Canada, to donate their own German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.

While both sides prepare for the coming surge in fighting, civilians continue to live and die along the front line in places such as Orikhiv. People here say the past week – which saw Russia appear to probe Ukrainian defences along the southern front – was the worst period in a war that had killed 30 local residents even before the recent onslaught.

Mr. Chernov drives a donated van to deliver to supplies to Orikhiv.Anton Skyba /The Globe and Mail

“Last Tuesday to Friday, it was unbelievable what was happening around us,” Mr. Chernov said as he drove past a line of small houses that all appeared to have been hit by shelling or shrapnel. “We saw infinite, indiscriminate fire from different directions.”

Anatoliy Khvorostyanov, the head of the Orikhiv city council, estimated that the intensity of Russian shelling had increased 50 per cent in recent days. “The only weapons they are not using are chemical and nuclear. They are using every other kind.”

Anatoliy Khvorostyanov, the head of the Orikhiv city council, manages the city from the regional capital of Zaporizhzhia.Anton Skyba /The Globe and Mail

Mr. Chernov unloads a wheelchair that was requested by an 83-year-old man who is one of some 2,000 people still living in Orikhiv.Anton Skyba /The Globe and Mail

In the back of Mr. Chernov’s ambulance Wednesday was the daily delivery of necessities: a stack of two-by-fours, to repair some of the city’s hundreds of shattered homes, and a wheelchair requested by an 83-year-old man who is one of some 2,000 people – including 30 families with children – still living in Orikhiv under escalating Russian shelling.

The 36-year-old Mr. Chernov makes the journey five times a week – sometimes delivering food and medicine and occasionally evacuating residents who have decided it’s finally time to leave. He’s one link in a chain of volunteers that stretches from the city of Zaporizhzhia, an hour’s drive to the north, all the way to the front line. Collectively, the volunteers, many of whom are members of the local city council, deliver the basics of life to those who refuse to leave their homes.

Mr. Chernov drops the wheelchair and lumber off at the city council building, which has been converted into one of thousands of “points of invincibility” established around Ukraine, where residents can come for things such as electricity, warmth, food and water – all scarce in pulverized places such as Orikhiv.

Despite its shattered windows and a hole in its roof, the building is a hub of activity in a city that otherwise has a ghostly feel. Across the street are the scorched ruins of the school Mr. Chernov attended as a boy.

There were almost no cars Wednesday on the streets of a city that had a prewar population of 14,000. The few pedestrians who emerged from their homes walked briskly down deserted avenues to wherever they were going, as artillery fire – quiet in the morning – grew louder in the afternoon.

And yet they remain in Orikhiv. “Even if you cut off the flow of humanitarian aid, people still wouldn’t leave. They would sit and starve and trade among themselves,” said Lyubov Yarova, the 59-year-old city councillor who manages the 12 volunteers who operate the humanitarian hub.

Volunteers at the Orikhiv invincibility hub, on Jan. 25.Anton Skyba /The Globe and Mail

Lyubov Yarova, and her 12-year-old cat, Tana, in the basement of her apartment block.Anton Skyba /The Globe and Mail

Ms. Yarova herself is among those who won’t go. Though she no longer has family in the city – her husband died years ago, and their son moved away when he got married – she has decided to remain in her hometown for as long as it’s under Ukrainian control. She spends her days at the city council building organizing aid deliveries and helping co-ordinate the efforts of municipal workers, who are fighting a losing battle to deliver electricity and running water to the ravaged city.

She spends her evenings sleeping in a shelter she built for herself in the basement of her apartment block. Only three residents remain in the building, which was home to 100 people before the war.

Ms. Yarova shares the basement with her 12-year-old cat, Tana. It’s spartan but cheerfully furnished, with brightly coloured carpets hung on the cement walls to keep the heat in. The table beside her single bed is covered with hair-care products and ceramic dolls.

She leaves the shelter at 6:30 a.m. each day and listens to the sky to determine whether it’s safe to make the seven-minute walk to the city council building. She doesn’t take days off. “When people see me in the streets, they say, ‘Yarova is in the office, so everything is fine.’ It’s a source of hope,” she said. “I go to Zaporizhzhia once a month for two things: to get my nails done and to participate in city council votes.”

Many of those who fled Orikhiv have settled for now in Zaporizhzhia, where they gather at another “point of invincibility” to receive food and other assistance. Mr. Khvorostyanov, the head of the local council, said he wished the people remaining in Orikhiv would move to Zaporizhzhia, as he has. “Every time I talk to people, I tell them the same thing: ‘I understand your pleas for help, but it would be better if you help yourselves and leave,’ ” he said between phone calls to organize the next delivery of aid. “Officially, we are an area near the front line, but in fact it’s a battlefield.”

He said he believed the Russian army was “preparing something” in the form of a new push to capture Orikhiv and Zaporizhzhia. Speaking before the U.S. and German announcements Wednesday, he said Ukraine’s allies should hasten the delivery of modern tanks and other weapons.

“I would like to urge Western politicians to hurry up with the equipment because it will keep more Ukrainian soldiers alive. It’s good to rely on Ukrainian spirit, but it’s better to rely on Ukrainian spirit plus equipment.”