The first round of rockets to strike the heart of Okhtyrka landed in the opening days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The bombardment went on for weeks, gouging metres-deep craters in the streets and laying waste to homes and industrial operations.
Then the Russian troops left and things went quiet, until a fusillade struck just before 4:30 a.m. Tuesday. Explosions from five rockets lit the early dawn with fire, damaging buildings – including a kindergarten – and leaving people here wondering whether they will ever be safe.
“It feels like we will be living like they do in Israel, always waiting for another attack,” Grygoriy Mykolayovych said as he picked away at the remnants of his property. He kicked at a blackened cellphone and armour plate still lying where he found the charred corpse of a Russian soldier months ago, after the explosion that demolished his house in the opening days of the war.
On Tuesday, the force of the attack blew the doors off a garage that had withstood the first blast.
This war “is going to be a very long story,” Mr. Mykolayovych said.
Russian forces fled this area in the Sumy region at the end of March, as part of a broad retreat from Kyiv and northeastern Ukraine. More recently, Ukrainian soldiers have also pushed Russian troops away from Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city.
But withdrawal has not brought peace.
A Russian missile strike this week near the western city of Lviv was among the biggest since the war began. In the Odesa region, recent attacks have destroyed shopping malls and recreation centres. In Kharkiv, shelling has burned down a genetic biorepository with 160,000 seed samples.
Nationwide, the total damages have reached US$90-billion, Ukrainian authorities say, including 101 medical facilities destroyed completely; dozens of fuel storage and refining locations struck by attacks; 23,573 kilometres of damaged roads; and 300 ruined bridges.
The attacks have inflicted new levels of injury on the country’s basic function, with fuel now more sparse than at the height of the invasion.
They have also kept the entire country on edge, in particular along the border with Russia, which in the Sumy region cuts through 560 kilometres of forest and farmland. Near Okhtyrka, the commander of a checkpoint warns a passerby: “Listen to the sky. If you hear a suspicious sound, get down. It’s better to be dirty than dead.”
On Tuesday alone, police in the region reported attacks with large-calibre machine guns, automatic grenade launchers and artillery. One round of shelling lasted an hour. Earlier this week, a group of Russian forces conducted what analysts called a “large probing attack” in the northern Sumy region, sneaking into Ukraine along a railway track before being repelled by Ukrainian border guards in a firefight that involved machine guns and mortars. The Russians’ intent, local authorities believe, is to maintain enough pressure that Ukraine must keep troops on alert, preventing them from joining battles elsewhere.
A fragrant pine wood east of Okhtyrka is one of the places where that vigil is being maintained by a group of border guards, at a surveillance point a few kilometres from Russian territory. The quiet of the forest makes it an ideal listening post. The sound of an engine could signal a land incursion.
The noise of rockets and explosions marks the regular attacks on nearby towns and villages, including one that destroyed a home in Dmytrivka at 6 a.m. on Wednesday.
The surveillance point is hundreds of kilometres from the war’s principal front lines, but here, too, “the threat is constant right now,” said Lieutenant Artem Yuriyovych, who leads the small border guard contingent. “The fact that this territory has been liberated doesn’t mean the war over.”
Instead, nearly two months after Russian troops retreated from the region, an excavator was at work Wednesday extending a trench through the forest soil.
“The danger continues, so it’s better to always take all measures to protect people serving here,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Roman Tkach, a senior officer with the border guards in the Sumy region. “Our mission is to defend the country. But our task is to prevent and warn if there is another invasion.”
The likelihood of a renewed incursion in this area appears low at the moment, he said.
But the steady barrage of attacks have reopened scars for residents. Nadiya Akulinina left her home in Velyka Pysarivka, a village next to the Russian border, after her apartment building was struck in the early days of the invasion. She returned a week ago, but now wonders whether that was a mistake. Far from the tranquillity of the rural home she once knew, she has once again been thrust into the sounds of war.
“I hear it every day,” she said. One of her neighbours maintains a small escape bag packed with documents, likening herself to a soldier on alert, ready to move at a moment’s notice.
“We are afraid. We don’t sleep at night,” Ms. Akulinina said.
Her fear only grew when she learned that her daughter’s home was among those struck by the 4:30 a.m. rocket attack on Okhtyrka, although no one was home at the time.
On Wednesday, the work of rebuilding had already begun, as a crew of men installed a new roof to replace one blown off by the attack. Oleksii Ostapenko lives 100 metres from a military barracks struck by several of the rockets. His personal surveillance cameras captured images of the blasts, which rained down debris and shook the walls of nearby buildings, including his own home, shattering the windows of a church.
In Russia, military authorities boasted that the attack had destroyed a military training centre. But the barracks have been empty for months.
“The only training centre they managed to destroy was a kindergarten,” Mr. Ostapenko said. He shook his head at the fresh damage to his neighbourhood.
“We are really pissed off.”
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