Russia says it doesn’t target civilians – the buildings in which they live and work, or the people themselves.
Lying in a hospital bed in the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, Natalia Mykolaivna makes a mockery of that Russian denial.
As far back as the second week in March, the United Nations said that Russian attacks on civilian targets in Ukraine might constitute a war crime. Since then there have been numerous, documented attacks in which civilians have died in large numbers – many of them a result of the indiscriminate, heavy shelling of civilian areas.
But what happened to 45-year-old Natalia was deliberate, targeted and without justification. It’s a miracle she’s still alive. Clutching the comforting hand of her son, Nikolai, she told me what happened in her hometown of Polohy on the day advancing Russian troops arrived.
“I came out of my house, I was worried about my own mother, so I went to see her. She lived in the street right next to ours,” said Natalia, who explained how she was allowed to pass through a first Russian army checkpoint. “I then walked towards my mother’s house, raised my hands in the air – saying I’d already been told I could pass – but the soldier fired a burst from his machine gun, hitting me in the legs, everywhere from the waist down.”
Natalia didn’t see the face or hear the voice of the Russian soldier who shot her.
“He didn’t say a word. They were standing next to a tank with the letter Z on it”, she continued. “They were all wearing masks or balaclavas.”
Natalia was evacuated by neighbours and her family to the hospital in nearby Zaporizhzhia and has since been told by doctors that she survived death “by a millimetre”.
“The doctors won’t tell me how many bullets there were in me. I was shot from the waist down,” she said, showing me a bullet wound in her stomach. “There’s one here, and here and here too. Everything is damaged, my private female parts too.
Natalia’s right leg is twisted and broken, held together by a metal frame. Her knee is completely shattered and she’ll never again walk as she used to.
Polohy, the now-occupied village where Natalia was shot, is on the road to the besieged city of Mairupol. It’s just a few kilometres south of Orikhiv, a small farming village.
Orikhiv is the last Ukrainian-held village before the front line. In recent days and weeks it has been peppered by Russian shells and mortars. Many people, especially those with young families, have left for the relative safety of Zaphorizhzhia or cities further west.
But many older residents, doctors and civil defence members have remained.
Lida Vasylivna’s modest little farm, nothing more than a smallholding, is right at the edge of Orikhiv – the most exposed, dangerous part of town. As we meet her, Lida is hard at work in the vegetable patch, planting potatoes and sowing seeds – taking advantage of the mild weather after a cold winter.
As she covers the exposed seed potatoes with earth, the sound of Russian shellfire can be heard in the distance.
Lida’s children and her sick husband, who has suffered from two strokes since the start of the war, are safe, a few miles away in a communal shelter. But she remains, looking after her crops and her animals – including sheep and rabbits. Lida is very proud of the fact that she’s almost completely self-sufficient in food, and is determined not to lose everything she has built.
Lida lives in a modest bungalow. But she can’t sleep there – it’s too dangerous. So, she shows us where she sleeps – outside, in a cold and damp cellar where she would normally keep her potatoes and pickles during the winter. Among the produce and garden tools is a mattress and a quilt. It is primitive cover from the Russian shells.
“I’m hiding here in this bunker because they are bombing us and attacking from each side, Lida said tearfully. “I hate them, I hate them… We use to live in peace, and we were happy.”
In a small town, where war is an unwelcome visitor – everyone who has decided to stay is adapting and learning quickly. Doctors from Orikhiv’s small hospital, nurses and first aiders have been given a crash-course in battlefield medicine and dealing with trauma. They’re keen to learn but know this is serious.
“It’s basic triage but in a mass casualty situation,” said Guillaume Barreau, the course instructor from Medecins Sans Frontiers.
Working in near darkness because of an extended power cut in the town, Barreau said these medics are having to learn to make difficult calls they weren’t really trained for. “They need to know how to focus on the saveable patients. Everyone knows that if this happens, it happens at a time when it’s not expected.”
Shortly after we left Orikhiv, we got a call from Lida. There had just been a big attack. One shell landed in her field with more hits in the town itself. There was no word on any casualties.
Shaken, but determined, Lila stayed and spent the night in her shelter.