Inside a Ukrainian village where farmers stay for the wheat harvest but fear Russian attack

Of 533 permanent residents before the war, 380 have stayed, with refugees from outside boosting the population to 436
Last Updated 11 April 2022, 09:35 IST

The wheat has been sown for the coming season but nobody in Yakovlivka, a small farming village outside Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine, knows if it will be harvested.

A week after Russian forces launched their invasion on Feb. 24, the village was bombed. The head of the village administration said four people were killed and 11, including children, were wounded in the attack.

"We were sitting in our cellar for four hours and read the Lord's Prayer. We wrapped the kids into blankets and just couldn't fall asleep until three or four in the morning," said Nina Bonderenko, who works on her cousin's farm.

Villagers said the attack may have been aimed at a unit of Ukrainian soldiers camping temporarily in the village school, although apart from some broken windows, the building was undamaged by the blasts.

Reuters was not able to independently verify the villagers' account of the bombing.

Russia has denied targetting civilians in what it calls a "special operation" to demilitarise and "denazify" its neighbour. Ukraine and its allies dismiss that as a baseless pretext for war.

Since the village was bombed, residents say all certainty has been lost.

"We have planted all the wheat. But will we be able to grow anything and harvest it under the current circumstances?" said Vadim Aleksandrovich, director of "Granary of Sloboda" - a farming company that emerged from a former Soviet-era collective farm.

"Only God knows. We are doing our best."

With the country at war, the uncertainty facing Yakovlivka is shared across the country by farmers who produce the grain that has historically made Ukraine, the world's fifth biggest wheat exporter, one of the great breadbaskets of the world.

Danger in the fields

Last season, Granary of Sloboda's harvest amounted to 3,000 tons of wheat, 3,000 tons of sunflower and 1,000 tons of corn. But at the moment, 80 per cent of the firm's 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) are not accessible because of mines or combat operations, Aleksandrovich said.

Only the fields immediately around Yakovlikva village can be reached relatively safely and there is heavy fighting around the firm's seed storage facility at its base in Izyum, some 140 km (85 miles) away, he said.

Before farm workers can go out to the fields, they call emergency services to find out if the area is safe. When rockets land in the fields, explosives disposal services remove any projectiles.

"The situation is very tense, and it is unclear what will happen to us," Aleksandrovich said. "We don't even know what will happen in one hour."

Despite the uncertainty, most of the villagers have remained, refusing to join a national exodus that has seen around a quarter of the country's population of 44 million flee their homes.

Of 533 permanent residents before the war, 380 have stayed, with refugees from outside boosting the population to 436, according to local authorities.

Although the village shop has closed, people have started to patch up the damaged houses that can still be repaired.

"I thought I could live my last days in peace and then this," said 66-year-old Vera Babenko, picking a bowl out from under a pile of rubble by her now door-less refrigerator.

She said a bomb landed just beside her house, about 200 metres (yards) from the school the attack was apparently supposed to hit but she said she had no plans to leave.

"I want to rebuild my kitchen."

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(Published 11 April 2022, 09:35 IST)

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