In the invasion of Ukraine, Russia claims that it does not have civilians as targets of its offensive: residential and work buildings, in addition to the population itself, are not an objective, according to the government of Vladimir Putin.
Lying in a hospital bed in the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, Natalia Mykolaivna mocks the Russians’ speech.
As early as the second week of March, the UN said that Russian attacks on civilian targets in Ukraine could constitute a war crime. Since then, there have been numerous documented attacks in which civilians have died in large numbers – many of them as a result of indiscriminate and heavy bombing of civilian areas.
But what happened to Natalia, 45, was deliberate, directed and without justification, she said. It’s a miracle she’s still alive. Grabbing the comforting hand of her son, Nikolai, she told me what happened in Polohy, her hometown, the day Russian troops arrived.
“I left my house, I was worried about my own mother, so I went to see her. She lived across the street from us,” said Natalia, who said she was allowed to pass through a first Russian army checkpoint. “Then I walked towards my mother’s house, I raised my hands in the air, saying that they had already let me through, but the soldier fired a burst of machine gun, hitting me in the legs, 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 removed from the scene by neighbors and family members, who took her to a hospital in nearby Zaporizhzhia. According to the doctors who treated her, she survived “by a millimeter”.
“Doctors don’t tell me how many bullets I had. I was shot from the waist down,” she said, showing me a bullet wound in her belly. “There’s one here, and here and here too. Everything is damaged, my private parts too.”
Natalia’s right leg is twisted and broken, held in place by a metal frame. Her knee is completely broken and she will never walk like she used to.
Polohy, the village now occupied by Russians and where Natalia was shot, is on its way to the besieged city of Mairupol. It is just a few kilometers south of Orikhiv, a small farming village.
Orikhiv is the last Ukrainian-controlled location before the front lines. In recent days, the region has been attacked by Russian grenades and mortars. Many families, especially those with young people, left for the relative safety of Zaphorizhzhia or towns further west.
But many older residents, doctors and members of the civil defense remained in the city.
Lida Vasylivna’s small farm, nothing more than a modest estate, is right on the outskirts of Orikhiv – the most exposed and dangerous part of town.
When we met her, Lida took advantage of the milder climate after the intense winter to plant potatoes.
As she covered the potato seeds with soil, the sound of Russian bombing could be heard in the distance.
Lida’s children and her sick husband, who has suffered two strokes since the start of the war, are safe in a shelter a few kilometers away. But she remains on site, tending to the harvest and the animals, including sheep and rabbits. Lida is very proud of the fact that she is almost self-sufficient in food and is determined not to lose everything she has built.
She lives in a modest bungalow. But the farmer cannot sleep there because the danger is imminent. Then she showed us where she sleeps: outside, in a cold, damp cellar where she normally kept her potatoes and pickles during the winter. Among the gardening products and tools are a mattress and a bedspread.
“I’m hiding here in this bunker because they’re bombing us and attacking us from all sides,” Lida said, with tears in her eyes. “I hate them, I hate them… We used to live in peace and we were happy.”
In a small town where war is an unwelcome visitor, everyone who decided to stay is adapting and learning quickly. Doctors, nurses and first responders at the small hospital in Orikhiv received an intensive course in battlefield medicine and trauma care. They are eager to learn, but they know that real life is very difficult.
“It’s basic triage, but in a situation of mass casualties,” said Guillaume Barreau, a course instructor at Doctors Without Borders.
Working in near-darkness because of a long power outage in the city, Barreau said these doctors are having to learn to make tough choices they weren’t trained to make. “They need to know how to focus on patients who can be saved. Everyone knows that if that happens, it will come at an unexpected time.”
Shortly after leaving Orikhiv, we received a call from Lida. She said that a major attack by the Russian army had just taken place in the region. A projectile landed in a field in the city itself. There was no information about victims.
Shaken but determined, Lila stayed and spent the night at her shelter.