In front of his boss’s bomb-damaged house, Vassili Kuchtch curses the “Russian bastards” who destroy his village a little more each day, then picks up the shovel. “I have to work, I have nowhere to go,” he says.
Mala Tokmachka, 70 km southeast of Zaporizhia and a few kilometers from the invisible line separating Moscow’s troops from kyiv’s forces in southern Ukraine, is awakened every night by Russian rockets streaking the sky and sees every morning its disastrous result.
The metal fence of the workplace was left like an accordion. The windows of two old tractors, parked in the garden, imploded. Debris lies on the ground. The small bomb responsible for the damage left its mark, a hole in the ground right in front of the house.
Across the street, the roof of a red brick building, destroyed by another shell, exposed its structure. “The neighbor was in the kitchen. She went to hide in the field,” Vassili said, before adding: “Thank God the cow is alive.”
Vassili Kuchtch is one of hundreds of residents determined to remain in the village, from which thousands fled after two months of war. The last to remain are the poorest, often the oldest, whose only wealth is that provided by the land.
Vassili is 63 years old but appears to be 15 years older, his face toothless and wrinkled. The uniform he wears was “given to him by a prison guard”. His baggy pants “are from Soviet times.” He lives in a tiny redoubt that “trembles” at every Russian impact.”
– “Like naked” –
“I’m like naked,” sighs the former driver, who has been doing odd jobs for about 30 years. “I don’t have money to buy anything.”
This divorced man, father of five children with whom he has no contact, would like to “bury alive” the “Katsapi”, a pejorative term for Russians.
But he knows he won’t stand a chance against them with his shovel, and so he will stay in Mala Tokmachka.
“If the potatoes are not planted, nothing will be harvested. The same with the onions. And then the cows will starve,” he says as he rolls the tobacco he grows himself.
The possible death of the cow would be a disaster for the man whose parents, born in 1927, lived through the great famine of 1932-22, known as Holodomor and which kyiv describes as a “genocide” orchestrated by Stalin, as well as that of 1946- 47. Those dramas taught him something: “You can’t live on water alone, but you can survive on milk.”
Olga Tuss, who hosts Vassili, calls him “a drunkard.” “When he drinks, you don’t go near him. Other than that, it’s all good,” she adds.
– “Bastards” –
But this stocky sixty-year-old, her hair tied up in a purple scarf, shares with him two values that are crucial in rural Ukraine: first, her hatred of the Russians, for whom she worked for 20 years in Moscow and whom she calls ” bastards”, and above all his desire to sow the land because, according to the local adage, “when the flowers begin to bloom, everything ends”.
Olga wants to believe that the war “will be over soon”, she is not afraid “for a second” that the Moscow troops could take Mala Tokmachka despite the rockets falling next to them.
It is a bet that the “rich” who fled the town have not made, unlike the “poor” who remained there.
For a few days, AFP has been able to observe some convoys of combine harvesters and other tractors on secondary roads heading for Zaporizhia, the main southern city still under kyiv’s control.
According to Yuri, a person in charge of the territorial defense of Mala Tokmachka, “it is to prevent the devices from being stolen by the Russians.”
Natalia Buinitskaia and her husband Guennady, in his 60s, appear to be out of consideration. The couple has not been able to leave because of Natalia’s mother, Vera, a tiny woman in the twilight of her life who does not want to die far from the town where she was born.
“I’m scared when it shakes really hard, so I just lie down and look at the window,” says this 84-year-old woman, who says she can’t walk, “not because of illness, but because of age.”
The old woman thinks of a future without war, or of her glorious past, when she “ran and ran and ran” without having to avoid bombs.