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Ukraine war: Woman shelters neighbours in her basement during Russian bombing raids


Svetlana Ginzhul has not heard from her soldier husband in more than a week.

The 54-year-old fumbles for her phone and begins to cry when she sees that – yet again – there are no messages from her beloved Dmitry.

‘The last time we spoke, he begged me to leave Ukraine,’ she says. Her friend Alla, a fellow villager, tries to console her, saying Dmitry is just out on duty on the eastern front, defending their homeland from Russia.

The 44-year-old former policeman, who is serving in Donbas, signed up for the military in 2014 after Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea. He and his wife used to spend their summer holidays there.

But that was before the Russians invaded and life changed overnight in ways they could never have imagined. ‘I don’t want to show that I’m scared,’ says Svetlana, as explosions rumble in the distance. ‘It is not good to panic. I believe that if you think positively, positive things will happen.’

Svetlana Ginzhul, 54, in front of her barn and the entrance to her underground shelter, in Luch, where she and other residents go to when the area is shelled

Svetlana (centre) , eats at the table with friends from the village in the under ground bunker. (L-R) - Ashot Mktrychan,42, Valery Slesarevsky,58, Svetlana Ginzhul,54, (background) Alla Mktrychan and Larisa Slesaresvska, 56.

Svetlana (centre) , eats at the table with friends from the village in the under ground bunker. (L-R) – Ashot Mktrychan,42, Valery Slesarevsky,58, Svetlana Ginzhul,54, (background) Alla Mktrychan and Larisa Slesaresvska, 56.

Svetlana Ginzhul, 54 (right) with her neighbour Alla Mktrychan, in the make shift kitchen of her under ground bunker

Svetlana Ginzhul, 54 (right) with her neighbour Alla Mktrychan, in the make shift kitchen of her under ground bunker

A Russian missile did hit the barn, but the basement below remain undamaged

A Russian missile did hit the barn, but the basement below remain undamaged

So instead of brooding on her troubles, the mother of three has opened her home in the village of Luch to her neighbours and friends. Some half-dozen or so now regularly sleep in the basement room below an old barn she owns. Four weeks ago, a Russian missile tore through the barn’s roof, reducing it to a sprawling mess of splinters and concrete debris before slamming into one of the outside walls.

But the basement remained intact. ‘If this rocket can’t get through then we should be safe tonight,’ says Svetlana, who the villagers have begun to call ‘the Mother of Luch’.

There are no guarantees of that, of course. But as she prepares for a night underground, perhaps humour is the only way to cope with the daily threat of death.

Luch is just three miles from the front line and 25 miles from the Russian-occupied city of Kherson. Ukrainian troops in the neighbouring village of Posad-Pokrovske regularly exchange fire with the enemy.

Once thriving and filled with families, Luch is now almost deserted. Its buildings bear the bullet-riddled scars of fighting.

Villagers wait for tea in Luch, which now only has about a tenth of its population before the Russian invasion

Villagers wait for tea in Luch, which now only has about a tenth of its population before the Russian invasion

Fedor Sychov (pictured), who described Svetlana as the 'mother of the village' in Luch

Fedor Sychov (pictured), who described Svetlana as the ‘mother of the village’ in Luch

‘About one month ago, I saw four Russian tanks come through here,’ says villager Fedor Sychov a wiry man in his mid-60s and a classically trained singer.

Little wonder, then, that most of Luch’s 1,000 residents have left to seek a better life abroad or, at the very least, fled to the relative safety of western Ukraine.

A mere 100 civilians remain – alongside dozens of Ukrainian troops – facing a daily battle for survival.

As evening draws in, the neighbours who will be sleeping in Svetlana’s basement begin to gather. A woman called Alla joins her, accompanied by her son, Ashot, a towering 42-year-old former solider. Valery Slesarevsky, a 58-year-old electrician, arrives with his wife, Larisa.

Svetlana then shows them to their night-time sanctuary.

‘Sorry about the mess,’ she says, pointing out with her perfectly painted nails a few flecks of dirt on the floor, which is lined with old red and green carpets. Immensely house-proud even amid the horrors of war, she grabs a broom.

The village playground where Fedor Sychov's grand children used to play before the war

The village playground where Fedor Sychov’s grand children used to play before the war

The neighbours stay in the underground cellar during the evenings to keep themselves safe

The neighbours stay in the underground cellar during the evenings to keep themselves safe

The neighbours sit down at a ramshackle wooden table to share their supper of Ukrainian borscht, chicken livers, vegetables and homemade goat’s cheese. A sense of nervousness sweeps around as they wonder what is coming their way over the next few hours.

At 10pm, Valery, the electrician, finishes a last glass of red wine and lights the stove with a few pieces of wood before he turns out the lights ahead of a military-imposed curfew.

‘You don’t have time to think when the bombs start,’ he says. ‘You will see later on.’

It does not take long at all. Just 30 minutes after the underground cellar plunges into dark, with the remains of the logs burning, Russian shells start to pound the nearby Ukrainian defences.

Six explosions, one following quickly after another, reverberate through the night sky.

Ashot, even after more than two decades out of the military, jumps immediately to his feet and grabs a torch. He moves across the darkened room to head out on his first patrol of the evening.

Tonight, this unarmed father of two will check for possible damage to homes and see if there have been any civilian casualties. Fifteen minutes later, he returns. Luch has escaped the worst – for now at least. ‘All clear,’ he says, before climbing back into bed.

Many buildings in Luch, near Mykoliav, have been heavily damaged due to Russian shelling

Many buildings in Luch, near Mykoliav, have been heavily damaged due to Russian shelling 

The village is much quieter than it used to be, as the vast majority of the population fled to western Ukraine

The village is much quieter than it used to be, as the vast majority of the population fled to western Ukraine

Ukraine war: Woman shelters neighbours in her basement during Russian bombing raids

The others manage just three-and-a-half hours’ sleep before the pounding begins once more, only this time the sounds are creeping nearer.

Just after 2am, the sharp cracks of explosions echo around the abandoned houses and off the walls of Svetlana’s recently damaged barn amid the constant hissing of artillery fire.

The onslaught lasts 20 minutes before one huge bang crashes like thunder, shaking the foundations of the makeshift bomb shelter.

‘Everyone OK?’ Svetlana whispers in the cellar before Ashot creeps up the stairs under the cover of darkness, this time with a greater sense of urgency. Fortunately, again, no one has been hit. Svetlana, the village matriarch, resumes her duties at dawn. She is first up, chopping wood for the stove.

Across the village green, Fedor, who has lived in Luch his whole life, sits outside another shelter drinking coffee with one of his daughters. ‘We only have optimists here,’ he says. ‘All the pessimists have already run away.’

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As this tally of misery increases over the coming days and months, these innocent victims of this conflict will require accommodation, schools and medical support.

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