A green wood crate lay open on the side of a dirt road with its contents scattered. The ripped-open Russian military-issued meal packets were abandoned among plastic sandals and body armor.
Ukrainian soldiers kick through small tins of apple sauce, crackers and cans of chopped beef. A few meters away, a Russian soldier lies dead in the grass, rotting, his feet splayed onto the road.
We can hear bombs every few minutes, but the sound is dull, and the ground doesn’t shake. A loud crack nearby interrupts the pattern.
“That is definitely outgoing,” I comment. It was more of a blast than a crash.
Another journalist suggests we move on from our current location in Storozheve. If soldiers are firing out so close to us, perhaps the next incoming will land here.
As we drive through the battle zone, we see only a man and a woman. He is a farmer fixing a fence. She wears a broad sun hat and pushes a wheelbarrow, ignoring the artillery banging around her.
House after house is reduced to rubble or piles of sticks. A small bank of shops that once was a grocery is burned out, the roof mostly blown off. A shining blue and yellow Ukrainian flag flies over the crumbling building. Ukraine has retaken several villages along this river in recent weeks, but fighters say their victories have been dangerous, slow and tricky.
“They don’t stand still,” says Andri, a Ukrainian soldier who also fought in the battle to retake Kherson, a major city once occupied by Russia. “They also shoot at us. They also see us. That’s why it’s harder.”
As the laborious battles continued over the weekend, chaos broke out in Russia to the delight of many Ukrainians. Russia’s private military group, Wagner, declared what amounted to a revolt, and President Vladimir Putin vowed to punish those responsible for the “mutiny.”
The chaos in Russia may have been stamped out quickly with a deal that would send Wagner’s troops back to their posts and their leader, the still at-large Yevgeny Prigozhin, to Belarus in exchange for promises not to prosecute, but things remain uncertain.
In the hours that Wagner fighters marched toward Moscow after taking over a key military base in Russia’s south, some Ukrainians squealed with joy, hoping it would be the beginning of the end for Putin. “Viva la Revolution!” shouted one Ukrainian colleague while watching the Russian president’s Saturday morning speech on his mobile phone in the car. He played another video of a Ukrainian soldier enjoying his popcorn as he watched Russian news online.
But on the front lines in Ukraine, little changed, said Serhii, a soldier and press officer who works in the combat zone. “The enemy continues to shell Ukrainian positions,” he texted on WhatsApp. “Despite this, [our soldiers] are also trying to put pressure on the enemy to force it to retreat.”
‘How could you look?’
Hours from the front lines of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, sirens wail daily, warning of artillery heading toward civilian cities, towns and infrastructure.
About 20 minutes outside of Zaporizhzhia city, we stop on the banks of the Kakhovka Reservoir to see one of Ukraine’s most significant resource losses in recent weeks. On June 6, an explosion destroyed the downstream dam, killing dozens and flooding entire regions beyond recognition. Here at the reservoir, we understand water levels have dropped and countless fish have died.
We were not prepared for how bad it really is. From the village of Malokaterynivka, what locals used to call “the sea” is now a vast, muddy desert. What was once the other shore is barely visible in the distance.
The smell of dead fish hangs in the humid air but locals say it’s not so bad. “Yesterday it was terrible,” says Natalya, 35, a mother slowly watching her vegetable garden die as she recovers from brain surgery. “The wind changed today so we can breathe.”
The pipes in Natalya’s house pump in less water every day but she says many of her neighbors have no water at all. A few blocks away, volunteers place loaves of bread on a metal table for residents to collect. Farmland is expected to dry out this year and no one is sure where the crisis will end.
At a pier in Zaporizhzhia, nearly a dozen men and women fish in the depleted, muddy upstream waters. They say loss of the water source that feeds the region is just one of many unbearable tragedies they have seen since Russia’s 2022 invasion.
“More than 500 children have died in this war,” says Yuri Kuripka, casting his line. “If you took their bodies and lined them up, how could you look? How is this possible?”
Nearly two hours away by car, downriver from the pier, we enter the city of Nikopol where most of the people on the streets are carrying empty water bottles or buckets.
Nikopol is also alongside the reservoir, but it is now almost completely without running water. Families fill buckets from public tanks brought in from out of town, lugging the heavy packages home on foot despite daily shelling.
Looming over the opposite bank of the mud plain that was their reservoir is Zaporizhzhia’s nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, now controlled by Russia.
In the past week, Ukrainian officials have said that Russia plans to conduct a “terrorist attack” at the plant, a claim Moscow denies. But at the city mayor’s office, we are told no leaders, deputies or city planners are available to speak to us, because they are all working on evacuation and other contingency plans.
In one of the city’s main shopping areas, Melania, 28, a manicurist, drives up to a grocery store on a small motorcycle with two empty water bottles. Melania says she is searching for a place to buy drinking water without a long queue. She has household chores and a job to do.
Like others we speak to, she doesn’t shudder or shake when we ask about the nuclear threat. We ask if she is doing anything to protect herself now.
“Some information has been distributed, but I haven’t read it in detail,” she says. “I don’t want to get upset just yet.”
As we head back to our car, Melania approaches the grocery and sees a handwritten sign on the window. “No water,” it says.
Stanislav Storozhenko contributed to this story. Reporting done from Storozheve, Malokaterynivka, Zaporizhzhia and Nikopol, Ukraine.