TYKHONOVYCHI, Ukraine – Deep trenches and scattered observation posts marking Ukraine’s northern border with Russia did not match the rolling tank columns on February 24.
The fighting here is different from other parts of the country, where Russian troops are firmly stationed on Ukrainian territory. This is a cross-border war. Russian tanks fire shells at villages in Ukraine. In the scattered gunfights, bullets flew across an exciting No Man’s Land.
“The border will never be the same,” said Sergei Khomenko, 30, commander of a unit patrolling the border near the village where he grew up. “If before there was only one tank trench, now the whole thing will be excavated.”
Khomenko and his subordinates no longer receive leave. They live in swamps and forests along the border, fighting not only the Russians but also “nakal-shaped mosquitoes.” They get dizzy when they use the coils that they keep burning in the trenches to keep them away. Now they are used to it.
Seven weeks have passed since the Russians withdrew from the Chernihiv region. Winter has turned into spring, and thousands of displaced people have returned as roads and public services have been restored.
Border officials say everything is going to happen very soon. Alexander Vadovsky, deputy commander of the region’s border guards, said two to eight shells fall into the Chernihiv region every day. His troops were regularly forced to cross the border and fire back.
“In any case, we are preparing for a possible re-attack,” he said. “It simply came to our notice then. [The Russians] I have no idea what the rules of engagement are. “
The same dynamics are taking place in the neighboring Sumi region, which the Russians evacuated at the same time as Chernihiv. And in Kharkiv, when Ukrainian forces pushed the Russians back to the border, local officials said they would also turn the war into a war where defensive preparations would replace pitch warfare.
Relations between locals on both sides of the border were close but tense before the attack. Family and cultural ties are deep, but Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, as well as support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, sparked tensions even hundreds of miles away.
“Before, relatives, friends and acquaintances came here from Russia with good intentions,” Khomenko said.
After the attack in February, which is unimaginable.
“Now the border is strewn with blood. It is a memorial to those who died. This line is now associated with a life of sacrifice, “Vadowski said.
In Tychonovichi, a village of about 600 inhabitants separated by half a dozen miles of forest from the border, two local youths on duty as border guards were killed in the final days before the Russians withdrew.
Andrei Samusenko and Anton Mayahki were childhood friends. They are both 30 years old, with blue eyes, and have left their beloved family.
Their comrades know how they died because the Russian soldiers who attacked them turned on their cameras and posted footage on the telegram.
The video shows Russian soldiers throwing a rocket-propelled grenade at a border guard pickup truck, then briefly killing the survivors.
Samusenko’s wife, Nina, 35, is now raising their five daughters on her own and is three months pregnant. She and Andrew conceived on the eve of the war, before she was deployed. She hopes to have a sixth son.
Neighbors have tried to help her, but she is too sorry to be involved. When reporters meet, all she can say about her husband before he bursts into tears is: “He was the best.”
Under a dirt road about a mile from Samusenkos’ home, the Mayahki family gathered to receive Anton’s three fellow border guards who had gone to lay flowers at his grave.
His grandmother, Halina Petrivna, 68, especially liked him. He knows exactly how many days since Anton was killed, buried and attacked. He jumped at the same question so many Ukrainians struggled to answer: “Why?”
“So many young people are lost, and why?” Petrivna asked. “I do not understand their motives. Why are they bombing incessantly? What do they expect? That we surrender? “
The people of Tychonovichi and other villages are giving everything to the border guards instead. They cook all their food, and civilians manage the outpost if the guards are too thin.
“If you tell them you need milk, they will bring you a VAT,” said Commander Khomenko.
The Russians have seen how easy it is to cross the border once, mostly here, guarding for another round.
“People are cautious. They have heard that the Russians have increased their power again, “said Anatoly Bondarenko, 45, the mayor of the village.
On the day of the attack in February, Bondarenko received news from a village near the border that the Russians were on their way. He called on her to do whatever he could to hide them. Then he hid all the papers as much as he could.
Three tanks crashed and an electric pole broke. Some locals came out to confront the Russian troops, whom they thought were misleading performers, and even lost.
A brief argument ensued, but then the Russians were on their way – eventually reaching the outskirts of Chernihiv, a 300,000 city they had besieged but never occupied. During March, Russian jets and artillery mercilessly bombed and shelled the city. Border guard headquarters were hit at least 30 times and badly damaged, but most of the targets had no military purpose – apartment buildings, grocery stores, schools. More than 700 civilians were killed there, according to the city mayor.
In the villages, the biggest change has been their attitude towards the border. Once upon a time, it was a fictional line, an accident of history, there is nothing to worry too much about it. Now they see it as the only thing between them and a group of raiders.
“Since the start of the Great War, even those who have siblings in Russia have stopped talking to each other,” said Bondarenko, whose wife is originally from a village in Russia. A friend of his recently called and said that he did not believe that the Chernihiv bombing had taken place and that Ukrainians should watch the Russian channel to find out the truth.
“Sometimes when I turn on the TV to watch Russian channels, I think I need to be nervous, to be mentally healthy. A person with weak nerves can break a TV, “Bondarenko said. “It simply came to our notice then. I just turn it on, I immediately get mad and then I turn it off. They’re just zombies now. “
Serhiy Margunov contributed to this report.