"How to load half a century of life on a trailer?" The story of a farmer from Donetsk Oblast
26 July, 2022

"Here, the trees are green, and there everything is completely gray, the dust from the tanks is in the air all the time! So many things surprise me now, I pressed the button on the toilet and laughed like a child! It feels like I've gone wild for two and a half months without electricity, water and gas."

We drink coffee with Oleksandr under the streetlight in the center of the town of Ukrainka, not far from the capital. The man is surprised by the light because yesterday he was in a place where there has been no electricity for almost three months.

Oleksandr is 54 years old, he is a farmer. He stayed in his native village in Donetsk Oblast till the last. In fact, he lived under fire for four months. He couldn't leave the farm and his cows. His village is located between Siversk and Lysychansk, and now it is constantly shelled. Before the full-scale war, more than a thousand people lived there, but now there are less than a hundred left. 

Oleksandr sent his family — his wife and children — to the country's west in February. And he stayed — somebody had to milk the cows. He didn't want to leave the farm in which he'd invested his whole life. He tried to do everything he could to save it. He took the equipment for making hard cheese to neighboring Bakhmut. And he brought bread and food from there to the village. Back then, there were already problems with food supplies, but people stayed. He was also selling milk from his farm.

"People would bring jars, and I would give the milk for free",  Oleksandr says.

Farmer Oleksandr and his assistants / Photo: provided by hromadske

If it's quiet for two days, it's going to be hell on the third day

As many farmers went to safer places, there was no one to work on the farm.

"I had fields, cars, and livestock, but I didn't have as many hands as I needed," Oleksandr says.

The tractor driver, the milkmaid Halyna and her two daughters helped out. For weeks, they were working, eating, and hiding from the Grads together. 

Every morning we woke up at four to the "Russian alarm clock." That was the time when the Russians started shelling. By five, everyone would come to the kitchen. Then the women would give water and food to the cows and milk them to the sound of explosions. One morning we counted as many as eleven explosions.

"I was worried: when the milking equipment is working, you can't hear how the shells hit, and things explode, he says. "You have to listen carefully and fall to the floor in time, to stay alive and not be hit with a fragment. The moment you hear the whistle — you should fall to the floor. Sometimes you hear a popping sound five seconds after the shelling, and sometimes it's a popping sound and an explosion right after it; everything depends on atmospheric pressure. Aerial bombs are dropped mainly on the buildings where Ukrainian equipment may be hidden. If there is some kind of sheltered space, sooner or later, it will be hit. The farm is the first object that attracts attention."

Oleksandr shows a photo with the tails of a dozen missiles against the wall of one of his sheds, he has found them all over the farm.

"There are a lot of unexploded clusters from these "Uragans." Craters from bombs and artillery shells are everywhere, the largest pit, 6-7 meters deep, is in the center of the village. It was quiet for three days. In those three days, I thought I'd go crazy. When it was quiet, it was very stressful. If it's quiet for two days, it's going to be hell on the third day!"  the man shares his experience. 

Once, he was driving to Siversk, and suddenly there was an explosion on the bridge behind him, says Oleksandr. There were three explosions by the moment he left the village. "I drew a map of the area to mark a place where a missile didn't explode, where the shell or a cluster munition lies. Whenever I could, I asked people to put a flag — a warning about the danger," Oleksandr says. 

The village had been under constant shelling for weeks and turned into a bunch of craters, disfigured houses, and fields with missile debris, and it became impossible to move in it at all. Although Oleksandr handed over his three cars to the military, he decided that this was not enough: driving around the village without slashing a tire was a blessing. Therefore, he set up a free mini tire service near his farm.

"Wheels is a consumable material, and they can be popped with shrapnel or shot out. So I bought a machine for mounting and dismounting wheels so that the guys would not go over fifty kilometers to Bakhmut", — explains Oleksandr.

Remnants of missiles that Oleksandr collected after the shelling of his farm / Photo: provided by hromadske

 "They will be torn apart by Grads, high-explosive fragmentation shells; I just hope they won't suffer"

When it became impossible to live in the village, the man thought about taking out the animals. But he wouldn't afford the cost of it — 150 thousand hryvnias ($4,100, ed.) for 25 cows. And then he made a decision that still brings tears to his eyes:

"I went to the stable, the cows looked pitifully, they wanted something to drink, and I had nothing to give them. 38 dairy cows, 12 heifers, about 70 calves, including 20 gobies, 60 rams, 10 pigs, and a pair of donkeys with a little donkey — all the cattle had to be released into mined fields under Russian aerial bombs. They will be torn apart by Grads, high-explosive fragmentation shells, I just hope they won't suffer. If an animal's leg is blown off, no one can save it from suffering. I am so sorry for the newborn calves. It makes me cry," Oleksandr says with sadness.

He also released six shepherd dogs that were guarding the farm.

Cows from Oleksandr's farm / Photo: provided by hromadske

Then he took the milkmaid and her daughters to a safe place and also helped several other families get out of the village. Only then he left. He left all my agricultural equipment, machinery, workshop, and the house.

"I have been accumulating everything for many years. How to take it out in two days?! How to load half a century of life on a trailer? Cheese factory, pasteurizer, milk coolers — if you count everything, all the equipment I left would probably cost around three million." 

There is a cross on the key holder in his house, his son once brought it from the monastery. There is an inscription: "Chaplyky family lives in this house." Oleksandr believes that this amulet, along with the three icons that he left in the hangar, will protect his home. And that he would definitely come back. To his Ukrainian land. 

"In 2014, I lived under the "DPR" for three months. Staying under occupation is not an option. I want to live in a free democratic state! That's why I didn't leave the village till the last. No one knows if there will be a place to return to, but I will not give up my business, I will continue to build the farm. I'm not going to sit idly by for the rest of my life! I will help the army and the state as much as I can."

Author: Myroslava Ilto