Crowds collecting their monthly pensions at the Ukrainian front are dangerously exposed to relentless exchanges of fire – Copyright AFP/File Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD
Postwoman Iryna Fedyanina’s laughter drowns out the mortar fire ringing out as she hands out pensions to the frightened masses near a river splitting Ukrainian and Russian forces.
A sullen driver takes her Ukrainian post office van past barricaded checkpoints and positions so dangerously exposed to Russian fire that soldiers try to blend into the surrounding forests.
He then leaves her parked on a patch of grass for hours on end while she counts out the cash owed to every pensioner and writes down their names in a complicated ledger.
Fedyanina giggles at her utter helplessness in the face of the overwhelming danger posed by the thuds and blasts echoing across the verdant hills.
“I tell myself in the morning that everything will be alright and hope that God will protect me,” the smiling 50-year-old says from inside her van.
“I pray and then I drive out to the front. What else can you do? We cannot leave our people without money. If we do not pay them, who will?”
– Ears covered –
The answer worrying Ukrainians is that the Russians would be delighted to hand out the pensions should they manage to push south past the Siverskiy Donets River and seize settlements such as Mayaky.
Fedyanina’s unspoken duty thus involves winning over the Russian-speaking elderly who comprise the vast majority of people still clinging on to their homes in the war zone — and whose attachment to Kyiv’s pro-Western leaders is wavering.
She must do this with everyone’s nerves fraying and instant death a random but real possibility at any moment.
Rocket and missile fire has already killed dozens of civilians gathered in crowds in cities such as nearby Kramatorsk and the more distant Kharkiv.
Both sides have accused the other of shelling civilians fleeing in evacuation buses.
The few dozen people crowded around Fedyanina’s van sighed and grumbled among themselves at particularly threatening blasts of incoming and outgoing fire.
Some simply covered their ears and patiently waited.
“Of course I am afraid. We have had so many cases like this, when a shell flies right into a crowd of waiting people,” said pensioner Larisa Zybareva.
“Every time they come here to hand out pensions, they start shelling again,” the 63-year-old former farmhand said.
“Last month, we did not even think they would come, there was so much fighting. But in the end, they still came.”
– Frontline river dip –
Not everyone is as sensitive to the danger.
Ukrainian soldiers occasionally stop off at Mayaky’s two tiny shops and Sunday market to stock up on cigarettes and candy.
An intelligence officer who agreed to be identified as Misha was basking in the sun with an assault rifle on his lap and telling tales of his troops’ rising morale and the futility of the Russian offensive.
“Now that the West has started to help, we have had no problems with supplies or weapons. We have everything,” said Misha.
“The only only real problem is with uniforms and cigarettes. We wear uniforms from all over the place in one unit.”
Misha then stretched his back and pulled off his shirt before running down to the ravine and diving head first into the frontline river at the heart of the latest wave of battles.
“Since the war started, this is my first dip,” he shouted after coming up for air. “It feels good to get the summer season started.”
His trousers and assault rifle rested unattended on a picnic table while he splashed around.
– Relative safety –
But rumours were filtering in from further out east that the Russians had made their first serious break across the river Misha was splashing in near Mayaky.
The ultimate target of the battalion tactical groups Russia has fanned out across the northeastern front appears to be Ukraine’s main administrative centre in Kramatorsk — the home base of Fedyanina’s postal unit.
The bespectacled Russian and Ukrainian speaker may be one of the first civilians to know how close the Kremlin’s forces are really getting to her symbolically and strategically important city.
“I visit one village after another. And by the end, I end up visiting each one of them once a month to pay the pensions, ” she said of her frontline travels.
“We go where it is safe — or at least, relatively safe. We cannot enter places with active fighting.”