SIVERSK DISTRICT, Ukraine – One of the few civilians still driving on a road leading to the battlefront, Oleksandr Chaplik skidded to a stop and leaned out of the car window to exchange information with a villager .
He was bringing supplies back to his village, one of the few still in Ukrainian hands that stood in the way of the Russian advance.
“We are surrounded from all sides,” said Mr. Chaplik, 55, a dairy farmer. “It’s the second month without light, without water, without gas, without communication, without internet, without news. Basically, the horror.
“But people need to eat,” he said. “I am a businessman. So I do my job.”
Mr Chaplik owns around 75 acres of land near the town of Sievierodonetsk, where Russian and Ukrainian troops have fought for control in fierce street fighting in recent days. The countryside around his farm was bombarded almost constantly by Russian forces attempting to encircle the easternmost Ukrainian forces and besiege Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk.
The roar of several rocket launcher systems fired south of the farm rattled the windows and doors of his home. “Don’t worry, they’re Ukrainians,” he said as he walked around his farm. “Here, thank God, the guys are holding their own.”
But war has come dangerously close. Craters of bombs and artillery shells furrow its fields. Leaning against the wall of one of his barns were the casings of a dozen rockets that Mr. Chaplik had collected around the farm. The rockets delivered cluster bombs, he said, which still littered his hay fields.
“They want to eat grass,” he said as he walked through the stalls of his 35 dairy cows. “But I can’t let the cows go on this grass because of these bombs, and I’m afraid they’ll fall into the bomb craters.”
Mr Chaplik is a frayed link to the world for his increasingly isolated village, whose anonymity he has requested so that he does not face reprisals from Russian troops. Risking his life, he provides vital supplies and information and continues to produce food as best he can.
Many other farmers left the area, but he said he couldn’t. “I can’t leave people,” he said. “If I leave, I won’t be able to go back to the village, I won’t be able to look people in the eye.”
But as war approached, he had to scale back his business while trying to keep the farm producing and the workers fed and paid. With utilities cut, he runs milk machines on generators, but can only run his refrigerators 12 hours a day.
“We were making almost 100 different dairy products,” he said. “I have a two-year-old parmesan. I made unique products that no one else made, sour cream, cream, mozzarella, burrata.
But without electricity, he had to reduce his production. There was a shortage of containers, he added. He pulled out two cheeses with a moldy rind from a fridge. “They’re no good,” he said.
It has moved its food production operations to several parts of the country, placing some of its dairy production in the nearby market town of Bakhmut, where it already has an organic meat and dairy store, and relocating its meat production plants in relatively safe areas. cities of Dnipro and Lviv.
His family also moved. His wife is a teacher and two of his children are university students, so they had to go somewhere with the internet to be able to continue working, he said. They called him daily, begging him to join them, but he said he still had work to do.
Its workforce contracted, as many villagers left with their families for safer parts of the country. “I have fields, machinery and diesel but I don’t have the workers,” he said. But he brought together the remaining 10 workers, so they now live and eat together.
Two teenage girls were cleaning the cowsheds. “They are the daughters of my workers. They are children, but I have no workers,” he said.
A pensioner, Lyudmila, 68, stepped in to run her shop in the village.
“Do you have any cucumbers?” she shouted as Mr. Chaplik unloaded bottled water and fresh vegetables from his van.
“Without him, we would be lost,” she said. Villagers couldn’t get to the market and prices there were much higher anyway, she said.
But the tension can be read on the face of Mr. Chaplik. Looks like he hasn’t slept in days. He complained of toothache and a twitch around his eye. One of the hardest things, he said, was fielding panicked phone calls from relatives trying to reach the villagers left behind. The village’s cell phone service has been cut, but they know that Mr. Chaplik goes into town every day to the market, where the cell phone service continues, and they bombard him with calls.
“My nerves are cracking,” he said, declining another phone call. “I work 14 to 15 hours a day. Physically, I am tired.
So now he arranges for his son to bring a mobile antenna, so that the villagers can be in contact with their loved ones.
He sees more trouble on the horizon. The war has disrupted agriculture and food production to such an extent that people in eastern Ukraine could go hungry for months to come, he warned.
Potatoes are already planted, which will provide food for the villagers, he said, but meat and milk will become scarce.
“If I don’t prepare food for my cows, they will die this winter,” he said. “I can’t cut the hay because of the cluster bombs in the fields and I need 12,000 bales of hay and I don’t have the workers.”
And as he follows the course of the war and the steady advance of Russian troops, he said it was likely that they would take over the village and he would lose the farmhouse he had built for more than 20 years. year.
Russian-backed separatist forces seized the region in 2014 but were pushed back after a few months. But this time, he said he didn’t expect President Vladimir V. Putin to stop. The Russian leader wants to take over part of the country, from the city of Kharkiv in the northeast to Odessa in the southwest, he said.
“He won’t calm down,” he said. “He will fight for a year, two, three, until he achieves his goal.”
Mr. Chaplik has slaughtered his pigs, so there is only one sleeping in his pen. Newborn calves will also have to be slaughtered, he said. “That’s a shame.”
If the Russians came, he added, he would have to leave behind his guard dogs, six German shepherds. “I couldn’t bear to put them down,” he said. “I will let them go.”
If the shells got too close, he would grab his workers and leave, he said. “I’m going to start over,” he said. “Give me a little piece of land, in Ukraine, in the United States, anywhere. I can build a great business again.