Families caught in the crosshairs of Ukraine’s southern counteroffensive

Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine

When the Russian invasion began, Maria Pokusaeva knew she would not leave her home in southern Ukraine, despite being close to the front lines of the conflict.

Caring for his geese, chickens and lone cow on the family’s small holding is a way of life, and he can’t bear to leave the animals behind.

“How can I leave my home?” 65-year-old Pokusaeva said. “My daughter tells me in Poland: Mother, you have to run from there.”

But he stayed with his wife on their 16-hectare farm, which they rented from a local landlord near the edge of Ukrainian-held territory.

Since Ukraine announced the start of a counter-offensive to retake the Russian-occupied Kherson region on Monday, fighting has intensified close to home.

“My heart was jumping, especially when the planes were flying over us,” Pokusaeva said. “Every day and night – bang bang. I can not take it anymore. People are suffering.”

But despite the increased danger, Pokusaeva strongly supports the Ukrainian army, and its mission to retake the land from the Russians.

The offensive is still in its early days, but Ukrainian forces have already claimed some early gains, retaking four villages from the Russians on Monday, a Ukrainian military source told CNN.

Driving to Pokusaeva’s house and heading to the front line through small villages, the area seemed deserted of residents and troops. It was clear how quickly the Ukrainians were advancing, with several checkpoints left unmanned and signs of recent shell casings and military rations strewn on the side of the road.

Further south lies the main target of Ukrainian troops: the city of Kherson, the only regional capital to fall to Russia since the start of the war.

Ukrainian troops have destroyed Russian defenses in “several” areas of the front line near the city of Kherson, Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to the head of President Volodymr Zelensky’s office, said on Monday. For its part, Russia said it had managed to repel the Ukrainian advance, saying Ukraine had “suffered heavy losses” and “miserably failed” in their “attempted” offensive.

Lypchak Lubbock, 83, lies in bed in a shelter in southern Ukraine.

Videos posted on Telegram and Twitter showed fighting in and around the city over the past few days, and the Antonivskyi bridge was also destroyed, cutting off a key supply line for the Russians.

“Now [the Russians] is not capable of transporting reserves from the left bank (of the river),” Natalia Humeniuk, head of the United Coordinating Press Center of Security and Defense Forces of the South of Ukraine, said on Tuesday.

“They may continue to try to set up a ferry or pontoon crossing, but the entire area where it can be deployed is also under our fire control and will be hit,” he added.

On Monday, he warned residents of Kherson who were unable to escape to seek shelter until the fighting ends.

Even before the counteroffensive began, residents of the city of Kherson and the surrounding region had been fleeing for months. Many of them are arriving in the city of Kryvyi Rih, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of the front line in the Kherson region.

“Our house was hit,” said Smirnova Galina, 61. “That’s why we fled.”

With her husband Prokopenko, she now shares a room with more than a dozen other people in a Kryvyi Rih primary school turned shelter, which is home to 86 internally displaced people.

“I just want to go back to my village,” said 83-year-old Lypchak Lubbock, who arrived at the shelter accompanied by his son-in-law. They fled three weeks ago when their village was occupied by the Russians.

“There was a lot of shelling out,” Lubbock said. “I can’t go out on the streets, it’s too dangerous.”

For Ukrainian troops fighting to retake these villages, any progress in this potentially long battle could be tenuous, but their morale has been boosted by the first signs of victory.

“The Ukrainian army is a fighting hero,” said Alexander Vilkul, the head of the military administration in Kryvyi Rih. “The victory is ours because not only the army is fighting, but the whole country is fighting.”