A sleepy Ukrainian town finds itself on the front line and under fire as Russian troops advance in the southeast

There is still, between the artillery fire, a feeling of sleep in the town of Orikhiv, nestled among wheat fields about 60 kilometers southeast of Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine.

The buildings – at least the ones that avoided being bombed – bear peeling paint and a faded charm. A daily market still clings to life, supplying an ever-decreasing number of nearby residents and farmers.

There are fruit and vegetable stalls. There’s someone selling fish and a few people offering butcher’s meat straight out of their car trunk.

Ivan Vasilovich, 72, sells his own handmade brooms, saying he gives them to soldiers for free – so they can sweep up Russians.

He will stay in Orikhiv, he insists, “until I die”.

At the Orikhiv market, you can see butcher’s meat being sold in a chest, but there are few young people staying in the town so close to the Russian front line. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC)

But there are few young people in the market apart from Ukrainian soldiers buying sacks of vegetables. The empty roads leading to Orikhiv indicate a front line now almost above the town, with Russian troops less than three miles away.

Caught between these troops and the Ukrainian forces trying to push them back, Orikhiv can turn into a battlefield in seconds to record the sound of a missile whizzing overhead, landing with an earth crunch a heartbeat later.

As the Russian shelling continues in the town of Orikhiv, those who have not left are seeking refuge wherever they can find it, preferably underground like these warehouses under the local government building. (Jason Ho/CBC)

life under rockets

“Oh shit,” said social worker Valentina Los, clutching a hand to her mouth when she heard the first missile in a roadblock last week.

She had just cycled from the city’s main administrative building to deliver food to vulnerable residents when it started. Some people can’t leave for health reasons while others just won’t.

“That’s it,” she said optimistically before the familiar whistle rang through the air again, signaling another flare.

“It’s dangerous here,” said Valentina Los, a social worker who transports food to vulnerable residents who can’t or won’t leave. (Jason Ho/CBC)

There are no anti-aircraft sirens to warn the locals and when the missiles start to hit those caught in the street, they scatter in search of whatever cover they can find. Los rolled his bike behind a tree at one point.

“It’s dangerous here,” she said, starting to count the rockets.

And so on.

WATCH | Civilians take cover when the rockets hit:

Civilians and media scramble for safety from Russian shelling in Orikhiv, Ukraine 0:29

Many farmers in the surrounding area no longer tend to their crops because of the danger. The fields next to the city are pockmarked by the bombardments. Natalia Omelchak, who runs a general store in a nearby village, says she sleeps in her clothes.

“So that you are always ready,” she said. “And you listen to where it’s going to fall, and you don’t know where to go.”

Natalia Omelchak, who runs a general store in a village near Orikhiv, says she sleeps in her clothes, so she is ready to flee at any time. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC)

More than half the city has fled

According to Captain Andriy Bystryk, communications officer of the Zaporizhzhia Separate Territorial Defense Brigade, some 70% of the Zaporizhzhia oblast or region is now occupied by Russian troops.

“We know that [the Russian troops] will try to take away these parts of Zaporizhzhia and [neighbouring] regions of Dnipropetrovsk which are still free,” he said.

“The grouping of Russian occupation troops is very large south of Orikhiv.”

His brigade is called upon to fight on two fronts now, he says, as Russian lines push north from the coast where they hold several towns, including Mariupol, and from the east into the bordering Donbass region, where Moscow has set its sights and is trying to gain territory beyond the separatist-held areas it controlled before the war.

If Orikhiv and other cities around it fall under the Russian thrust, there is more or less a clear shot towards the city of Zaporizhzhia.

Captain Andriy Bystryk, communications officer of the Zaporizhzhia Separate Territorial Defense Brigade, says 70% of the area is occupied by Russian troops and his brigade is fighting on two fronts. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC)

“The units of our brigade are fighting fiercely, but part in the Zaporizhzhia region and part in the [Donbas] region,” Bystryk said.

Los and other Orikhiv social workers insist they will not abandon the town or those still there based on their services. But others leave.

The population of Orikhiv was between 15,000 and 20,000 before the invasion.

Local authorities say more than half have left.

The city of Orikhiv lies on the edge of, but just outside, Russian-controlled Ukrainian territory. More than half the town has fled, local officials say, many in Zaporizhzhia more than 60 kilometers away. (Radio Canada)

A small crowd waits outside the administration building to see relatives leave, the driver of a mini-bus heading for Zaporizhzhia calling out the names of the passengers.

“Saying goodbye to your house is very difficult,” said Natalya Ivanovna, 62, already sitting alone on the bus. Like many in the city, she had already sent her children away for security reasons.

She’s finally leaving, she says, because the shelling is almost constant.

“Many houses have been destroyed,” she said.

Ihor and his 12-year-old daughter, Anna, are also on board.

” What can I say ? said Ihor. “Like everyone else, we had a normal life until they started filming. We were living normally, studying, working, and now there is no possibility of studying or working.”

WATCH | Unease in Orikhiv as war draws near:

The unease in Orikhiv, Ukraine, as war draws closer

As the front lines of war draw closer to the town of Orikhiv in southern Ukraine, its residents face a difficult decision: stay or leave. 3:12

Zaporizhzhia: “another world” of fights

Between 1,000 and 3,000 displaced people arrive daily in the city of Zaporizhzhia depending on whether the humanitarian corridors are open or not from the occupied areas. The journey is strewn with pitfalls in both directions.

Bystrik says the military is still struggling to know what advice to give people in occupied areas, especially after atrocities Russian troops are accused of in towns they occupied around kyiv before pulling out in early April.

Internally displaced persons are registered in the city of Zaporizhzhia. Between 1,000 and 3,000 arrive every day. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC)

“It’s all situational,” he said. “Depending on where they are, who’s going to drive. We know of cases where enemy vehicles, tanks, run over civilian cars. We know of cases where they just shoot at oncoming cars. Just shoot cars that pose no danger.”

Yulia Musatova, 38, made the decision to leave the occupied city of Tokmak with her young daughter more than a week and a half ago.

“It was not possible to stay in our town,” she said, watching her daughter Marina play in a special children’s area run by volunteers from the main registration center for displaced people in Zaporizhzhia.

Yulia Musatova, 38, watches her daughter play in a children’s area run by volunteers at one of the registration centers for displaced people in Zaporizhzhia. (Jason Ho/CBC)

“When you go out on the street [in Tokmak], you only see cars with ‘Z’ on them,” she said, referring to marked Russian vehicles. “You see soldiers with guns. There is no city life.

“The Russians said it was forbidden to enter the cemeteries because they were mined. They said you could only use this one street.”

Some of the accounts echo early accounts of people who experienced the Russian occupation of towns near Kyiv.

“We spent all of our time queuing for food and the rest of the time stuck at home,” Musatova said. “We heard they were searching apartments and tree-lined boulevards.”

WATCH | Zaporizhzhia is a safe haven but the Russian threat is getting closer:

Finding refuge in a Ukrainian town as Russian troops close in

Thousands of people fleeing brutal Russian attacks find temporary refuge in the city of Zaporizhzhia in southern Ukraine. Many of them describe the fear of escaping the front lines of war. 2:38

The single mother has already found a job in Zaporizhzhia and says they will stay until the fighting gets closer.

“People walk the streets here freely and cars drive by,” she said. “We can’t believe we’ve arrived in another world.”

“There is no point in running any further,” said Alyona Zinchenko, another displaced Ukrainian who fled the town of Huliaipol a month ago. “Yes [Russian President Vladimir Putin] wants to come here, he will go anywhere in Ukraine.”

Message boards at a refugee center in Zaporizhzhia share photos of the missing and requests for help to get elderly relatives to safety. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC)

The fate of the southern cities weighs especially on those of Zaporizhzhia. Long lines of cars trying to leave are held up for days on the outskirts of town.

These are often people who have risked trips north to stock up on supplies and medicine they cannot find on the Russian side of the front line and are eager to return those supplies to their loved ones.

The Ukrainian army seems reluctant to let them return, perhaps for security reasons.

Notice boards in refugee centers are filled with pictures of people missing in Mariupol or elsewhere, and even requests for volunteers to try to get elderly relatives out of the besieged city.

For now, Zaporizhzhia feels like “another world” for refugees who fled the Russian occupation in Ukraine, where people can walk the streets without constant fear of shelling. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC)

It’s unclear how long Zaporizhzhia will manage to maintain that “otherworldly” feeling Musatova refers to, as cities like Orikhiv come under pressure.

Captain Brystik insists that Zaporizhzhia is well fortified, lines of trenches dug around it. But there is no doubt, he says, that this part of Ukraine is now under extreme pressure.

“So now it’s a difficult situation,” he said. “A difficult situation. But I still believe that we will break this situation and return our territories.”

A cyclist rides along a fortified street Friday in Zaporizhzhia, which braces for further attacks as the Russians push their advance from the south and east. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)