Trenches are dug and teachers receive gun training in last large city in south-east under Ukrainian control
Outside Zaporizhzhia there are several lines of deep trenches, ringed by sandbags, armed men, and more sandbags and armed men.
But life in the city is surprisingly normal – even busy – for wartime Ukraine. As the only large city in south-east Ukraine under Ukrainian control, Zaporizhzhia has become a destination for the hundreds of thousands of people who fled Russian occupation.
With 70% of the wider Zaporizhzhia region under Russian military control, there are fears, however, that Moscow’s forces will attempt to take it.
Ukrainian reinforcements are moving towards the city and active fighting has begun in earnest. Ukrainian soldiers told the Guardian they had recently retreated from one town in the Zaporizhzhia region. Villages and towns about an hour’s drive from the city that were visited by journalists three weeks ago are no longer safe, according to the regional military administration.
“You can see for yourself people are out, going to work – the city is prepared but it won’t come to that,” said Ivan Ariefiev, the press secretary of the Zaporizhzhia regional military administration, at one of a series of war-related training courses being offered to the city’s teachers and journalists. Attenders, who are then expected to train the wider community, were taught how to load a gun, administer first aid and do a basic medical evaluation.
Despite the proximity of Russian troops, Ariefiev said, the regional military command was confident it could keep Russian forces at bay. “No one is being evacuated from the city itself,” said Ariefiev. “It’s only the evacuees from the south who are leaving for other places.”
In the newly dug maze of trenches outside Zaporizhzhia, the Guardian heard frequent incoming shells that soldiers said were landing 3km to 5km away. The group of soldiers who dug the trenches said they hoped these lines of defence would never be used and that Ukrainian soldiers farther south would withstand the attacks.
The soldiers who were not on the frontlines said they had a fraction of the medical and protective equipment they needed. For the whole platoon, they had just six tourniquets – a first aid essential that prevents blood loss. When asked if they thought the Russians would advance soon, they would only say they expected to fight.
“We just need arms from our western comrades and we’ll do it. The [Russians] have too much old Soviet equipment,” the platoon commander said. “In case you hadn’t noticed, they reached Kharkiv, Kyiv, encircled Sumy and Chernihiv – four huge regions – and we kicked them out. They were considered a powerful army, but we pissed on them.”
The previous day there had been a double rocket strike by Russian forces. The city has been hit infrequently compared with other eastern Ukrainian cities such as Kharkiv or towns in the Donbas. Some of the eight people wounded by the rocket attack were rushed to Zaporizhzhia military hospital, which occasionally takes civilians as well as soldiers.
According to the military press secretary for the hospital, Nikita, a former IT manager who joined up days after the invasion, none of the rocket strikes hit their targets, instead been caught by anti-aircraft systems, lessening the impact. “If they had hit as intended, we would have seen many, many more wounded,” Nikita said.
The head surgeon at the hospital said they were coping with the wounded but were working 24/7. He said he had been home only twice since the war started, and had been called back in almost immediately.
Despite the relative safety the city’s defences offer, some of those who have arrived from Russian-occupied areas want to return home.
The Guardian met one woman among a crowd of people in a car park on the outskirts of the city normally used to receive convoys from Russian-occupied territory. Iryna was part of a group of about 400 people who wanted to return to Berdyansk, a city in southern Zaporizhzhia takenby Russian forces at the beginning of March.
“We’re Ukrainians, we want to be part of Ukraine, but you have to understand my mother is bedridden and almost out of insulin,” Iryna said. “I came here last week to buy Pampers and medicine [for her] because in Berdyansk there’s nothing.”
But the Ukrainian authorities said they could not let the group leave Zaporizhzhia because of heavy fighting on the roads.
Iryna rang her husband, Vitaly, who had stayed in Berdyansk. He said over the phone that Iryna’s mother had a matter of days left to live.
For six days in a row the Berdyansk residents – who have clubbed together in the hope that it will make their passage safer – have come to the car park from the temporary accommodation offered to evacuees and waited for permission to leave.
The drivers of the coaches and minibuses are themselves from Berdyansk, and have helped to evacuate people from there and from neighbouring cities including Mariupol. They too are eager to leave as they plan to pick more up evacuees at the other end.
“I don’t care if it’s dangerous, just let us go,” Iryna said to a representative of the Ukrainian military, who was surrounded by other women, a few of whom also said they were going back to look after bedridden relatives. The military representative told the women that she could not risk letting them travel because of shelling on the roads.
A family with small children from near Volnovakha, a city in the Donetsk region also under Russian occupation, said they were hitching a lift with the Berdyansk convoy and planned to find other transport from there to take them home, another 150km away.
“We’ve run out of money. Of course we don’t want to live under occupation, but we can’t sleep in a shelter any more,” said Vlad, holding his three-year-old son in his arms. He said they had been in Zaporizhzhia for a week. “It would cost us 300 hryvnia (£8) a night to rent a flat. That’s not realistic.”
He added: “The volunteers have been just super but there’s no work here. At least there we have a small allotment and we’ll be with our parents.”
*Some names have been changed to protect people who may travel into areas Russian occupied areas of Ukraine.