Mayaki (Ukraine) (AFP) – Postwoman Iryna Fedyanina’s laughter drowns out mortar fire as she hands out pensions to the terrified crowds near a river that shares Ukrainian and Russian forces.
A grumpy driver drives her Ukrainian mail van past barricaded checkpoints and positions so vulnerable to Russian fire that soldiers try to blend in with the surrounding forests.
He then leaves her on a patch of grass for hours while she counts out each pensioner’s money and enters their names in a complicated ledger.
Fedyanina giggles at her utter helplessness in the face of overwhelming danger from the punches and explosions echoing across the green hills.
“I tell myself in the morning that everything will be fine and I hope that God will protect me,” says the 50-year-old, smiling from 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 don’t pay them, who will?”
The answer, which worries Ukrainians, is that the Russians would be happy to hand out the rents if they managed to push south past the Siverskiy Donets River and capture settlements like Mayaky.
Fedyanina’s unspoken duty, therefore, is to win over the Russian-speaking elderly, who make up the vast majority of people still clinging to their homes in the war zone – and whose ties to Kyiv’s pro-Western leaders are faltering.
She must do this while everyone’s nerves are on edge and instant death is a random but real possibility at any moment.
Rocket and rocket fire has already killed dozens of civilians who had gathered en masse in cities like nearby Kramatorsk and more distant Kharkiv.
Both sides have accused each other of firing on fleeing civilians on evacuation buses.
The few dozen people crowded around Fedyanina’s van sighed and grumbled among themselves at the particularly menacing explosions of incoming and outgoing fire.
Some simply covered their ears and waited patiently.
“Of course I’m scared. We’ve had so many cases like this one, when a grenade flies straight into a crowd of waiting people,” said pensioner Larisa Zybareva.
“Every time they come here to pay out pensions, they start shooting again,” says the 63-year-old ex-man.
“Last month we didn’t even think they were coming, there was so much fighting. But in the end they came anyway.”
River collapse on the front line
Not everyone is so sensitive to the danger.
Ukrainian soldiers occasionally stop at Mayaky’s two tiny shops and the Sunday market to stock up on cigarettes and sweets.
One intelligence officer who agreed to be identified as Misha basked in the sun with an assault rifle on his lap and told tales of the rising morale of his troops and the futility of the Russian offensive.
“Now that the West is beginning to help, we have no problems with supplies or weapons. We have everything,” said Mischa.
“The only real problem is uniforms and cigarettes. We wear uniforms from everywhere in one unit.”
Misha then straightened his back and removed his shirt before running down to the gorge and diving headfirst into the Frontline River in the midst of the final wave of battles.
“This is my first jump since the beginning of the war,” he exclaimed after taking a breath. “It feels good to start the summer season.”
His pants and assault rifle sat unattended on a picnic table while he splashed around.
But from further east rumors were leaking in that the Russians had made their first serious breakthrough across the river Misha splashed into near Mayaky.
The ultimate target of the tactical battalion groups that Russia has deployed across the Northeastern Front appears to be Ukraine’s main administrative center at Kramatorsk – the home base of Fedyanina’s mail unit.
The bespectacled Russian and Ukrainian announcer may be one of the first civilians to learn just how close Kremlin forces really are to their symbolically and strategically important city.
“I visit one village after another. And I end up visiting each one once a month to pay the pensions,” she said of her frontline travels.
“We go where it’s safe – or at least relatively safe. We cannot enter places where there is active fighting.”
© 2022 AFP