Sumy, Ukraine—Olena, 71, has lived and worked almost her entire life in Bilopillya, a village of about 15,000 in northeastern Ukraine, less than 10 kilometers from the Russian border. Sitting outside her apartment building on March 24, she wore a red scarf that framed her worn and wrinkled face and told me how her children used to travel to Russia for work building houses, and how years ago, during Soviet times, she used to peddle vegetables in Moscow. Butter from Bilopillya was for sale in Moscow, too; Olena remembered that the same butter was scarcely available to buy in the village where it was made, a reminder that Russia’s colonial exploitation of Ukraine is not the distant past.
Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago, civilians in border villages like Bilopillya—far from the front line, yet perilously close to the enemy—have been nervously going about their daily lives while trying to survive the constant threat of indiscriminate shelling and aerial bombardments.
When the invasion began, Olena wanted to leave. But she didn’t have enough money to restart her life somewhere safer. Since Ukraine’s military and civilian volunteers pushed Russian troops out of the city of Sumy—which sits about 45 kilometers away from Bilopillya—and back across the border, artillery and aerial attacks have frequently targeted Bilopillya.
It’s unclear why, exactly, Bilopillya keeps falling under fire—perhaps the railroad tracks that sit outside the village make it an appealing target, or maybe it’s just because it’s in close proximity to Russian artillery across the border. Bilopillya doesn’t appear to have any strategic value, and there was little evidence suggesting a significant presence of the Ukrainian military when I visited.
Olena said her village has been attacked roughly 10 times, including one strike in November that killed a 15-year-old boy. But the attack that she said was worse than all the other ones was also the most recent. It had taken place just after midnight on March 23—the day before I spoke to her.
Olena was nearly asleep at around midnight when there was a loud explosion, shattering windows in her building. She spent three hours in a bomb shelter, huddled among crying children, waiting for the all-clear. When she emerged, she saw that the police station across the street had been destroyed.
Olena lives in a first-floor unit on the opposite side of the building from where the missile struck, and was luckily unharmed. Her neighbors weren’t so fortunate—she said one man, a refugee from occupied Mariupol, lost his eye in the attack.
Regional officials said a 37-year-old officer died beneath the rubble of the police station, leaving behind two children. They said the Russians unleashed a massive payload on the village, including an air strike, eighty shells from multiple rocket launchers, and 20 more projectiles from barrel artillery, killing two and wounding nine more, part of attacks on four villages in the Sumy region that night. A school and several more apartment buildings in Bilopillya were also damaged during the attack.
There was no escaping the war in Bilopillya. There wasn’t really a way to escape it in Sumy, either, but when I returned to the city the day after I spoke to Olena, things felt reasonably normal. The streets were busy during the day, with restaurants and cafés mostly open.
At night, though, Sumy’s streets went dark, to lower the risk of being targeted by aerial attacks. The normalcy was over. This is what the last year has wrought: an uneasy dance between the mundane and the terrifying.
In the lobby of a hotel in downtown Sumy, along a pedestrian street lined by trees and restaurants, I met with Viacheslav Zhygalin, the 36-year-old head of the Sumy region’s anti-tank division of Ukraine’s border guard, which has since been absorbed by the regular military. Before the war, Zhygalin patrolled 560 kilometers bordering three Russian regions: Belgorod, Kursk, and Bryansk. He became familiar with villages like Bilopillya that sat close to the border, with residents who once had close ties to Russia. At least one village, he told me, was split down the middle by the border after the USSR dissolved and Ukraine gained its sovereignty. He watched as relations between the two countries deteriorated with Russia’s increasing aggression.
The day before the invasion last year, Zhygalin was stationed away from the border, toward Sumy. He told me it had been unclear exactly how much manpower the Russians had or how well-equipped they were, but that he’d suspected there were about 1,000 armored vehicles gathering deep in each of the regions bordering Sumy. “There were no surprises for us,” he said. “We were totally sure there would be an invasion the next morning.”
At roughly 4:25 am on February 24, Zhygalin awoke to the sounds of explosions and saw that Russians were shelling a border control station about 50 kilometers from his position, near the village of Ryzhivka. He was immediately ordered to go to Sumy and distribute arms to about 500 men, only about 150 of whom had previous combat experience. From there, they went to Lebedyn, a village southwest of Sumy, where they met with members of the 81st Airborne Brigade, and took about 13 armored vehicles and 160 men back to Sumy to set up defenses on the road leading into the city from Bilopillya. Two Russian columns were already advancing. It was a critical battle—if the Russians took the city, they’d also control the road leading directly to Kyiv.
Within five minutes of Zhygalin’s arrival, the fighting began. The combat was fierce and close—Zhygalin told me that the Russians were only about 500 meters away from his position—and it was difficult for him to maneuver around the cars left behind by civilians trying to evacuate. But after about 45 minutes, both Russian columns were destroyed. The fighting then turned to the outskirts of Sumy, in places like Lebedyn, as Russia tried to encircle the city. Using Bayraktar drones, Ukrainian forces bogged down Russian troops in the surrounding plains and forests.
Russia ultimately failed to take Sumy, and by the end of March had given up its offensive and retreated back across the border. Since then, Russia has continued to attack the Sumy region on a daily basis with fighter jets, drones, and artillery, appearing to pick its targets at random. The only day without an attack was January 6, when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a temporary cease-fire. Zhygalin told me that Russia’s strategy is to keep Ukrainian forces busy and prevent them from reallocating troops from Sumy to the Donbas, where Russia has been attempting a larger offensive, and to identify weak spots in the Ukrainian lines of defense and in its anti-aircraft systems. Sometimes Russia will send small groups of soldiers across the border to target tanks or lay down mines. Both sides have generally established positions further from the border than those they held before the invasion, but there are some spots along the border where the two forces are so close they can see each other digging trenches or doing other engineering work. A repeat of the February invasion doesn’t appear imminent, but the danger remains for residents in Sumy.
For now, though, the brunt of the carnage is being visited on places like Bilopillya. The evening after last week’s attack, a backhoe was clearing the rubble from the gap where a large section of the police station once stood. Families walked by with children and strollers, staring at the damage from behind a barrier of police tape, keeping people from walking on the street still covered in broken glass and dust. Police officers stepped over the debris to salvage what they could—mostly small arms and bulletproof vests, no match for the firepower of Russian artillery and bombs.
The attack left Olena too afraid to spend another night in her home, though by dusk she had yet to find a safer place to stay. She sat on a bench by the entrance of the apartment building’s basement bomb shelter. Two cats gnawed on fish bones nearby. “I can’t understand what’s wrong with Russians that they’re doing this kind of thing,” she said. “They’re killers—it’s just their history.”