ReportageIn the south of the country, our journalist Florence Aubenas and photographer Chloé Sharrock went not far from the front line, in an area wedged between Ukrainian forces and Russian troops. The war, here, is experienced at the level of men and women, in an end-of-the-world context.

To the east, the Russian first line follows the small path behind the hill. To the west, Ukrainian positions descend along the river. Between the two is intertwined a thin strip of land – 2 kilometers wide, 10 long – which separates the two armies, but which neither of them controls: the “gray zone”. In the Kherson Oblast in the south of Ukraine, it is for her that we die, day after day, in the mud of the trenches. She crawls to gain clods of grass. Get to the big nut, or at least what’s left of it. To go back. Wait. Go back to the machine gun bus stop. Try moving forward again. Since the invasion began, this small enclave has become a symbol. In the Kherson oblast, which fell under Russian occupation, it is the only one to still resist, preventing Moscow from proclaiming the total seizure of this area and imposing its attachment to the Russian Federation.

A woman who has just been evacuated from Osokorivka, Kherson Oblast, leaves to join her daughter who is hospitalized in a nearby town.  Novovorontsovka, Ukraine, May 21, 2022.

With Côte d’Azur accents, tourist signs announce with a promising air: “Novorontsovka, the South starts here”. Behind the gray zone, Novovorontsovka is the last city to remain under Ukrainian administration in the oblast. The war has established its quarters there, shaping men and things. In the light of dawn, the crowing of a rooster rivals the sound of gunfire. Some streets have been swept away, others intact, charming villas, manicured gardens, riverside beaches. And suddenly, the air breaks open, a car hits a building, as if on a whim or by accident. “It’s the strategy of chaosexplains Colonel Vitaly, who commands this last bastion. Before the Russians were hammering at strategic places, they know our positions. Now they are spinning with no plan, a game of roulette, to scare people and chase them away. “

Don’t give up on the city

Here the colonel is one of the few professional soldiers, no more than 3% of the local contingent, according to him. HAS Novovorontsovka as elsewhere, the invasion revealed the weakness of a state and the strength of a society. “The resistance came from them, from ordinary citizens”, continues colonel. The mayor himself defected in March. Some met him weeks later, just passing by, looking for his personal effects.

With the war, to tell the truth, the country began to empty. Some have left in silence, without a goodbye. We don’t judge them. We don’t talk about it. It is part of the secret wounds. Out of 8,500 inhabitants, only 1,500 remain, demonstrating strong determination. Don’t give up on the city. Don’t let the troops defend a ghost town. “It would already be a defeat”, says Natalya, 50, responsible for culture and education, the only one who hasn’t left the square. He remembers the first days of the invasion, in February, when he dared not leave the cellar. Now he goes to the town hall every day. “You have to introduce yourself.”

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