Living in Kyiv, you learn to put up with air-raid alerts. Sirens wail over the city, and an app blares from your phone, warning you to shelter from incoming missiles. In the industrial city of Zaporizhzhia, 25 miles from the front line of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, people shrug off the sirens, which sound a half dozen times a day and often more. “It’s just Russian music,” one local official joked when I visited recently, “bad Russian music.”
What matters in Zaporizhzhia: not warnings but actual explosions, which have left ugly scars across the city, including many boarded-up buildings on the main street. Yet few people take shelter even when they hear a nearby blast or see a plume of dark smoke on the horizon. “I used to be afraid,” explained one young woman who runs an online business. “But you get used to it. Everyone is used to it. Now we just get on with our lives.”
For many, “the front” evokes World War I trenches at Verdun and the Somme or the carnage a generation later at Stalingrad and the Battle of the Bulge. Zaporizhzhia isn’t on the line of contact; there are no trenches or firefights in the streets. But the fighting outside town hangs over the city, ever-present and menacing in a way you don’t feel in Kyiv.
I’d been to Zaporizhzhia before—two trips last spring before the start of the counteroffensive—and I returned this fall full of apprehension. It’s a city with a long history of warfare: first, as the home of the 17th-century Cossack fighters who defended the territory that is now Ukraine from Russian, Polish, and Crimean invaders and then, later, the site of bitter battles between the Nazis and the Red Army. What I wondered now: How was the city holding up as the grinding counteroffensive dragged into its fourth month?
To visit Zaporizhzhia, a city with a prewar population of around 750,000, is to experience war as a way of life: brutal, frightening, tragic, exhausting, full of suffering and loss, and yet, somehow, normal. The phrase came up repeatedly: “You get used to it.” Residents of the city and the surrounding towns and villages, many of them reduced to rubble and all but depopulated, are among the Ukrainians paying the highest price for the conflict, now entering its twenty-first month. But even as outsiders talk about “stalemate” and worry that war in the Middle East may drain aid from Ukraine, no one I met with in Zaporizhzhia seemed to doubt that their sacrifice was worth it.
“We’re not going to give up just to make the fighting stop,” one local official told me. “Ukrainians are used to fighting. And we will go on fighting as long as we have to—with or without you.”
In the weeks after Russia invaded in February 2022, Zaporizhzhia waited in terror as Vladimir Putin’s fighters approached. Nearby cities Berdyansk and Melitopol fell in days with little or no fighting. An estimated third of the population left Zaporizhzhia, a leafy low-rise city that straddles the majestic Dnipro River; many of the rest cowered in their homes. Those who dared to go out remember empty streets strewn with hedgehog anti-tank barriers and improvised checkpoints. It was hard to find gas or a working ATM. Many who stayed found ways to pitch in at the volunteer hubs that sprang up across the city—making camouflage netting or Molotov cocktails to use against advancing troops or handing out food to refugees streaming in from newly occupied territories to the south and east.
Then, as the months passed, people here grew accustomed to the Russian shelling and defending army. The nearby fighting stabilized along a fixed front line. Some residents who had left trickled back to the region. People returned to work, and the city settled in for the long haul. “In those first few months, we thought it was a sprint,” Colonel Ruslan Kulka, commander of the local military high school, told me. “But you can’t continue sprinting for years. Life goes on.”
Now, more than a year into the new normal, one sees few signs in Zaporizhzhia of the counteroffensive raging just a short drive out of town. “In spring 2022, the Russians were coming at us,” one emergency worker explained. “Now we’re chasing them. It’s very different.”
Shops and restaurants are bustling even with families separated—many women and children have fled to safety and many men are serving on the front. An estimated 20 to 30 percent of the city’s peacetime population is still abroad or elsewhere in Ukraine. But those fleeing from occupied areas have taken their place; the city feels almost full. And many residents brush off the war as if it were a kind of nuisance, inconvenient but bearable.
Many people I met in Zaporizhzhia were still volunteering. Alla Gorodnuk, for example, in her mid-40s, with a dark ponytail and tattoos up and down both arms, went all out in early 2022, making Molotov cocktails, delivering food to checkpoints, and opening a pop-up kitchen to feed fighters and other volunteers. Now she runs a small café that hosts fundraising events to raise money for the troops. I stopped in when I noticed the name HIMARS, like the acronym for the U.S. missile system. Evoking High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems is not a typical way to attract customers looking for coffee and cake. But this is Zaporizhzhia at war.
Vika Babko, 54, is an elegant woman with designer glasses who trained as a concert pianist and then ran a stationery store that doubles as a neighborhood art gallery. Nine months into the war, she teamed up with a local nonprofit to launch a storefront art therapy hub—a place for refugee children to paint and draw and forget the fighting for a few hours.
I had crossed paths with Valentyna Dakhno, 57, on a previous trip, and we greeted as old friends when we met in a park on a bright autumn afternoon. Children squealed, and a fountain gurgled as she got me caught up on her new job—repairing transformers damaged by last winter’s missile strikes—and news about her husband and two sons, all fighting somewhere along the front. A compact woman with short curly hair and sparkling eyes, she’s the kind of person who’s always cheerful and thinking about what she can do for others. But I noticed her sighing in a way I hadn’t seen before and wanting to hug.
“I wish it were going better,” Dakhno admitted when I asked about the counteroffensive. She took out her phone and showed me photos of the plant where she works, damaged recently by a missile that left a large hole in the roof. Still, she brushed off my concern about working in a place likely to be a target this winter as Russia renews its attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. “Someone has to do it,” she said.
The next day, she took me to the soldiers’ home where she volunteers after work. A small house not far from the railroad station with half a dozen rooms crammed with bunk beds and cots, it serves primarily fighters in transit to and from the front. Volunteer women cook and clean and do the men’s laundry. There’s always borscht on the stove, and the men come and go in the family-sized kitchen—no institutional cooking here.
I spent the evening at the kitchen table, chatting with whoever came in, and spoke with three assault fighters fresh from the front, all too exhausted to dissemble or talk tough. They, too, used their phones to tell their stories. One photo captured the day one unit went out with 11 men and came back with three; a second showed an armored vehicle pockmarked and full of debris after a nearby missile strike.
If someone higher up had a plan for breaking through the Russian line, these men didn’t know it. But when I asked if this meant Kyiv should consider a ceasefire, the younger men nearly spat at me. “Under no circumstances.” “You don’t understand,” one older soldier offered quietly. “If I don’t get this done, my son will have to do it. I can’t live with that.”
Luba Yarova, another volunteer I had met on a previous trip, took me to a shelter for internally displaced people, or IDPs. In the first eight months of the war, Zaporizhzhia was among the main gateways for IDPs fleeing the fighting in Mariupol, Kherson, and other points south and east. Altogether, several hundred thousand refugees passed through the city on their way to safety before Russian authorities closed the last checkpoint a year ago.
There aren’t many new arrivals now, even with the counteroffensive. Estimates suggest that some 160,000 to 200,000 IDPs remain in Zaporizhzhia, roughly one-quarter of the prewar population. Fewer than one in 10 live in shelters; others rent apartments or stay with relatives.
Shelters vary widely. The place Yarova took me was bright and cheerful, filled with streaming sunlight and colorful cushions, and residents were empowered to take care of themselves—shopping, cooking, cleaning, and other chores that gave them a sense of purpose.
Several had fled recently from Orikhiv, a town some 10 miles from the front line where Yarova used to run a shelter, another bright, cheery place filled with flowers and hope. A direct missile hit destroyed the building in July, killing seven volunteers as Yarova crouched in the next room. She used the photos I’d saved on my phone to tell me the story, holding back tears as she pointed out who was dead and who was still alive. “Why did I survive?” she asked over and over.
The next shelter I visited was much less cheerful: clean, functional, adequate—but drably soulless. Residents sat on their bunkbeds, listlessly watching TV. They had no control over their lives and nothing to do, and most seemed to feel they had run out of options.
One older woman I spoke with had a university degree and a good job in a bank before the war. Now, she spent days and nights in a small room with a dozen other people, men and women, living out of a shopping bag with one change of clothes. “I had a comfortable home,” she told me accusingly, “and everything I needed. Now, I have nothing.” But she, too, was unwilling even to consider a ceasefire. “We have to finish it,” she said sharply, annoyed at my question. “Otherwise, what’s the point? Why have I gone through everything I’ve been through?”
Among my most painful visits was to the military high school. Commander Kulka, a short, wiry man dressed in fatigues, welcomed me warmly and showed me around the grounds, neat as his staff could make them after six direct missile hits. The cadets were now studying online—bringing them together under one roof was too dangerous. But this hadn’t protected the 19 young men whose photos were pinned to a bulletin board near the entrance to the academy.
“On their shields,” the title read, echoing the Spartan term for fallen heroes. The captions noted the cities where each man fell in some of the war’s fiercest battles—Bucha, Mariupol, Kherson, and Bakhmut. The last text, fresh as a news report, brought the arc to Robotyne, just 50 miles away, where Ukraine fought for three months this summer to gain a few hundred yards and, by all accounts, lost hundreds of lives, including academy graduate Fedan Saveliy, photographed in full gear and looking as if he owned the world. Kulka had a story about each fallen cadet. He’d met every family, he told me, and stood by every grave. “I know they all fought with dignity,” he pronounced with an almost unbearable mix of pride and grief. “I’m honored to have taught them.”
The road heading east out of Zaporizhzhia runs parallel to the front. We drive out early in the morning and pass a checkpoint every few miles. You need a password to get through. The military authorities generate a coded challenge and response that changes daily. My guide is another volunteer, Mykola Piddubny, who specializes in evacuating children and the elderly and seems to know every official and volunteer in the villages around the city.
It’s a perfect early autumn day, and it’s easy to forget why we’re here as we drive through the quiet hamlets. But the road is much busier than the last time I visited, in May: buzzing with military vehicles and vans marked with crosses—humanitarian aid workers.
Our first stop is a giant concrete boundary marker—huge letters spelling out the name of the district—on the road into the Orikhiv region. Many Ukrainian towns have similar signs, but this one has become a kind of shrine: the gateway to the counteroffensive. A half dozen battalions have affixed flags; humanitarian aid groups have posted logos. We watch soldiers drive up to take selfies, grinning and flashing victory signs. Pride of place on the concrete structure is reserved for a stenciled portrait of Valerii Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces. “God is with us,” the caption reads, “and so is Zaluzhny.”
The next stop is the regional market town, Komyshuvakha. Small shops line the dusty road; soldiers and military vehicles are everywhere. Several dozen people, local pensioners and IDPs from villages to the south and east, wait in line at what used to be the music school, where volunteers are handing out packages of dried food and cooking oil. I notice several other observers in the mix: journalists and international aid workers with cameras or notebooks. But this is as far as most of them will go—beyond here, the authorities cannot vouch for our safety.
Our driver is willing to go a few miles further, so we head toward Orikhiv. The traffic thins out: now just occasional military vehicles and elderly villagers on bicycles. We stop at a windowless roadside shop to meet the Orikhiv police chief. He tells us he can’t allow us into town: the counteroffensive has made some progress but hasn’t yet pushed Russian artillery out of range, so there is still constant shelling. He estimates that perhaps 600 people remain in Orikhiv out of a prewar population of 14,000. “God knows why they don’t leave,” he shrugs. Most of the town has been reduced to rubble.
Our last stop is Zarichne, a village some 15 miles from the front with a prewar population of 1,700. In the Soviet era, it was a collective farm, and the housing is oddly urban-looking: squat, concrete apartment blocks. The village struggled economically even before the Russian invasion, with little development since the Soviet era. Here, too, we see soldiers; shelling has destroyed the town council building, and the town would be shelled again in early November – a vicious missile strike on a crowd gathered at a military award ceremony. But volunteers tell us that some 1,000 residents remain, including families with infant children, and in early autumn, life seems to go on more or less as before.
I spy three older women—the affectionate Ukrainian term is babusi, or grandmothers—sunning themselves on a bench, and we go over to talk. They’re cutting up their family linens to make camouflage netting. Maria, 75, is an IDP from Orikhiv, now staying with her sister Valentyna, 77, who lives in this village. Alla, 66, rounds out the trio.
Both her daughters’ husbands are fighting, Alla tells me, but no one else in her family has left town. “What could be better elsewhere?” she asks. “This is home.” About the counteroffensive, she’s the first person I’ve met with an upbeat reaction. “It’s moral support for us,” she says. “We’re encouraged by the success.” When I ask about negotiating land for peace, all three women laugh at me—the question is so absurd it’s hardly worth answering.
I try to think of a tougher question, but whatever I ask, the women are one step ahead of me, as irrepressibly hopeful as the woman I met in the IDP shelter was inconsolable. “Ukrainians are not the kind of people who surrender easily,” Alla explains, smiling. “We endured the Mongols, the Golden Horde, the Nazis, the Soviets. We’ll find a way to do what we need to do,” she assures me. “We will endure.”