Inside a Ukrainian village where farmers stay for the harvest but fear Russian attack

Ukraine is the the world's fifth biggest wheat exporter.

April 13, 2022, 1:16 PM

The wheat has been sown for the coming season, but nobody in Yakovlivka, a small farming village outside Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine, knows if it will be harvested.

PHOTO: An aerial view shows a tractor spreading fertilizer on a wheat field near the village of Yakovlivka outside Kharkiv, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, April 5, 2022.
An aerial view shows a tractor spreading fertilizer on a wheat field near the village of Yakovlivka outside Kharkiv, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, April 5, 2022.
Thomas Peter/Reuters

A week after Russian forces launched their invasion on Feb. 24, the village was bombed. The head of the village administration said four people were killed and 11, including children, were wounded in the attack.

PHOTO: Nina Bonderenko and other locals help their neighbor clean up her yard after an aerial bomb exploded across the street, severely damaging her house, in the village of Yakovlivka outside Kharkiv,  Ukraine, April 2, 2022.
Nina Bonderenko and other locals help their neighbor clean up her yard after an aerial bomb exploded across the street, severely damaging her house, in the village of Yakovlivka outside Kharkiv, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, April 2, 2022.
Thomas Peter/Reuters

"We were sitting in our cellar for four hours and read the Lord's Prayer. We wrapped the kids into blankets and just couldn't fall asleep until 3 or 4 in the morning," said Nina Bonderenko, who works on her cousin's farm.

PHOTO: Ivan Bonderenko and his grandsons Marat and Renat push a bale of hay in the village of Yakovlivka, outside Kharkiv, after it was attacked in an aerial bombardment as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, April 2, 2022.
Ivan Bonderenko and his grandsons Marat and Renat push a bale of hay in the village of Yakovlivka, outside Kharkiv, after it was attacked in an aerial bombardment as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, April 2, 2022.
Thomas Peter/Reuters

Villagers said the attack may have been aimed at a unit of Ukrainian soldiers camping temporarily in the village school, though apart from some broken windows, the building was undamaged by the blasts.

Reuters was not able to independently verify the villagers' account of the bombing.

PHOTO: An aerial view shows destroyed houses in the village of Yakovlivka after it was hit by an aerial bombardment outside Kharkiv, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, April 6, 2022.
An aerial view shows destroyed houses in the village of Yakovlivka after it was hit by an aerial bombardment outside Kharkiv, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, April 6, 2022.
Thomas Peter/Reuters

Russia has denied targeting civilians in what it calls a "special operation" to demilitarize and "denazify" its neighbor. Ukraine and its allies dismiss that as a baseless pretext for war.

Since the village was bombed, residents say all certainty has been lost.

PHOTO: Local farmer Bogdan poses with his gun as he mans a checkpoint outside the village of Yakovlivka after it was hit by an aerial bombardment outside Kharkiv, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, April 3, 2022.
Local farmer Bogdan poses with his gun as he mans a checkpoint outside the village of Yakovlivka after it was hit by an aerial bombardment outside Kharkiv, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, April 3, 2022.
Thomas Peter/Reuters

"We have planted all the wheat. But will we be able to grow anything and harvest it under the current circumstances?" said Vadim Aleksandrovich, the director of Granary of Sloboda, a farming company that emerged from a former Soviet-era collective farm.

"Only God knows. We are doing our best."

PHOTO: Nina Bonderenko climbs out of the storage cellar where the family hid for the night during an aerial bombardment in the village of Yakovlivka outside Kharkiv, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, April 3, 2022.
Nina Bonderenko climbs out of the storage cellar where the family hid for the night during an aerial bombardment in the village of Yakovlivka outside Kharkiv, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, April 3, 2022.
Thomas Peter/Reuters

With the country at war, the uncertainty facing Yakovlivka is shared across the country by farmers who produce the grain that has historically made Ukraine, the world's fifth biggest wheat exporter, one of the great breadbaskets of the world.

Last season, Granary of Sloboda's harvest amounted to 3,000 tons of wheat, 3,000 tons of sunflower and 1,000 tons of corn. But at the moment, 80% of the firm's 17,300 acres are not accessible because of mines or combat operations, Aleksandrovich said.

PHOTO: Anya Bonderenko takes care of her cousin's farm in the village of Yakovlivka outside Kharkiv, Ukraine, April 3, 2022.
Anya Bonderenko takes care of her cousin's farm in the village of Yakovlivka outside Kharkiv, Ukraine, April 3, 2022.
Thomas Peter/Reuters

Only the fields immediately around Yakovlivka village can be reached relatively safely, and there is heavy fighting around the firm's seed storage facility at its base in Izyum, some 87 miles away, he said.

Before farm workers can go out to the fields, they call emergency services to find out if the area is safe. When rockets land in the fields, explosives disposal services remove any projectiles.

PHOTO: Farm worker Vitaliy drives a tractor pulling a plow on a field near the village of Yakovlivka after it was hit by an aerial bombardment outside Kharkiv, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, April 5, 2022.
Farm worker Vitaliy drives a tractor pulling a plow on a field near the village of Yakovlivka after it was hit by an aerial bombardment outside Kharkiv, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, April 5, 2022.
Thomas Peter/Reuters

"The situation is very tense, and it is unclear what will happen to us," Aleksandrovich said. "We don't even know what will happen in one hour."

Despite the uncertainty, most of the villagers have remained, refusing to join a national exodus that has seen around a quarter of the country's population of 44 million flee their homes.

Of 533 permanent residents before the war, 380 have stayed, with refugees from outside boosting the population to 436, according to local authorities.

PHOTO: Marat and Renat Bonderenko stand in the living room of their neighbours' house, which was hit by a projectile during an aerial bombardment, in the village of Yakovlivka outside Kharkiv, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, April 3, 2022.
Marat and Renat Bonderenko stand in the living room of their neighbours' house, which was hit by a projectile during an aerial bombardment, in the village of Yakovlivka outside Kharkiv, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, April 3, 2022.
Thomas Peter/Reuters

Although the village shop has closed, people have started to patch up the damaged houses that can still be repaired.

"I thought I could live my last days in peace and then this," said 66 year-old Vera Babenko, picking a bowl out from under a pile of rubble by her now door-less refrigerator.

PHOTO: A farm worker looks at a rocket that had landed in a field, at a tractor yard in the village of Yakovlivka, after it was hit by an aerial bombardment outside Kharkiv, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, April 3, 2022.
A farm worker looks at a rocket that had landed in a field, at a tractor yard in the village of Yakovlivka, after it was hit by an aerial bombardment outside Kharkiv, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, April 3, 2022.
Thomas Peter/Reuters

She said a bomb landed just beside her house, about 650 feet from the school the attack was apparently supposed to hit, but she said she had no plans to leave.

PHOTO: Local farm worker Vladimir takes a break from ploughing a field near the village of Yakovlivka after it was hit by an aerial bombardment outside Kharkiv, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, April 5, 2022.
Local farm worker Vladimir takes a break from ploughing a field near the village of Yakovlivka after it was hit by an aerial bombardment outside Kharkiv, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, April 5, 2022.
Thomas Peter/Reuters

"I want to rebuild my kitchen."

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