May 24, 2024

Near Kherson, Ukraine — While some of Ukraine cities have been hammered by Russian missiles and artillery for almost three months, it’s small villages in the south and east of the country that have borne the brunt of Vladimir Putin’s war. CBS News correspondent Imtiaz Tyab and his team visited a village just two miles from where Russia’s forces have dug in, and almost everywhere they looked there was devastation.

The village was once home to 3,000 people, but most of them have left. Not Vasyl, however. He’s lived there for more than 30 years, and told CBS News he couldn’t bring himself to leave.

He admitted the Russian troops positioned so close to his home do worry him.

“It worries all the people who have left,” he told Tyab. “It’s disturbing to see the village like this. Everyone just wants to go back home to their normal lives.”

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But there’s little left in the village that’s normal. Just a few yards away from his home, there’s now a maze of trenches. In them, CBS News met Artem, a Ukrainian soldier who’s been stationed at the front-line lookout since March.

“We’re getting used to it,” he told Tyab. “Our guys are tough and seasoned in battle, and we’re holding our ground.”

Drone video captured the moment that Russian forces stationed along a nearby treeline were targeted by Ukrainian artillery.

But the threat isn’t gone. Ukrainian troops told CBS News that Russian snipers were still lurking just beyond the trees. Because of security concerns, CBS News was asked not to name the village or say where exactly it’s located, apart from it being close to the Kherson region in southern Ukraine, which Russian forces now occupy.

The village is no stranger to war. Its World War II memorial is engraved with the names of residents — of what was then part of the Soviet Union — who died fighting the Nazis more than 70 years ago.

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Now it’s Russia devastating lives here. 

Alexander, part of the Ukrainian battalion holding the front line near the village, told CBS News that he has friends and relatives living in Russian-occupied Kherson, and he and his fellow soldiers “will do our best, and we will try to liberate it in the near future.” 

There was more shelling as Tyab followed Ukraine’s defenders down into their bunker. That time, it was outgoing.

It was grim and dimly lit in the shelter – not much more than an underground corridor – but for Ukraine’s battle-weary fighters, it’s a sanctuary from Russian shelling, and a place of comradery. 

Inside, CBS News met the battalion’s lead medic, who said that despite the village’s tiny size, it’s been pummelled.  

“We have shelling every night, and during the day,” he said. Asked if the relentless bombardment made him worry the Russians could sweep in and seize the ground, he said: “That’s why we’re here. To prevent that from happening.”

It’s a fight that’s close to soldier Andrei’s heart. He grew up near the area.

“A lot of people lost their homes,” he said. “So, I’m trying to put myself in their shoes and it makes me really sad.” 

Sad, he said, and committed to protecting the ground he and his comrades still hold.

“I have my family, I have my kids, and I’m here to protect them and protect my country,” he told CBS News. “It’s my duty.” 

He said he would love for the people of Russia “to wake up.”

“I want them to realize where Putin is leading them,” he said.

The new local officials in charge of Kherson – who were installed by Moscow – have issued public calls for Putin to formally annex the region into Russia, as he did with Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. The remarks are the clearest sign yet that the Kremlin plans to annex the province.

But the Ukrainian fighters CBS News met on the front line, say they won’t let that happen. 

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