Inside a Ukrainian village where farmers stay to harvest wheat but fear a Russian attack

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By Thomas Pierre

YAKOVLIVKA, Ukraine (Reuters) – Wheat has been sown for the coming season, but no one in Yakovlivka, a small farming village outside Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine, knows if it will be harvested .

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

“We would sit in our basement for four hours and read the Lord’s Prayer. We would wrap the children in blankets and we just couldn’t fall asleep until three or four in the morning,” said Nina Bonderenko, who works in his cousin’s farm.

Villagers said the attack may have targeted a unit of Ukrainian soldiers temporarily camped in the village school, although apart from a few shattered windows the building was undamaged by the blasts.

Reuters was unable to independently verify the villagers’ account of the bombing.

Russia has denied targeting civilians in what it calls a “special operation” to demilitarize and “denazify” its neighbor. Ukraine and its allies reject this as a groundless pretext for war.

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

“We planted all the wheat. But will we be able to grow anything and harvest it under the current circumstances? said Vadim Aleksandrovich, director of “Granary of Sloboda” – an agricultural enterprise spun off from a former Soviet-era collective farm.

“Only God knows. We’re doing our best.”

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

DANGER IN THE FIELDS

Last season, the harvest of Granary of Sloboda 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 company’s 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) are not accessible due to mines or combat operations, Aleksandrovich said.

Only the fields immediately around the village of Yakovlikva can be reached relatively safely and there is heavy fighting around the company’s seed storage facility at its base in Izyum, some 140 km (85 miles) away, he said.

Before the farm workers can get to the fields, they call the emergency services to find out if the area is safe. When rockets land in fields, explosive ordnance disposal services remove all projectiles.

“The situation is very tense and it’s unclear what will happen to us,” Aleksandrovich said. “We don’t even know what will happen in an hour.”

Despite the uncertainty, most villagers have stayed, refusing to join a nationwide exodus that has seen around a quarter of the country’s 44 million people flee their homes.

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

Although the village store has closed, people have started patching up damaged houses that can still be repaired.

“I thought I could live my last days in peace and then this,” Vera Babenko, 66, said as she picked up a bowl from under a pile of rubble near her now doorless fridge.

She said a bomb landed right next to her house, about 200 meters (yards) from the school the attack was apparently meant to hit, but she said she had no intention to leave.

“I want to rebuild my kitchen.”

(Editing by James Mackenzie and Frances Kerry)

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