Ukrainian farmers’ crops catch fire after Russian missile attacks

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Ukrainian farmer Rustem Zhafarya saw his warehouse, tractors and other equipment destroyed by a Russian missile attack.  (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)
Ukrainian farmer Rustem Zhafarya saw his warehouse, tractors and other equipment destroyed by a Russian missile attack. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)

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PERVOMAISKE, Ukraine — “The fields are burning,” shouted the panicked farmer.

He was just days away from starting the harvest, but Russian bombardment came first, despite his modest farm being far from the southern Ukrainian front. Within minutes, the flames threatened what was left of this year’s grain harvest.

“This field was on fire. This one is burning. There, it burns, ”he said, giving only his first name, Viktor, as he paced on a patch of scorched earth. He gestured to the nearby plots of wheat as the rumble of outgoing artillery echoed in the distance. On the horizon, two more plumes of smoke rose.

Fires are the latest scourge that Viktor and other farmers are facing in the Mykolaiv region. With the planting season delayed by fighting to retake the area from Russian occupation forces, they now have to choose between harvesting near an active front line or abandoning their harvest. After months of war and the financial difficulties of the Russian blockade of the Black Sea, the decision to leave wheat going could mean financial ruin.

“People need to have their grain,” Viktor said, a skinny 57-year-old man. “People have to survive somehow.”

The devastation wrought by the Russian invasion has prevented much of Ukraine’s grain from reaching world markets this year, reducing production at one of the world’s largest producers and affecting food security around the world. The country accounted for 10% of global wheat exports in 2021, according to the United Nations.

The flat steppe in the south – the feature that makes such prime farmland – only complicated efforts to oust Russian forces. Ukrainian fighters must maneuver across open fields with little natural camouflage and sparse hard cover.

In this section of the front line, the war remains a bloody stalemate. Ukrainian soldiers use what remains of villages and rows of trees in grueling artillery assaults. During the day, their troop movements are limited by Russian drones used to track and correct outgoing artillery fire for maximum damage.

In Pervomaiske, just eight kilometers from Russian military positions, waist-high grain awaits in the fields. Ukrainian forces continue to hold the town, which has been reduced mostly to rubble, amid ongoing enemy attacks with S-300 surface-to-air missiles and artillery.

This Russian bombardment has become increasingly chaotic and haphazard as Ukrainian forces reinforce their positions and prepare for what is expected to be a counter-offensive. Ukrainian farmers and soldiers in the region report new fires every day, which continue to destroy fields and agricultural equipment.

Two Ukrainian fighters based in Pervomaiske spoke on Saturday of the additional danger posed by the increased use of cluster bombs and explosives in arid regions. agricultural fields. The men were part of the Ukrainian army’s 63rd Mechanized Brigade, the only remaining presence to put out the resulting fires. The people who once lived in the villages fled long ago.

“We have to save the grain – between shelling, our boys are running around to put out the flames,” said Vadim Chornii, the brigade’s deputy commander, whose forces have been fighting in the area since the war began in late February. He fears the Russians have changed tactics, deliberately targeting the farms to demoralize the remaining population of the region and create an artificial famine to force Ukraine’s surrender.

The bombardment also destroyed critical agricultural infrastructure related to grain harvesting. Damaged bridges and cratered roads make it impossible to transport grain, while rail lines typically used to transport grain have stopped working.

In the nearby village of Zasillya, recent fighting has devastated a large flour mill and grain elevator used by farmers across the region. The facility’s silos, which once held up to 30,000 tonnes of grain, have been reduced to a smoldering ash. Inside one of the storage areas, which last weekend was still the target of the Russian army, golden wheat flowed into the burning red embers of what had been a mound of grain 20 feet tall.

And at an agricultural depot less than two miles from Russian military positions, an explosion shredded three large tractors and damaged half a dozen grain wagons. Shrapnel gutted the roof of a grain silo the size of a football field. Nearby, a farmer plowed a small field that had been burned a day earlier – barely a hundred yards from two charred tanks almost hidden by bales of hay.

Rustem Zhafarya owns the property and uses the facility to store and maintain equipment needed to harvest the 3,300 hectares (8,154 acres) he leases. He lost more than a tenth of his crops to the fires, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of dollars he spent on seeds and fuel at the start of the planting season.

“We feed the world, but today everything is closed. We are losing money,” he said.

The few farmers in the region who escaped the bombardments and fires still face other perils. Cluster munitions used by both sides in the conflict have spread small, hard-to-spot bombs from inside the knee-deep wheat-cutting heavy harvesters. Several farmers have already died after coming across unexploded ordnance.

“Of course it’s stressful,” said Serhii Fomin, 60, stopping briefly as he drove a combine harvester through one of Viktor’s fields. ” We need to. Getting into the harvest is the most important thing right now.

Fomin is a farmer from a nearby village, who fled his home before harvesting a single grain from his own field. He is now part of a three-man crew helping Viktor.

It was in the early afternoon that the huge machine he was driving was moving forward. Following close behind was a cart picking up a mixture of grain and ash.

The crew hopes to complete the ground in the next few days – if the fire and fighting don’t stop them first. Yet, with grain storage facilities filling up, farmers like Viktor don’t know what’s next for their grain.

“I don’t know what to do with it,” he said.

Anastacia Galouchka and Wojciech Grzedzinski contributed to this report.

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