When the shelling starts, Alla Viktorivna usually hides in her cellar in a village in southern Ukraine.
“But sometimes in the night, you don’t have time,” she said. “You just roll under your sofa. You hear it whistling and smashing.”
Ms. Viktorivna lives in Stepnohirsk, part of a buffer area between Ukrainian and Russian positions on the Zaporizhzhia front. But despite the barrage of Russian strikes, she has no intention of leaving.
“I never thought to leave,” she said. “How can you leave your house, your garden, cats, dogs? I have a big dog.”
Months after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, small villages like hers along the front have come under increasingly heavy bombardment.
One recent morning, three women braved Russian shelling to walk for hours from their homes in the nearby village of Kamianske to collect supplies from a drop-off point in Stepnohirsk, which is about five miles away.
Stepnohirsk is the closest location where government emergency services deliver humanitarian aid. And the women — Svitlana, Lesya and Natasha — had come mainly to collect sacks of dog food, which they balanced on their bicycles for the journey home.
“We were walking from 5 a.m.,” Lesya said. “We had to take cover from the shelling many times.” Like many others interviewed, they gave only their first names, fearing for their safety.
Lesya said her husband had been killed in his garden when a Russian shell landed nearby in April last year. Svitlana’s house was destroyed by shelling last spring and she had to move into a neighbor’s home. She was also wounded in a blast in April, when handing out bread to villagers.
Ukraine’s counteroffensive, launched this summer to sever Russian supply lines and compel Moscow to divert forces from other parts of the front, has made “tactically significant” gains, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based institute. On Wednesday, Ukrainian forces retook the tiny village of Urozhaine, the first village they are known to have recaptured since they reclaimed Staromaiorske in July.
The only area along the front where Moscow’s troops are making noticeable gains is around the Ukrainian city of Kupiansk. But Ukrainian forces continue to fend off Russia’s attacks there, Andriy Kovalev, a spokesman for the general staff of Kyiv’s armed forces, told Ukrainian television on Thursday.
Near the village of Kamianske, Russian forces trade artillery shells day and night with Ukrainian troops positioned to the north and east. Most residents fled the village after the Russian invasion. The almost constant artillery bombardment has left Kamianske largely in ruins.
But local firefighters are among the few who still venture into Kamianske, putting out fires from the shelling, rescuing people injured in the explosions and delivering humanitarian supplies.
“Only the stupid are not afraid — but we still work,” said Serhii, 47, the commander of the local fire station in Stepnohirsk.
He said his home, along with almost every other building in Kamianske, had been destroyed by Russian shelling. “There’s nothing left,” he said.
He showed a cellphone photograph of his rose garden. “That’s how it was before the ‘Russian world’ arrived,” he said, referring to President Vladimir V. Putin’s vision of a united Russian-speaking territory that includes Ukraine. Serhii showed another photo of his yard now — burned and buried in rubble.
In Stepnohirsk, Ms. Viktorivna, who was selling potatoes, onions and tomatoes recently from her garden at a small street market, said, “Business is not very good.” There were few people left in the village to sell to.
In Kamianske, Svitlana, Lesya and Natasha live off produce from their gardens and care for their dogs. And when the shelling starts, they hunker down in cellars, which they have converted into living spaces.
“We are used to it,” Natasha said. “We sit in the cellars, which already look like hotels. We wait for victory. We pray.”
As she spoke, she began to weep.
“I’m born there, baptized there,” Svitlana said. “I will die there.”
Matthew Mpoke Bigg contributed reporting from London.