From a distance, the campsite next to a large pond in southern Ukraine looks idyllic. Small rows of cars and vans, strange tents on the ground, the smell of barbecued meat.
However, a closer look quickly reveals that this is not a vacation spot.
Instead, it’s where groups of families gather each night to escape Russian shelling of their town about 10 miles away.
42-year-old Maryna But describes life in the Marharnets. She said about a third of the buildings were destroyed.
“Lots of explosions, windows shaking, even my cat jumping out of the house…it’s quiet here.”
Her town is across the river from Zaporizhia, Russia’s largest nuclear power plant in Ukraine.
Clashes between Russian and Ukrainian forces in the region represent a double nightmare for locals who fear war and possible nuclear disaster.
For the past three weeks, Maryna and her husband, Oleksandr, have lived in a white van by the pond at night, only returning to Marharnets during the day. They own several stores that sell building materials and feel compelled to continue their work despite the risks.
“When the town dies, when there’s nothing left, I’ll run away from here,” she said.
Marina’s friend Techiana Shumkina, 31, is parked next door in a blue campervan with her husband and three-year-old daughter.
They have also been camping at this location for the past three weeks, but according to their teacher Tetiana, Russian attacks on Mahharnet have intensified over the past three days and they have stopped going home during the day.
“Restless and unstable,” she said.
Her little girl, Emma, has been frightened by the sounds of war.
“At night, when the cannons were fired, she woke up and asked, ‘Mommy, what’s this?'” Tetiana said.
The sounds of battle could still be heard in the distant pond.
Techiana hugged her daughter and played games to please her.
The young mother said she was equally frightened by the war and the possibility that artillery shells and rockets could hit Zaporizhia and cause a radiation spill.
“This is all bad. War is bad. People die. Children die. I have no choice. Both are terrible to me.”
An inspection team from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog, is scheduled to visit the nuclear facility this week to check for infrastructure damage and assess safety. But officials are powerless to stop the battle that put Europe’s largest nuclear power plant at such risk in the first place.
For 62-year-old Ara Shevchuk, the risks have become too great.
She and her husband are camping out of a small red car in a field just down the road from the pond, which also attracts a flock of frightened residents from Mahernet.
“I’m scared, I’m so scared. Even men are afraid. For the first time in my life I’ve seen men afraid,” Ara said, breaking her voice as she burst into tears.
“I have a friend in town. He had a concussion. There was an explosion in broad daylight and he went deaf…how to get back there in the daytime? I don’t know when, where or where . [an attack might happen]. Just awful. terrible. “
The couple used to drive back to their home in town during the day to charge their phones and feed their cats, but Ara said it had become too dangerous.
She opened the trunk of her car to reveal a stuffed suitcase, several bags of more belongings, and a plastic bowl of fresh tomatoes.
“I am disabled and have to carry everything,” she said, pointing to her belongings. “Unfortunately, that’s how we travel with everything we need.”
Speaking on Sunday, she said she plans to take a train on Monday to move to Poland, where her adult son lives.
“I’m ready to go,” she said. “I am scared.”