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Ukraine’s farm of horrors: 2,000 dead cows and fields of anti-tank mines

Russian shelling wiped out much of the livestock on a large farm in the Kharkiv region early in the invasion. Kyiv’s agriculture sector has suffered losses of $40 billion due to the war

Ukraine war
Sergei Yatsenko, manager of the Agrosvit farm in Shestakove, on November 11, in front of one of the stables destroyed by Russian shelling.Luis de Vega
Luis de Vega

Around 20 warehouses with sheet metal roofs glint under the sun in the village of Shestakove, in the Kharkiv region, just a few miles from the border with Russia, courtesy of the bird’s-eye view provided by Google Maps. But the image is a snapshot of the past and has not been updated to reflect the ravages of war in Ukraine. Six of these stables and warehouses on the Agrosvit farm, which belongs to the Agromol dairy products brand, have been destroyed and half a dozen others damaged by aerial bombardments and artillery fire. The farm’s manager, Sergei Yatsenko, says that after being attacked, the property was occupied by Russian troops. It is just one small example of the damage the sector has suffered in a war that has seen hundreds of farms, crop fields and silos destroyed. The occupying forces have also stolen machinery and part of the cereal production of a country that is considered one of the world’s granaries, say the Kyiv authorities. The Russian invasion, launched on February 24, has caused losses of over $40 billion to Ukraine’s agriculture and livestock sectors, according to government estimates.

From Shestakove it is easy to see the devastation. The school building has been reduced to rubble and many of the houses on either side of the road have been hit by shells or are partially destroyed. On the Agrosvit farm, huge piles of twisted metal greet visitors. The war has ruined the area’s primary business, an agricultural and livestock farm with 25,000 acres of cultivated land where now two-thirds of the 3,000 cattle have been killed, of which 1,400 were dairy cows. The final blow, after air strikes had left it almost completely destroyed, was its month-long occupation by Russian forces.

Dead livestock remain on the farm months after Russian shelling devastated the herds.
Dead livestock remain on the farm months after Russian shelling devastated the herds. Luis de Vega

The war arrived swiftly in the district of Vovchansk, says Yatsenko. Russian strikes began on February 28, when a farm employee was killed, and continued into March. The facilities were occupied by Moscow’s forces from April 3 until May 5, when Ukrainian troops retook the area. “Anything that was still useful they took with them. Everything,” says Yatsenko, who answers in the negative when asked if any of the damage was caused during the Ukrainian counter-punch in Vovchansk.

The attack on the Shestakove farm is a violation of the Geneva Convention, which governs the protection of victims in armed conflicts, according to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), which accuses Vladimir Putin of employing hunger as a weapon of war in Ukraine. The evidence points to a direct and intentional Russian military attack on these facilities, according to CSIS analysis of satellite images captured by US company Maxar. “The nature of the damage observed and the lack of craters within the facility suggests, but is not conclusive of, a precision strike by small air-delivered munitions. Surrounding residential areas do not appear to have suffered damages, indicating that the farm was intentionally targeted by Russian forces,” says the CSIS report, which is co-signed by Caitlin Welsh, director of the CSIS Global Food Security Program.

Sergei Yatsenko displays ammunition left by the Russians after their month-long occupation of the farm.
Sergei Yatsenko displays ammunition left by the Russians after their month-long occupation of the farm.Luis de Vega

In the corner of one of the warehouses there is something of an arsenal: there are dozens of boxes of ammunition, shells and missile parts. Outside lies the charred skeleton of a truck that the occupants could not take with them when they made their escape. Field rations bearing Russian Army insignia are still scattered on the ground, as are dozens of sharpened iron shards used in artillery shells that scatter projectiles indiscriminately with the intention of causing as much destruction as possible, and which Russian forces deployed on fronts including Bucha and Irpin.

Before withdrawing in the face of the Ukrainian advance, Russian forces also mined the farm’s fields, as EL PAÍS was able to verify, rendering them useless. The material damages alone rise to $25 million, says Yatsenko. Only 30 to 40 of the farm’s 300 employees have been able to return to work. Over the past few weeks they have started milking a few cows, but pre-war production levels of 40,000 liters a day are unthinkable now, Yatsenko adds. After the Russians abandoned the area, the 1,000 or so remaining cattle were transferred to another farm in the Poltava region. A few weeks ago they were returned to Shestakove, where the births of the first calves have offered a ray of hope.

An employee works with some of the cows that survived the bombing at the Agrosvit farm, where 2,000 of the 3,000 animals died.
An employee works with some of the cows that survived the bombing at the Agrosvit farm, where 2,000 of the 3,000 animals died.Luis de Vega

While the farm seeks to recover its pre-invasion pace, Agromol has been forced to purchase milk from other companies to continue producing different types of milk, butter and yogurt at its Kharkiv plant, from where the company supplies some 130 stores in the regional capital.

Even now, the few employees working at the farm co-exist with the carcasses of cattle that have not yet been removed. These are now practically skin and bone, which even the flies have long since ignored. Some remain with their heads in troughs, where they were feeding when the attack was launched. Others were killed by the shock waves from the shelling or blown apart after stepping on a mine.

Some of the metal shards from Russian artillery shells that have been used on fronts such as Bucha.
Some of the metal shards from Russian artillery shells that have been used on fronts such as Bucha. Luis de Vega

According to figures from the Ukrainian Ministry of Agriculture and the Kyiv School of Economics, updated to mid-September, the majority of the more than $40 billion worth of losses in the sector – up to $34.25 billion – represent indirect damages. These correspond to loss of income following drops in production, the fall in prices on the local market and the cost overruns faced by companies due to the war. The remaining $6.6 billion corresponds to direct damage, with machinery bearing the brunt.

Without attempting to hide a certain melancholy, Yatsenko produces a video recorded from the air before the war, with a huge, modern combine harvester crisscrossing fields full of grain. Corn, wheat, sunflower and sugar beet production is now a mirage. He also recalls last summer’s Agromol Fest, a big rural celebration for residents and employees where bales of hay were used to construct the stage and bars and even a huge maze.

After the Russian occupation of the Agrosvit farm in Shestakove, the fields are strewn with mines.
After the Russian occupation of the Agrosvit farm in Shestakove, the fields are strewn with mines. Luis de Vega

The reality in Shevstakove today is one of anti-tank mines littering the fields, holding the crops hostage and sowing panic among employees. “It’s a big problem that we can’t grow crops or feed the animals. Or that we are the ones who end up handling the mines,” says Yatsenko, pointing to a dozen or so devices that have been located by the state security services but have not yet been removed. The authorities have warned that it could take up to a decade to remove all the mines planted by Russian troops.

Unlike in other parts of the Kharkiv region, there is not a single warning sign on the road leading up to the farm. The remains of a cow that stepped on a mine lie a few meters away, a clear enough sign in itself that this almost invisible danger is very real.

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