To get an ambulance or the fire brigade in Dvorichna, a village in northeast Ukraine, you have to run to them on foot: phones haven’t worked since March when the Russian occupation swept in. The border village is still in the line of fire so it’s impossible to repair the infrastructure. Worse, in the neighbouring towns of Figolivtsi and Petroivanivtsi, there are no emergency services at all – they just have to rely on army medics.

The military is counted on in other ways: for lifts to Chuhuiv or Kharkiv (the nearest big cities where infrastructure is still just about intact), or for making calls through Starlink, or sharing a bit of fuel or firewood.

Locals are afraid to go for firewood: the forests are full of tripwires and ­unexploded shells. Dmytro Stoyanov, head of municipal services, says: “We will be able to sign a contract with the logging company only when we receive a ­demining certificate. That is, never.” One sapper can demine just 10m2 per day.

Volodymyr Vlasenko, a volunteer with the Kharkiv With You charity, brings an aid worker to Dvorichna. He tells the ­local residents: “Harvest everything you can. Your task now is to survive. Then we will plant a new garden.”

READ MORE: A year on, Russia's war in Ukraine has embedded huge lessons for world

For “Aunt” Olya from Figolivka, the cost of six weeks’ firewood is all her monthly pension (2900 hryvnia). She laughs, ­noting that, on the other hand, there is no way to withdraw money here, and no place to spend it – there are no shops, no markets.

There is no gas in the villages either; the pipeline over the Oskil river failed at the beginning of the invasion. So that people can at least warm up and cook, the Red Cross brought several van-loads of stoves for the Kupyansk district, says Andriy Sheinin, coordinator of the ­Kupyansk ­logistics centre, which Kharkiv With You opened. The centre was created to ­coordinate humanitarian aid flows.

The stoves will be transported to homes, or the new refuge shelters that can ­accommodate a large number of ­people. There, Sheinin says, there are places to sleep (the Red Cross donated 300 sets of folding beds, mattresses and bedding), hot food from the World Central Kitchen or volunteer kitchens and charging points.

Perhaps the biggest problem is with the drinking water. It’s lethal. Full of ­calcium salts and, worse, nitrates from sewage and farm fertilisers, seeping into the ­water ­table, so village wells aren’t safe either.

The National: Ukrainians have been under attack from Russia for nearly a year nowUkrainians have been under attack from Russia for nearly a year now

In one of the basements of an ­apartment building in Dvorichna, a young woman, Svitlana, is trying to wash a blanket in a tiny basin. She’s too afraid to go to the well: there’s constant shelling. Her fear is understandable. In the next block, we meet a woman whose house was ­completely burned down by shelling on the eve of our arrival. A man who worked at a local boiler was killed nearby. The woman asks volunteers to record a ­video and send it to her sister in Dnipro to tell her that the house is no longer there, and that they’ll try to get out. At the end, she cries: “Happy birthday to you, Lenochka, ­happy birthday, sister.”

The military administration, says ­Sheinin, issues food kits with flour, starch, sugar, canned meat and fish. It should feed two-to-three people, and is ­issued once a month.

Sheinin says that a pop-up market has appeared in Kupyansk (the previous ­market was totally destroyed), where you can sometimes meet people selling ­humanitarian aid. One of the tasks of the newly created logistics centre is to ­organise aid flows so that no one is left without, and no one can take too much and then sell it on at triple the price.

In some places, people still keep one or two cows, goats, ducks, chickens or ­rabbits, but everyone complains that there is practically nothing to feed them. But thankfully, this year’s harvest was good, so there are a lot of preserves, potatoes, and carrots in the cellars. “We will hold out, we just want to know for how long”, they say.

The National: Ukrainians have been doing all they can to survive throughout the warUkrainians have been doing all they can to survive throughout the war

The few children left in each village have no school, no library, no museum to visit: the Russians blew them all up. And during the occupation, all the ­Ukrainian books were burned; the ­occupiers ­threatened to bring in Russian books, but they didn’t have time before the ­counter-offensive in September.

Seven-year-old Alice from Dvorichna is trying to remember the name of the book she wanted to take from the library. We promise to bring her Harry Potter, she looks fascinated. “What do you dream of doing after the war?” “Travel! Across Ukraine! And I want to see many, many different animals!” she replies.

All the half hour that we stand near the yard with the children, the shelling doesn’t cease. The kids don’t react. Adults don’t take cover either. “What does it ­matter?” they shrug.

All these places, taken back by the Ukrainian army in the ­counter-offensive, are haunted by what happened during the long months of Russian ­occupation. ­Halyna Turbaba, head of the local ­administration, describes how on ­February 24 the village elders called her in the middle of the night – the explosions woke them up.

When the occupiers entered ­Dvorichna, they first said that they were not encroaching on our territory, Halyna recalls, but only “helping to maintain order”. In May they started creating their local ­offices and called her, as the head of the district, accusing her of preventing their ­humanitarian aid getting through.

The National: Kharkiv - credit Ivanna Skyba-Yakubova.

“It’s still interesting how exactly I, ­without a weapon, didn’t give it to them,” says Halyna. The occupiers twice drove people to rally against the administration, ­incited them to demand pensions and food deliveries.

“I told them: give them a ­humanitarian corridor, then it will be possible to bring them in, but you are shelling all the roads!” The corridor was not given and she was blamed for the lack of food.

On May 11, Halyna was taken to the basement of the Kupyansk district police department. They said “we’ll talk and let you go”, but she was held for 33 days. Women with drug addictions, “curfew violators”, and the headmistress of the school where the displaced people lived were kept in the “women’s department”.

“They didn’t torture us, but they ­threatened us, they said: ‘You’re lucky you’re a woman!’ When my relatives were looking for me, they were told: ‘There is no one here.’ They didn’t know where I was for two weeks.”

ON her second arrest, she was held for 50 days and there were between six and eight women crammed in the cells: volunteers, school principals and women with drug and alcohol addictions. Halyna says that some were tortured with electric shocks.

The day after the Russian troops fled, men from a nearby cell broke a window and let out the entire basement of people, about 140 people.

Now Halyna is trying to find out what the situation is on the other side of Oskil, where only one village has been liberated so far. People say that many were ­forcibly taken to Russia, but no one knows how many, or the number of families left homeless.

There are so many terrible stories. Dmytro Stoyanov was the director of a ­local utility company. When it shut down, the occupying troops came to Dmytro and demanded the company start up again – under threat of ­execution. They also ­demanded he pay salaries in ­rubles. Dmytro refused. In the basements, the troops put a black bag on his head, ­tortured him with electric shocks, and beat him.

The leader of the village of Vilshana, ­located on the other side of Oskil river, was shot by the occupiers in October, ­after being in a torture chamber – his crime was to support Ukraine and refuse to cooperate.

VOLODYMYR Anatoliyovych’s son, two sons-in-law and two younger brothers are all serving in the army. For eight months there’s been no word from any of them. Talking about his relatives, ­Anatoliyovych’s voice trembles with pride, fear and painful loneliness. ­Loneliness is in the air in these villages. Many elderly people are left alone, in remote streets, difficult to reach because of the shelling. They greet the volunteers: “Oh, finally someone remembered about us!”

READ MORE: Michael Gove slated for 'short-sighted' Ukraine refugee funding cuts

Lilya Volodymyrivna, another resident of the basement, says that her daughter-in-law and grandchildren live in ­Germany, but she won’t go to them. “My son is ­buried here, and my husband and parents – how can I leave them?”

In each village, older women hug the volunteers from Kharkiv: “My God, ­children, you risk your lives when you come here!”

The road back to Kharkiv is ­disturbing. “Grad” rockets are flying across the field against the dark sky, toward our ­positions. We can’t turn on the headlights, we’d be shot. We are driving in complete darkness.

After one of the bridges, Anatoliyovych turns on the headlights and sighs heavily. Next week he’ll go back again, because what are the options? I ask why he does it. “You’re funny”, he says in response.