Russians wreak havoc on Ukrainian farms, mining fields and stealing equipment

Russians wreak havoc on Ukrainian farms, mining fields and stealing equipment

5:27pm May 07, 2022
Anatolii Kulibaba, 70, discusses challenges getting his farm in Bilka, Ukraine working again after Russians occupied on April 19, 2022.
Anatolii Kulibaba, 70, discusses challenges getting his farm in Bilka, Ukraine working again after Russians occupied on April 19, 2022.
Franco Ordoñez / National Public Radio
  • Anatolii Kulibaba, 70, discusses challenges getting his farm in Bilka, Ukraine working again after Russians occupied on April 19, 2022.

    Anatolii Kulibaba, 70, discusses challenges getting his farm in Bilka, Ukraine working again after Russians occupied on April 19, 2022.

    Franco Ordoñez / National Public Radio

  • Anatolii Kulibaba, 70, discusses challenges getting his farm in Bilka, near the Russian border, working again after Russians occupied it.

    Anatolii Kulibaba, 70, discusses challenges getting his farm in Bilka, near the Russian border, working again after Russians occupied it.

    Olena Lysenko for NPR

  • Valerii Kyselov, 36, walks past discarded meal packs near the barn where Russian soldiers slept in Bilka, Ukraine.

    Valerii Kyselov, 36, walks past discarded meal packs near the barn where Russian soldiers slept in Bilka, Ukraine.

    Franco Ordoñez / NPR

  • Anatolii Kulibaba, 70, holds his son Oleksandr's hat near his destroyed truck last month in Bilka, Ukraine. His son was killed by Russian forces early in the war.

    Anatolii Kulibaba, 70, holds his son Oleksandr's hat near his destroyed truck last month in Bilka, Ukraine. His son was killed by Russian forces early in the war.

    Franco Ordoñez / NPR

BILKA, Ukraine — For Ukrainian farmer Anatolii Kulibaba, this year's planting season comes with anguish. Kulibaba is among many who were forced to flee their land as Russian forces moved in with their tanks.

In the first few days of the war, Russian soldiers delivered an even crueler blow: They killed Kulibaba's son, Oleksandr, as he was traveling to their village of Bilka, 25 miles from the Russian border.

"He was just 45. He had his whole life ahead of him," Kulibaba says.

Two months later, Kulibaba, 70, is still trying to work through the pain, but it's a struggle. He desperately misses his son, who also led most of the farm duties.

Kulibaba says he could really use Oleksandr's help right now, trying to restart production after Russian forces took over and destroyed parts of their farm.

Ukraine is one of the biggest producers of wheat, corn and sunflower oil, and the war has wreaked havoc on the so-called "breadbasket of Europe." Ukraine and Russia together account for over a quarter of the world's wheat exports. Ukraine's Ministry of Agriculture now says that 30% of the country's farmland is occupied or unsafe.

Kulibaba says Russian troops slept in his barn, slaughtered and cooked his pigs and parked their tanks in his cornfields.

"My fields were destroyed by the shelling," Kulibaba says.

By the time he returned to the farm in April, about four weeks after he fled, the Russians had used his tractors to dig trenches and ripped up much of his 494 acres with their heavy tanks. They stole more than 2,600 gallons of his fuel and grabbed the batteries from his combines.

He thinks maybe he can farm half of his land now, but he doesn't really know. There's no safe way for him to assess.

"We're afraid to go out there," he says. "We don't know where the mines are."

Ukraine's export routes are blocked

In Ukraine, it's not just those on the front line, like Kulibaba, who've been affected. Gas prices are surging and farmers are struggling to find fertilizer to grow new crops. And whatever they produce is going to be even harder to sell.

Ukrainian grains have been stuck in makeshift silos across the country and particularly by port cities like Odesa, along their main export route, the Black Sea. The Russians have blocked ships from departing, and — according to the Ukrainians — left naval mines for those that try to sneak past.

"This year, we're going to have much less harvest," says Sergii Leshchenko, a senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's chief of staff. "But it's important to [have a harvest], at least to cover internal needs."

Leshchenko says the government is working to help with global needs. They've tried to expand new export routes to the west by train, and south via small ports along the Danube River. But he says it's far from sufficient.

"There is still [a] bottleneck for proper export of Ukrainian food," he says. "It's impossible without making the Odesa region work properly."

Experts warn of food shortages and price increases

The war's disruptions have led to surging prices and raised fears of food shortages in parts of the developing world. Kyiv-based trade analyst Elena Neroba warns the global impacts will be profound, as families in developing nations who relied on Ukrainian crops will struggle to afford more expensive wheat.

She points to places like Indonesia, which imports 28% of its wheat from Ukraine, and Bangladesh, which gets 21%. Egypt imports almost 80% of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia.

"The Russian invasion will lead not just to deaths in Ukraine," she warns. "But in a few months, people will start dying all over the world from hunger."

The war has set the Ukrainian agriculture sector back by years, especially after gains made in developing healthier and organic crops, according to Mariia Bogonos, the head of the Center for Food and Land Use at the Kyiv School of Economics.

She says it was hard enough trying to recover from the 2014 Russian invasion in the east.

"It's painful," Bogonos says. "How much effort was put into developing this sector. So, moving from [the] Soviet past to this market-oriented way of living. And now we have to stop all this and talk about food security in the country again."

While the United States does not import Ukrainian wheat, it will not be immune to the supply shock.

Joe Glauber, a former chief economist for the Department of Agriculture, says American consumers will likely see prices go up on wheat-based products, from bread to cereals to pizza.

"The loss of Ukraine right now, in the sense that no grain is moving out of their ports, has pushed up prices to 25% over price levels, which were already high and rising," says Glauber, a senior fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, referring to increases since the beginning of the war. "And that's critical to this story in the sense of markets were already tight with low inventories and very high prices, the highest prices we've seen in about 10 years for a lot of commodities, even prior to the Russian invasion."

Getting family farms back up and running will be arduous

Kulibaba's son-in-law, Valerii Kyselov, motions to the barn where the Russians spent most of their time while they occupied the family farm in Bilka. Spent munitions and discarded meal packs litter the ground under a rickety trailer.

Kyselov promises there are no mines inside and climbs to the second floor. The bales of hay upstairs still have impressions from where the Russians slept.

On the wall, a scratched-out message refers to NATO soldiers in a sexual act and insults the Pentagon.

It's been weeks since the farm produced any income, Kyselov says. The family is starting to worry about whether Kulibaba will be able to pay back loans he used to purchase his combine and other expensive equipment, some of which has been stolen.

"If you can plan, you can pay your loan," Kyselov said. "But the Russians took away the possibility to earn money."

He also worries how his father-in-law is dealing with the trauma of losing his son.

Kulibaba insists the farm will survive. It will take time to clear the mines, but he vows it will produce again.

What's harder, he says, is dealing with the loss of Oleksandr, and just trying to understand why all this had to happen.

"We are peaceful people," he says. "We did not attack anyone. We are on our own land."

Olena Lysenko contributed to this story from Bilka, Ukraine.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Planting season has arrived in many parts of the world, including Ukraine. The country is one of the largest producers of wheat, corn and sunflower oil, but the war has wreaked havoc on the so-called breadbasket Europe. The Ministry of Agriculture now says that 30% of farmland is occupied or unsafe. The disruptions have led to surging prices, raising fears of food shortages in parts of the developing world. NPR correspondent Franco Ordoñez takes us to a farm in northeast Ukraine, just across the border from Russia.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: On a rainy afternoon, Anatolii Kulibaba walks slowly through the mud, past his red combine, to a dark pickup truck on his property. The windshield is smashed. The doors are caved in. The grill is riddled with bullet holes. It's all that's left of his son's confrontation with the Russians early in the war.

ANATOLII KULIBABA: (Through interpreter) He was just 45. He had his whole life ahead of him.

ORDOÑEZ: He was driving into his little village just as Russian soldiers were trying to take control of it. Two months later, the 70-year-old Kulibaba is trying to work through the pain, but he's struggling. His son Oleksandr handled most of the duties of the farm. Kulibaba says he could really use Oleksandr's help right now trying to restart production after those same Russian forces took over their farm.

KULIBABA: (Through interpreter) This is where their firing position was. So many machine guns.

ORDOÑEZ: Kulibaba explains how he was forced to flee when hundreds of Russian troops took over the land near the village of Bilka, less than 25 miles from the Russian border. They killed and cooked his pigs, slept in his barn and parked their tanks in his cornfields.

KULIBABA: (Through interpreter) My fields were destroyed by the shelling.

ORDOÑEZ: By the time he returned four weeks later, the Russians had used his tractors to dig up trenches and ripped up much of his 200 hectares of land with their heavy tanks. They stole 10,000 liters of his fuel. They took the batteries out of his combines.

KULIBABA: (Non-English language spoken).

ORDOÑEZ: He thinks he can maybe farm half of the land now, but he doesn't really know.

KULIBABA: (Through interpreter) We're afraid to go out there. We don't know where the mines are.

ORDOÑEZ: Ukraine and Russia account for over a quarter of the world's wheat exports. And it's not just farmers on the front line, like Kulibaba, who have been impacted by this war. Gas prices are surging and farmers across the country are struggling to find fertilizer to grow new crops. And whatever they will produce is going to be even harder to sell.

Ukrainian grains have been stuck in makeshift silos across the country, and particularly by ports near Odesa, along the Black Sea, their main export route. The Russians have blocked ships from departing and, according to the Ukrainians, left naval mines for those that try to sneak by.

SERGII LESHCHENKO: This year, we're going to have much less harvest. But it's important to have one, at least to cover internal needs.

ORDOÑEZ: Sergii Leshchenko (ph) is a senior adviser to President Zelenskyy's chief of staff. He says they've tried to expand new export routes to the west by train and south via small ports along the Danube River. But he says it's far from sufficient.

LESHCHENKO: There is still a bottleneck for proper export of Ukrainian foods. It's impossible without making Odesa region all working properly.

ELENA NEROBA: We're talking about hunger.

ORDOÑEZ: That's trade analyst Elena Neroba, who says families in developing nations who relied on Ukrainian wheat will now struggle to afford more expensive wheat. She points to places like Indonesia that get 28% of its wheat from Ukraine and Bangladesh that gets 21%. Egypt imports almost 80% of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia.

NEROBA: Russian behavior, Russian invasion will lead not just to deaths in Ukraine, but in few months, people start dying all over the world from hunger.

ORDOÑEZ: Mariia Bogonos is the head of the Center for Food and Land Use Research at the Kyiv School of Economics. She says the war has set the Ukrainian agriculture sector back years, especially after gains made in developing healthier and organic crops. She said it was hard enough trying to recover from the 2014 Russian invasion in the east.

MARIIA BOGONOS: It's painful. I mean, how much effort was put into developing this sector - so moving from Soviet past to this market-oriented way of living, and now we have to stop all this and talk about food security again.

ORDOÑEZ: While the United States does not import Ukrainian wheat, Joe Glauber says it will not be immune from the supply shock. Glauber is a former chief economist for the Department of Agriculture. He says American consumers will likely see prices go up on many wheat-based products, from bread to cereal to noodles to pizza.

JOE GLAUBER: The loss of Ukraine right now in the sense that no grain is moving out of their ports, has pushed up prices 20, 25% over price levels which were already high and rising.

VALERIA KYSELOV: (Non-English language spoken).

ORDOÑEZ: Kulibaba's son-in-law, Valeria Kyselov, motions to the barn where the Russians spent the night. Spent munitions and discarded meal packs litter the ground under a rickety trailer. He promises it's safe, that there are no mines, and walks inside. The bales of hay upstairs where the Russians slept still have impressions of their bodies. On the wall, they left a message that depicts NATO soldiers in a sexual act and insults the Pentagon.

Kyselov explains that it's been weeks since the farm produced any income. The family is starting to worry about Kulibaba and whether he'll be able to pay back the loans he used to purchase his combine and other expensive equipment.

KYSELOV: (Through interpreter) If you can plan, you can pay your loan. But the Russians took away the possibility to earn money.

ORDOÑEZ: He also worries how his father-in-law is dealing with the trauma of losing his son. Kulibaba insists the farm will survive. It will take time to clear the mines, but it will produce again. What's harder, he said, is dealing with the loss of his son and just trying to understand why all this happened.

KULIBABA: (Non-English language spoken).

ORDOÑEZ: "We are peaceful people," he says. "We did not attack anyone. We're on our own land." And he says he'll never understand any of this.

Franco Ordoñez, NPR News, Bilka, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILANTHROPE'S "RELIEF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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