Outside, a firefighter and his truck race down a road that has been pounded since early morning by the Russians, to put out a fire on a hill caused by the explosions near the village of Sydorovié, in eastern Ukraine, in the heart fighting between Russians and Ukrainians.

Glasses on his nose, Oleksiï, 84, puts down his thick book then sticks his head outside to gauge the distance that separates the budding flames from his wooden door.

They still seem quite far away, and the fireman approaches the hill in flames, but also the Russian army, installed on the other slope.

No time to linger for Oleksiï: another deafening explosion stirs up dust and forces him to seek refuge in his cellar, with his wife Galina.

“We sit here waiting for our guys (Ukrainian soldiers) to launch a counter-offensive and move forward,” says Galina, 81, amid sacks of potatoes and jars of pickles. “Only then will the front line move away from here and we will be free,” agrees Oleksiï.

– “Running away” –

On the ground, the Ukrainians, who are leading a relentless defense of Kharkiv (east), are withdrawing on entire sections of the front after weeks of intense fighting around small villages, almost completely destroyed by bombs.

The wisps of white smoke rising above fields, including those of Sydorovié, bear witness to the Russian advance.

“I tell everyone that there is no reason to worry when the sounds of explosions come” from Ukrainians, explains Volodymyr Netymenko, who works in the construction sector and helps his sister to leave as soon as possible quickly Sydorovié.

But if it’s the Russians who are shooting, “then we have to run away! And we’ve been shot for two or three days,” he adds.

– “My war” –

Not far from Oleksiï’s cellar, Yaroslava, an army volunteer, sits on a concrete slab, amid the rubble of a school hit by a Russian attack the day before.

Her husband’s unit had taken up residence there, just hours before the Russian strike destroyed part of the gymnasium.

She can’t help but stare at the place where deminers said they found a hand last night. She has no news of her husband.

“We had settled in London before the war, but felt we had no choice but to return,” said the 51-year-old.

“My two sons have just signed a three-year contract with the army. We will fight. Again and again,” she continues, her eyes widening. “My war is not over.”

– “Many pro-Russian inhabitants” –

The Russians have been trying for more than a month to advance south, crossing a winding river.

One of their attempts near the village of Bilogorivka last week failed, with the Russians losing dozens of armored vehicles and an unknown number of soldiers in the attack.

But the Moscow troops were more successful in the hilly forests, which notably surround Sydorovié and the cellar of Oleksiï and Galina.

The advance of the Russians beyond this small village would clear the way for them to the key town of Sloviansk, 20 km further south, and to the administrative center of Kramatorsk.

These two towns are targeted almost daily by long-range missile strikes which have already destroyed several weapon storage sites.

Residents are worried that sensitive information is being passed to Russian troops.

Oleksandre Pogasiï, a volunteer soldier, sees proof of this in the attack on the school where Yaroslava’s husband’s unit had just set up.

“The guys had just arrived and the building was hit,” he explains. “There are many pro-Russian inhabitants here.”