Meters away from Russian separatists, some Ukrainians feel indifferent News about the Ukrainian-Russian crisis

In some cases, only proper names are used to protect identity.

Chermalyk, Ukraine – Sergei, a soft mechanic in his 40s, pours himself another glass of vodka and stares into the distance.

It was a Sunday lunch full of food and laughter, but the conversation had already shifted to politics, a topic he was not interested in.

He lives on the line of the escalating crisis between Russia and Ukraine.

On the other side of a small river, a few hundred meters from his house, is a territory occupied by Russian-backed separatists.

But the atmosphere in Chermalik is far from a heavily fortified network of trenches that wind along the 500-kilometer (310-mile) dividing line between the Ukrainian army and Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

In the trenches, every movement is closely monitored and one wrong move can cause sniper fire or heavy shelling from the enemy.

In recent weeks, Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, prompting US President Joe Biden to announce that he has a “reporting opportunity” for Russia to invade Ukraine next month.

The United States and its allies have also responded with threats of economic sanctions and an increased military presence in the region, unconvinced by Russia’s insistence that it does not want war.

Sergey mechanic next to his car 2Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

But walking through the sleepy village of Chermalik, you would never have guessed that this is at the epicenter of the world’s most talked about conflict.

It is possible to peek beyond the river into windy winter landscapes under separatist control. Locals even say they go fishing in the summer months on the other side.

A battalion of Ukrainian soldiers, called the Sons of Auden, is stationed in Chermalik, but their presence is restrained and they can roam the village to buy groceries.

Many residents are indifferent to the threat of invasion.

“I don’t think our situation will change,” said Sergei, a former teacher who has been unemployed since most of his students left in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea.

Residents describe being cut off and forgotten from the rest of the country.

“State support has completely dried up,” said Ludmila, a shop owner. “It left us exhausted.”

Sergei and his friend at the dinner table.Ukrainians on the front line continue to live as well as possible as the world speaks of impending war [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

The village is also physically isolated after a nearby bridge was severely damaged during heavy fighting in 2014-15. Buses to the nearest city of Mariupol leave every hour, now only once a day.

The village has also suffered a brain drain. Engineers working in nearby factories left after the 2014 conflict.

Unemployed and living on fruits and vegetables they grow in their gardens, locals resort to stealing firewood in the winter from the surrounding forests to keep warm.

“We are not afraid of a change of government,” said Natalia, a pensioner who lives by the river. “Maybe gas prices would be lower if the separatists came here.

“Things will not change for us,” said Sergei, the teacher. “We are unemployed and live off the land.”

However, the tension boils under this seemingly calm atmosphere.

From time to time, occasional bullets hit houses and shells regularly rattling on the windows of riverside homes.

As Natalia returns to her house from the garden, a gust of wind slams the front door; she jumps up and screams.

“You see, I’m always scared when I hear noises,” she said.

Ukrainian soldier walks in the snow.A battalion of Ukrainian soldiers, called the Sons of Auden, is stationed in Chermalik, but their presence is restrained. [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

Vladimir, a soldier stationed nearby, noticed an increase in activities on the other side of the river, including drones and heavy vehicles.

“Something is definitely happening now,” he said.

Natalia, a resident in her early 20s, recalled the fighting in 2014-15. She is pregnant and worries about the safety of her unborn child.

“My family knows where to run and hide,” she said. “We saved some money so we could escape to a big city like Kiev.

An escalation of tensions also threatens to expose the deeply torn political divide in the village.

Behind closed doors, people can express their opinions; some are on Ukraine’s side and others are Russian-backed separatists.

But on the streets or in the shops, people stick to small talk.

“I’m afraid to speak openly,” says teacher Sergei. “If I do, people can find me and kill me.”

But many feel like Sergei, a mechanic who simply wants a better life without the looming threat of conflict.

“I just want the nations to stop fighting each other,” he said. “I prefer to compete who has the best living conditions.”

Natalia, a pensioner who lives on the river bank, walks in the snow.In the event of an invasion, Natalia would leave Chermalik with her family [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

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