In Ukrainian towns where Russia was driven out, shipwrecks are everywhere

Corpses to be reburied, traumatized villagers, the remains of rockets scattered in the fields of sunflowers: in eastern Ukraine, it is the dark landscape left by the flight of Russian troops.

Over the past six weeks, Ukrainian troops have retaken thousands of square kilometers of territory in the northeast, east and south. Running a clock in cold weather, Ukraine continues its multi-pronged offensive despite Russia’s punitive bombardment of heavily populated areas away from the battlefield and its relentless attacks on the country’s energy infrastructure.

For those living in newly liberated towns and villages that have spent months under Russian occupation, rubble is everywhere and crippling fear is slow to dissipate.

In the river town of Svyatohirsk in the northern part of Donetsk province, even the dogs are nervous.

Russian forces captured the city in June, less than four months after the war began. As Ukrainian and Russian troops exchanged artillery fire along the adjacent front line, “the dogs barked nonstop,” recalls Raisa Nikolaevna, a Sviatohirsk resident in her 60s.

Ukrainian forces recaptured the town in mid-September and the fighting has now moved a dozen kilometers away. But the sound of speeding military vehicles and the distant thump of shelling always set off a frenzied chorus of dogs in Nikolaevna’s backyard.

Plumes of smoke can be seen on the horizon and Ukrainian fighter jets roar overhead. On a road outside the city, a Ukrainian soldier at a checkpoint issues a warning: drive fast, but don’t use your seatbelt. If there is an artillery strike, you need to be able to crawl from your car.

A 67-year-old retired housekeeper agreed to an interview but only gave her first name – Halya – because she feared the Russians would come back and “use my words against me”.

She recounted her early summer escape from Sviatohirsk: crossing the bridge over the Seversky Donets River as fires raged on all sides, sheltering for a few nights in a 16th-century monastery, eventually finding safety in the west.

His hometown was barely recognizable when he returned. Buildings and bridges are destroyed. The surrounding forest is dotted with abandoned Russian camps. Along a road outside the town, the charred remains of two Russian tanks now house a litter of kittens, cared for by Ukrainian troops.

During the occupation, residents were forbidden to leave their property. If someone died, whether from battle, deprivation, or natural causes, his family had to bury him in adjoining gardens or orchards. City officials said 29 of those bodies had been recovered and the deaths would be investigated.

Three of Halya’s neighbors were killed in fires caused by shelling; after she returned, she saw their bodies being exhumed for proper burial. Recalling the scene, Halya forgot her caution and got angry with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who recently announced the annexation of Donetsk and three other Ukrainian provinces.

“He won’t stop because he’s so afraid of losing,” she said. “He should just shoot himself!”

A neighboring couple in their 60s – Oleksandr Federovich and his wife, Lubov Dmitrievna, who identified themselves only by first and last names – said they spent 100 nights sleeping on wooden planks in their basement after their home was damaged by Russian shelling and attacks. the soldiers ordered them not to leave.

The occupiers tried to use the townspeople as a shield, the two men said. When Ukrainian forces stationed across the river began flying surveillance drones over the city in an attempt to gauge enemy troop strength, the Russians were moving around in civilian clothes. They also forced the local population to wear white armbands of the type used by the Russian army.

The couple are happy that the Ukrainian forces are regaining control, despite the imminent prospect of a cold winter without running water and only firewood for warmth. They mocked Putin’s recent annexation proclamation.

“We have always lived in Ukraine, not in Russia,” Oleksandr said.

In what was left of the cursed town square, a few people were grilling meat and vegetables. Among them was Mikhail Lukianec, the deputy mayor.

City officials, he said, are concerned about restoring public services and clearing Russian mines. The town had a pre-war population of 4,500, but those who fled are ordered to stay away until clearance is complete.

Those who remained, many of them elderly, live among the ruins. Valentina Mokorusova, 77, said her house was so badly damaged – a leaky roof, a shattered garage, shattered windows – that she and her husband slept in the garden.

“Everything is destroyed,” she said.

Next to Oleksandr and Lubov’s damaged house, an 8-year-old boy named Sasha was riding a bicycle down the street.

Her mother, Oksana, who picked vegetables in her garden, said the family was from Mykolaivka, a town about 75 miles south that came under the control of pro-Russian separatists in 2014, the year of the Birth of Sasha. A child of war, she called him.

The family eventually took refuge in Sviatohirsk, but the war followed them. After the February 24 Russian invasion, Oksana managed to send her four older children to safety, but she and her husband could not afford to leave, and Sasha was too young to travel with her siblings.

So the three of them stayed. Living off what they could grow in their garden, she and her husband were each knocked out several times by nearby shelling when they slipped out to look for food, she said. Sasha’s school, which he couldn’t attend anyway, was destroyed. Explosions sounded constantly. Russian soldiers patrolled outside.

Even after the city was liberated, months of constant fear left their mark.

“We hardly laugh anymore,” she said. Her husband briefly appeared at the window, but then retreated into darkness – not yet wanting, like Sasha, to talk to anyone.

Only Oksana seemed to pull herself together.

“The main thing now,” she said, “is that we survive the winter.”

Adler is a special envoy. Times writer Laura King in Washington contributed to this report.

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