BALAKLIIA, Ukraine, September 13 (Reuters) – The guns fell silent after three days of fighting in the northeastern Ukrainian town of Balakliia, but Mariya Tymofiyeva said it was not until she saw ukrainian soldiers she touched her more than six months of russian occupation were over.
“I was walking away (…) when I saw an armored personnel carrier with a Ukrainian flag arriving in the square: my heart sank and I started to sob”, says this resident of 43 years old, voice trembling with emotion. .
On Tuesday, she was among a crowd of residents receiving food parcels from a van in the same square where the Ukrainian flag was dramatically raised last week in one of the first images of the country’s extraordinary counteroffensive. northeastern Ukraine. Read more
Join now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
The city – which had a pre-war population of 27,000 – is part of a string of key urban outposts that Ukraine recaptured last week after one of Russia’s main front lines suddenly collapsed.
On Tuesday, the streets around Balakliia’s main square were eerily quiet. The Ukrainian flag flew above a statue of national poet Taras Shevchenko in front of the regional government building.
A few steps away, regional police officers led journalists to the gravesite of two people. The bodies had been exhumed and laid on the grass in open body bags.
The two men, they said, were civilians who were shot at a checkpoint in the city on September 6, when the city was still under Russian control. The locals had buried them there because they had nowhere to do so.
At the exhumed grave site, Valentyna, the distressed mother of one of the dead, Petro, 49, cursed the war and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“No one can give my son back to me,” she said.
Reuters could not independently verify the details of what happened in Balakliia. Russia has denied targeting civilians in what it calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine.
RUBLES AND RUSSIAN SOLDIERS
Tymofiyeva said it was clear to her that Russia, which invaded Ukraine in February, planned to annex the city and surrounding territory.
Prices in shops were indicated in both Russian rubles and Ukrainian hryvnia; pensioners were paid in rubles, she said.
The city was almost completely isolated from the outside world. There was no TV, internet or cell phone coverage from late April, she said, except for one spot where residents were trying to find a weak signal.
She said Russian soldiers would stop residents on the street and take their phones to check if they had pro-Ukrainian slogans or to see if they were subscribed to pro-Ukrainian social networks.
At one point her husband was made to strip naked in the street to make sure he didn’t have any pro-Ukrainian tattoos and that he hadn’t served in the Ukrainian army fighting the Russian-backed forces in the Donbas region, she said.
Artem Larchenko, 32, said Russian forces searched his apartment in July for weapons. After finding a photograph of his brother in military uniform, they took him to the police station where they held him for 46 days, he said.
He said he was being held in a small cell with six other people.
His captors at one point used wires to give him electric shocks in his hands as they interrogated him, asking him where other former servicemen in the town were, he said.
He could sometimes hear screams coming from his cell, he said.
The charges could not be independently verified, but police led the journalists into several windowless cells with rudimentary beds littered with old clothes and other rubbish.
Larchenko said he and other captives were taken to the bathroom twice a day with a bag over their heads and given a diet of tasteless porridge.
“Sometimes there was soup – if the soldiers didn’t eat it, it was a kind of party,” he said.
The road from Balakliia through the liberated areas was littered with charred vehicles and destroyed military equipment.
Groups of Ukrainian soldiers smoked, smiled and chatted by the side of the road. A soldier was lying on top of a tank as if it were the sofa in his living room.
In the nearby village of Verbivka, emotional but cheerful residents, many of whom are of retirement age, recounted the frightening lives they led under nearly seven months of Russian occupation.
“It was scary: we tried to walk around less, so they would see us less,” said Tetiana Sinovaz.
She said they had listened from underground to the fierce fighting to liberate the village and were amazed to find many buildings still standing when they appeared, although the school the Russians had made their base had been destroyed. .
“We thought there would be no more village. We walked out and it was all there!” she says.
Nadia Khvostok, 76, said she and other Verbivka villagers encountered soldiers arriving with “tears in their eyes”.
“We couldn’t have been happier. My grandchildren spent two and a half months in the cellar. When the corner of the house was ripped out, the children started shaking and stuttering.”
The children had since left with her daughter, she said, to an unknown destination.
In the rubble of the village school, Kharkiv regional governor Oleh Synehubov told reporters they were trying to record and document evidence of war crimes.
“We have found burial sites for civilians. We are continuing the exhumation process. So far we know of at least five people, but unfortunately this is not the end, believe me,” he said. -he declares.
Join now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
Reporting by Tom Balmforth; additional reporting by Anna Voitenko, editing by Rosalba O’Brien
Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.