HRAKOVE, Ukraine (AP) — Not much is left of Hrakove. Her houses and her shops are in ruins, her school is a shell bombed out. The church is scarred by rockets and shells, but the golden dome above its cursed steeple still shines in the fading autumn light.
Only about 30 people remain, living in basements and gutted buildings in this small village southeast of Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, according to resident Anatolii Klyzhen. About 1,000 people lived here when Russian troops crossed the border in February, occupying the village soon after.
These forces abandoned Hrakove around September 9 as Ukrainian soldiers advanced in a lightning counteroffensive. This blitz could be a turning pointsetting the stage for further gains in the east and elsewhere – but it could also trigger a violent response from Moscow, leading to a new and dangerous escalation of the war.
There was no indication that the Russian soldiers were about to leave. “Nobody knew anything. They left very quietly,” said Viacheslav Myronenko, 71, who has been living in the basement of his bombed-out building with three neighbors for more than four months.
The detritus of a fleeing army still litters the village: empty Russian army food ration packets, abandoned crates with instructions for using grenades, a gas mask hanging from a tree, a trampled military jacket in mud. Just outside the village, near the bus stop, a rusty Russian tank lies on a road riddled with shell craters, its turret and gun torn from its body.
Wild dogs roam the muddy streets and authorities warn of mines and weed traps.
“Before, the village was really beautiful,” said Klyzhen, who spent 45 days living in the basement of his building while Russian soldiers occupied his now ransacked apartment on the second floor. He eventually managed to flee, deciding to try his luck at the checkpoints.
Russian soldiers were both frightened and paranoid, he said, and were checking residents’ cellphones for anything anti-Russian or anything they thought might betray their positions. Some people were taken away and he never saw them again.
“I thought to myself that I could die at home or die at the checkpoint,” the 45-year-old said on Tuesday. But he succeeded and returned after Hrakove was recaptured to see what was left of his house. He found the windows blown out and Russian army food packets, clothes and boxes strewn about. In one room was a stack of televisions that he thinks soldiers may have stolen.
After retaking the village, Ukrainian authorities removed abandoned Russian military vehicles and exhumed the bodies of two men who had been buried by the side of a road after being shot in the head, Klyzhen said. He thinks they were Ukrainian soldiers, but he is not sure.
“They were killing residents, shooting at them,” he said. “There was nothing good here.”
Serhii Lobodenko, head of the Chuhuiv district which includes Hrakove, said the area had seen fierce battles during the six-month occupation.
“There were a lot of destroyed roads, private houses, a lot of dead and a lot of missing, military and civilian,” he said, as Chkalovske residents gathered to receive food and medicine. water. “Now we are trying to repair the infrastructure, the electricity and the gas. Food is brought because people had no food.
Images of devastation and stories of hardship are emerging from other places recaptured in the Ukrainian advance, including Izium, an equally recently recaptured strategic town that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited on Wednesday. in a rare foray outside the capital.
A few weeks after the start of the Russian occupation in Hrakove, Myronenko and his neighbors got together to clean the basement of their building and turn it into a shelter. With their flats destroyed, there remains their home.
They found some metal pipes and wedged them between the floor and the ceiling, hoping this would stop it from collapsing as the building shook from the blasts, said one of the four, Oleh Lutsai, aged 70 years. They ventured outside to plant potatoes despite the constant shelling, knowing they needed food to survive.
“Of course it was scary, it’s very scary for everyone, when everything is shaking here,” Lutsai said. An oil lamp hung on the wall, casting a soft glow around the cramped room. A kettle hissed softly over a wood-burning stove built by Lutsai and his neighbors.
Leaving was not an option for him. “I am 70 years old, I was born here, he says. “Even if I had to die here – but obviously I want to live – I just want to die in Ukrainian Ukraine, not that of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin. … Then why should I run away from here?
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