Written by Tom Balmforth
Balaklya, Ukraine (Reuters) – A gunfight reigned after three days of fighting in the battle-ravaged northeastern town of Balaklya, but Maria Timofeeva said it was only when she saw Ukrainian soldiers beat her over a period of six months. The occupation is over.
“I was walking away … when I saw an armored personnel carrier coming into the field carrying the Ukrainian flag: my heart just hardened and I began to cry,” said the 43-year-old woman, in a voice trembling with emotion. .
On Tuesday, she was among a crowd of residents who received food parcels from a pickup truck in the same square where the Ukrainian flag was raised dramatically last week in one of the first images of the extraordinary counterattack in northeastern Ukraine.
The city – which had a pre-war population of 27,000 – was one of a series of major urban outposts that Ukraine recaptured over the past week after the sudden collapse of one of Russia’s main front lines.
On Tuesday, the streets around Balaklia’s main square were eerily quiet. The Ukrainian flag is raised over a statue of the national poet Taras Shevchenko in front of the regional government building.
A short distance away, district police officers led reporters to the burial place of two people. The bodies were exhumed and laid out on the grass in open body bags.
They said the two men were civilians who were killed at a town checkpoint on September 6 when the town was still under Russian control. The locals buried them there because they had nowhere else to do so.
At the exhumed grave site, Valentina, the mother of 49-year-old Petro, cursed the war and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“No one can take my son back to me,” she said.
Reuters was not able to verify an independent source the details of what happened in Balkalia. Russia denied targeting civilians in what it described as a “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Russians and Russian soldiers
Timofeeva said it was clear to her that Russia, which invaded Ukraine in February, planned to annex the town and the surrounding lands.
Prices in stores were given in Russian rubles and Ukrainian hryvnia; She said that pensioners are paid in rubles.
The city was almost completely isolated from the outside world. She said there has been no television, internet or mobile phone coverage since late April, except for one place where residents will try to find a faint signal.
She said Russian soldiers would stop residents on the street and take their phones to check them for pro-Ukrainian slogans or to see if they subscribed to pro-Ukrainian social media channels.
At one point, she said, her husband was forced to take off his underwear in the street to ensure he did not have pro-Ukrainian tattoos and did not serve in the Ukrainian army fighting Russian-backed forces in the Donbass region.
Artem Larchenko, 32, said Russian forces searched his apartment in July for weapons. He said that after they found a picture of his brother in military uniform, they took him to a police station where they detained him for 46 days.
He said he was held in a small cell with six other people.
He said that at one point his captors used wires to give him electric shocks on his hands during interrogation, and asked him about the whereabouts of other former military personnel in the town.
He said he sometimes heard screams from his cell.
The accusations could not be independently verified, but police led reporters to several windowless cells with rudimentary beds strewn with old clothes and other rubbish.
Larchenko said he and other captives were taken to the toilet twice a day with a bag over their heads and fed a diet of tasteless porridge.
“Sometimes there was soup – if the soldiers didn’t eat it, it was a kind of celebration,” he said.
The road leading to Balkalia through the liberated areas was littered with charred vehicles and destroyed military equipment.
Groups of Ukrainian soldiers smoking, smiling and chatting by the roadside. One of the soldiers was laid on top of a tank like a sofa in his living room.
In the neighboring village of Verbivka, passionate but cheerful residents, many of them in retirement age, recounted the frightening presence they had led under Russian occupation for about seven months.
“It was scary: We tried to walk around less, so they would see us less,” said Tetiana Sinovas.
She said that they had heard from hiding the fierce fighting to liberate the village and were astonished to find many buildings still standing when they appeared, despite the school that the Russians had built in their base had been destroyed.
“We thought there would be no village left. We went out and it was all there!” She said.
Nadia Khvostok, 76, said that she stood with fellow villagers in Verbivka, met the oncoming soldiers, “with tears in our eyes.”
“We couldn’t have been happier. My grandchildren spent two and a half months in the basement. And when the corner of the house was torn apart, the kids started shivering and stuttering.”
She said the children have since left with her daughter to an unknown destination.
Amidst the ruins of the village school, the governor of the Kharkiv region Oleh Senhopov told reporters that they were trying to record and document evidence of war crimes.
“We have found some civilian burial places. We are continuing the process of exhumation. So far we know at least five people, but unfortunately this is not the end, believe me,” he said.
(Reporting by Tom Palmforth; Additional reporting by Anna Voitenko; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)
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