By Tom Balmforth
BALAKLIIA, Ukraine (Reuters) – The guns had fallen silent after three days of fighting in the battle-scarred city of Balakliia in northeastern Ukraine, but Mariya Tymofiyeva said it was only when she saw the Ukrainian soldiers that she realized that more than six months of Russian shooting. the occupation was over.
“I was walking away… when I saw an armored personnel carrier coming into the square with a Ukrainian flag – my heart sank and I started sobbing,” the 43-year-old resident said, her voice shaking 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 northeastern Ukraine’s extraordinary counteroffensive.
The city, which had a population of 27,000 before the war, is part of a chain of key urban outposts that Ukraine recaptured over the past week following the sudden collapse of one of Russia’s main front lines.
On Tuesday, the streets around Balakliia’s main square were eerily quiet. The Ukrainian flag flew over a statue of national poet Taras Shevchenko in front of the regional government building.
A short distance away, regional police officers took the journalists to the burial site of two people. The bodies had been exhumed and lay on the grass in open body bags.
The two men, they said, were civilians who had been shot dead 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 no other place to do it.
At the site of the exhumed grave, Valentyna, the distraught 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,” he said.
Reuters was unable to independently verify details of what happened in Balakliia. Russia has denied targeting civilians in what it calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine.
RUSSIAN RUBLES AND SOLDIERS
Tymofiyeva said it was clear to her that Russia, which invaded Ukraine in February, had planned to annex the city and surrounding territory.
Prices in stores were given in both Russian rubles and Ukrainian hryvnias; retirees were paid in rubles, he said.
The city was almost completely isolated from the outside world. There had been no TV, internet or mobile phone coverage since late April, he said, apart from one place where residents were trying to find a weak signal.
She said Russian soldiers stopped residents on the street and took their phones to check if they had pro-Ukrainian slogans or to see if they subscribed to pro-Ukrainian social media channels.
At one point, her husband was forced to remove his underwear in the street to ensure he did not have pro-Ukrainian tattoos and had not served in the Ukrainian army fighting 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 photo of his brother in a military uniform, they took him to a police station where he was held for 46 days, he said.
He said he was kept in a small cell with six other people.
His captors at one point used cables to apply electric shocks to his hands as they interrogated him, asking about the whereabouts of other former military personnel in the town, he said.
Sometimes he could hear screaming from his cell, he said.
The allegations could not be independently verified, but police led reporters into several windowless cells with rudimentary beds that were littered with old clothes and other trash.
Larchenko said he and other captives were taken to the bathroom twice a day with a bag over their heads and fed a diet of tasteless porridge.
“Every once in a while there was soup; if the soldiers didn’t eat it, it was a kind of celebration,” he said.
JOY OF THE PEOPLE
The road to Balakliia through the liberated areas was littered with charred vehicles and destroyed military equipment.
Groups of Ukrainian soldiers smoked, smiled and chatted by the roadside. A soldier was stretched out on top of a tank like it was his living room couch.
In the nearby town of Verbivka, excited but cheerful residents, many of them of retirement age, recounted the terrifying existence they carried during nearly seven months of Russian occupation.
“It was terrifying: we tried to walk less, so that they would see us less,” said Tetiana Sinovaz.
She said they had heard from their hiding place the fierce fighting to liberate the village and were surprised to find many buildings still standing when they left, although the school that the Russians had made their base was destroyed.
“We thought there would be no town left. We went out and everything was there!” she said.
Nadia Khvostok, 76, said she and other Verbivka villagers had encountered soldiers arriving with “tears in their eyes”.
“We couldn’t have been happier. My grandkids spent two and a half months in the basement. When they ripped out the corner of the house, the kids started shaking and stuttering.”
The children had since left with her daughter, she said, to an unknown destination.
Amid the rubble of the village school, Kharkiv regional governor Oleh Synehubov told reporters that they were trying to record and document evidence of war crimes.
“We have found some burial sites of civilians. We continue with the exhumation process. So far we know of at least five people, but unfortunately this is not the end, believe me,” he said.
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; additional reporting by Anna Voitenko, editing by Rosalba O’Brien)