Russian forces have been pushed out of the area around Kharkiv. Villages that were occupied for two months are free once more — but utterly destroyed. And thousands of people have disappeared without a trace.
TSYKRUNY — Andriy Kluchikov uses a walking stick, but is otherwise fairly sprightly for a 94-year-old. Under his black wool hat, Kluchikov seems fearless as he surveys his hometown in northeastern Ukraine. “The missiles don't scare me,” he says with a smile. “I have slept in my own bed every night and never went down into the basement.”
As for the two-meter-wide bomb crater that has appeared in his garden, between the vegetable patch and the greenhouse with its shattered plastic roof, Kluchikov almost seems proud. “No one can intimidate me,” he says. “Not even the Russians.”
In the early days of the war, in February, Russian artillery almost completely destroyed this village of Tsyrkuny, near Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city. Only a few houses, including his own, were left undamaged. Shortly afterwards, Russian troops marched into the village and occupied it for 72 days. It was not until early this week that the Ukrainian army was able to liberate Tsyrkuny and many other areas to the north of the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.
It is the Ukrainians’ most successful counter-offensive so far. They are thought to have pushed the invading troops back almost to the Russian border. “The offensive is gaining momentum,” according to the independent American thinktank Institute for the Study of War. “It has forced Russian troops on the defensive and has successfully alleviated artillery pressure on Kharkiv City.”
In the modern city of Kharkiv, home to around 1.5 million residents, the relief has been palpable over the last few days. Restaurants and cafes have reopened. People are walking and riding bikes in the parks, and couples are strolling hand in hand, enjoying the warm spring sunshine. You can still hear the artillery, but it is now many miles away.
The atmosphere has also changed in Tsyrkuny. The nightmare of the Russian occupation is over. “We can leave the house again,” says Kluchikov, standing in the courtyard in front of his home. “For two months we couldn’t go out into the street.”
This is not the first war that the 94-year-old has lived through, and not the first occupation. He can still remember World War II and the arrival of the German army, who took the 15-year-old Kluchikov to Germany, where — like tens of thousands of others from the former Soviet Union — he had to carry out forced labour. “I worked for a year and nine months in a sawmill near Dresden, until the Russians liberated us,” Kluchikov says, smiling and rubbing his rough hands together.
Woman walks in the north east of Kharkiv after the end of Russian occupation
History repeating itself
After returning home in December 1945, he was one of the workers who rebuilt the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol. Now the huge site is once again a sea of rubble, as it was after World War II. It was also the last refuge for a small group of Ukrainian soldiers.
The Russian army bombarded the steelworks day and night to finally force the last remaining fighters surrender. “It’s a shame,” says Kluchikov sadly. “It was such a beautiful, strong plant.” As a young man, he saw the Red Army driving the German military out of Kharkiv. “The artillery fire is much heavier now than it was then,” he says.
Kluchikov’s next-door neighbors are Anja and Mykola Blyzniuk. They show us the summer house they built themselves, which was destroyed in an explosion, along with their red-brick home. It is clear how much work the couple had put into their home. There are neat stone borders around the flowerbeds and vegetable plots. The house and summer house have been recently renovated.
More than a million people have been taken to Russia.
The grass, however, which they used to mow regularly, has grown tall. Repeated attacks meant it was too dangerous to stay outside for long.
“We have lived here since 1984 and didn’t want to leave,” says 63-year-old Mykola. They tell us their son and daughter took their grandchildren and fled through Russia to Estonia. “It wasn’t easy,” says Anja Blyzniuk. “They were stopped and interrogated many times, but then allowed to carry on with their journey.” Their son and his family left Tsyrkuny with a white flag on their car.
During the two months of occupation, the couple only had direct contact with Russian soldiers once. “They came to search our house for weapons, and then that was it,” says Mykola Blyzniuk. He doesn’t know anything about any executions, like those that have been reported in Bucha, near the capital Kyiv. He has only heard from other people in the village that there were also Chechnyan troops in the area, who were particularly violent.
“The Russians took around 30 young men away and no one knows where they are,” says Blyzniuk. There is a small sausage factory in the area. “The Russians announced that all residents could go and help themselves,” he says. “Of course some young men came, and they were taken away.”
He says no one knows the whereabouts of the wounded people who the Russians took away. Blyzniuk’s statements match those that have emerged from other occupied regions in Ukraine. It is believed that so far more than a million people have been taken to Russia.
Missiles in recently liberated village of Tsyrkuny, near Kharkiv, as a consequences of Russian occupation
Civilians shot dead
The Blyzniuks and their neighbors are still here. “Like everyone else, we didn’t leave our house the whole time,” says Blyzniuk. Luckily they had enough to eat. In the countryside, people traditionally grow their own potatoes, onions, tomatoes and other vegetables and preserve them in large glass jars. “The only thing we didn’t have was bread,” says Blyzniuk. “But sometimes volunteers brought it to us, when the Russians had retreated for a day or two.”
Now that the Russian army has fully retreated, they have left in their wake a scene of devastation. Whole villages around Kharkiv have been left in ruins. Vil’khivka to the east of the city is only reachable via a small, improvised bridge made of two steel girders; the original bridge was blown up.
Representatives from the local authorities have already started visiting the area to gauge the extent of the damage. “In 16 villages, which originally had a population of 8,700, there have been 29 deaths overall,” says local government official Nikolay Romanov, who is accompanied by police with machine guns. Most of those killed were shot.
According to reports, two girls — aged 14 and 10 — were killed while fleeing in the car with their families, when Russian soldiers opened fire on civilians. The Russians’ headquarters were in a school building, which they set on fire before leaving.
Behind the building lies the flea-covered corpse of a Russian soldier, beside an overturned black stool. It seems he was keeping watch when he was killed, and his comrades simply left him behind.
They are all just murderers.
In Mala Rohan, residents are trying to repair their homes. Some are installing new windows, others a new garage door. But Alexander Genodi has nothing left to repair. Russian soldiers burnt his house down. There is nothing but the walls left standing.
Food, socks, vodka
“My son is a decorated soldier in the Ukrainian army. His medals and certificates were hanging on the wall,” explains the 63-year-old. “The Russians stayed in our house for a few days and when they left, they set it on fire.”
Behind Genodi’s house, the Konstantinovices are sweeping up the rubble. A futile endeavor. In the wall of their house, there is a hole more than a meter wide. An explosion rocked the entire clay-brick building. There is a very real danger that it could collapse. Still the elderly couple are persisting in their clean-up efforts, even if it is more of a symbolic gesture.
“Luckily we weren’t here,” says Galina Konstantinovic. “Two days after the Russians arrived, we managed to escape down a small side street that wasn’t being watched.” They reached Lviv, in western Ukraine, not far from the Polish border. “As soon as the Russians arrived, they were asking for food, vodka, even socks,” says Galina. “They are all just murderers.”
She tells us about a woman who worked for the local government, who the Russians were preparing to shoot. “Her 20-year-old son tried to protect her, and they just shot him too.” Galina looks up for a moment, then carries on sweeping up the thick dust.