In liberated Ukraine town, locals sob with relief, relate harrowing accounts

·5-min read

By Tom Balmforth

BALAKLIIA, Ukraine (Reuters) - The guns had gone quiet after three days of fighting in the battle-scarred northeast Ukrainian town of Balakliia, but Mariya Tymofiyeva said it was only when she saw Ukrainian soldiers that it hit her that over six months of Russian occupation had ended.

"I was walking away... when I saw an armoured personnel carrier coming onto the square with a Ukrainian flag: my heart just tightened up and I began to sob," the 43-year-old resident said, her voice trembling with emotion.

On Tuesday, she was among a crowd of residents receiving food parcels from a van at the same square where the Ukrainian flag was dramatically hoisted last week in one of the first images of Ukraine's extraordinary northeastern counteroffensive.

The town - which had a population of 27,000 before the war - is one of a chain of key urban outposts that Ukraine has recaptured over the last week after a sudden collapse of one of Russia's principal front lines.

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 short walk away, regional police officers led reporters to the burial place of two people. The bodies had been exhumed and were laid out on the grass in open body bags.

The two men, they said, were civilians who had been shot dead at a checkpoint in the town on Sept. 6 when the town was still under Russian control. Locals had buried them there because they had nowhere else to do so.

At the site of the exhumed grave, Valentyna, the distressed mother of one of the dead men, 49-year-old Petro, cursed the war and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"No one can return my son 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.

ROUBLES AND RUSSIAN SOLDIERS

Tymofiyeva said it had been clear to her that Russia, which invaded Ukraine in February, had planned to annex the town and surrounding territory.

Prices in shops were being given in both Russian roubles and the Ukrainian hryvnia; pensioners were paid in roubles, she said.

The town was almost completely isolated from the outside world. There was no television, internet or mobile phone coverage from late April, she said, apart from one place where residents would try to find a faint signal.

She said the Russian soldiers would stop residents in the street and take their phones to check them for pro-Ukrainian slogans or to see if they were subscribed to pro-Ukrainian social media channels.

At one point, her husband was made to strip to his underwear in the street to make sure he had no 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 looking for weapons. After they found a photograph of his brother in military uniform, they took him to a police station where they held him for 46 days, he said.

He said he was kept in a tiny 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 the whereabouts of other former military servicemen in the town, he said.

He could sometimes hear screams from his cell, he said.

The accusations could not be independently verified, but police led reporters to several windowless cells with rudimentary beds that were 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 were fed a diet of tasteless porridge.

"Occasionally there was soup - if the soldiers didn't eat it, it was a kind of celebration," he said.

VILLAGE JOY

The road to Balakliia through liberated areas was littered with charred vehicles and destroyed military hardware.

Groups of Ukrainian soldiers smoked, grinned and chatted beside the road. One soldier was stretched out on the top of a tank like it was his living room sofa.

In the nearby village of Verbivka, emotional but cheery residents, many of them of retirement age, recounted the fearful existences they led under almost seven months of Russian occupation.

"It was scary: we tried to walk around less, so they'd see us less," said Tetiana Sinovaz.

She said they had listened from hiding to the ferocious fighting to liberate the village and had been astonished to find many buildings still standing when they emerged, although the school that the Russians had made their base was destroyed.

"We thought there'd be no village left. We came out and it was all there!" she said.

Nadia Khvostok, 76, said she and fellow villagers in Verbivka had met arriving soldiers with "tears in our 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 torn off, the children began to shudder and stutter."

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 register and document evidence of war crimes.

"We have found some places of the burial of civilians. We are continuing with the process of exhumation. 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)