‘You hear bangs all the time’: life in Ukraine’s newly liberated towns | Ukraine

Anatoliy Federenko pointed to a large crater. Inside it were the remains of his kitchen: fridge, washing machine, crockery. In July a large Russian bomb landed on his home in the village of Prudyanka. It levelled an extension. “We are civilians, not Ukrainian military,” he said, standing on a pile of debris. The other half of his house survived, with fruit trees and a vigorous pumpkin patch.

For six months Prudyanka went through what you might call hell. It was a mere three kilometres away from the frontline and was the last Ukrainian-controlled settlement north of the city of Kharkiv. In February the Russian army crossed the border and advanced as far as Tsupivka, the next village up the road. Since then most of Prudyanka – population 3,500 – has been damaged or destroyed.

Federenko returned to his shattered home on Wednesday to pick up a few possessions. Earlier this month, Ukraine’s armed forces launched a stunning counter-offensive in the north-eastern Kharkiv region. They recaptured Tsupikva, as well as dozens of other towns and cities. It was a humiliating moment for the Kremlin and a possible turning point in the war.

The explosions, though, didn’t stop. They merely moved a little farther north. “You hear bangs all the time. I don’t know what they are,” Federenko admitted, as a percussive crash sounded in the near distance. Kremlin guns are now firing from inside Russian territory. Every few minutes they fling shells at newly liberated areas, including the border town of Kozacha Lopan.

Many fled. But some remained on both sides of this rural frontline, living in dire conditions without electricity, water, or a phone connection. Nikolai Vakula and his wife, Zinaida, stayed in Tsupikva under Russian occupation, with 120 others, from a prewar population of 600. Twenty people lived in the neighbouring hamlet of Lobanivka, and seven in tiny Tokarivka, Vakula said.

From left, local residents and friends Zinaida Vakula, Nikolai Vakula, Claudia Reboval and Anatoli Federenka pose for a portrait at Federenka’s home at Prudyanka.
From left, local residents and friends Zinaida Vakula, Nikolai Vakula, Claudia Reboval and Anatoli Federenka pose for a portrait at Federenka’s home at Prudyanka. Photograph: Daniel Carde/The Guardian

“It was a humiliating time. The Russians broke into houses where the owners had gone and took everything,” he recalled. “I talked to them. There were young guys from Chechnya and Buryatiya in Siberia. And maybe South Ossetia. The worst were the soldiers from the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. They were swine. You could not answer them back.”

Vakula said a Donetsk separatist fighter who went by the nickname of “Count” punched him in the face, sending him reeling. “He called me an old pederast. I explained I was 67 and had had two heart attacks. He said every fourth Ukrainian was a Nazi. Putin has zombified an entire nation.” The pensioner added: “I have relatives in Russia. “They rang me and said: ‘Hang on. We’re coming to liberate you’. I broke off contact.”

Zinaida said she had cooked on an open fire, and relied on preserves she had made before Moscow’s invasion. The Russians delivered humanitarian aid just twice. They tried to persuade locals to wear a white armband, without much success. In bigger areas such as Kozacha Lopan they distributed Russian passports, giving a one-off payment of 10,000 roubles to anybody who accepted.

“When the Ukrainian flag was raised over our village I cried all day,” she said. Only two people in the village supported the Russians, she explained – Artyom and Viktor. Artyom told his neighbours he was the new mayor. On Monday Ukraine’s SBU intelligence service arrived in the village and took the pair away, on suspicion of collaboration.

In Prudyanka a few residents came back on Tuesday to check on the state of their properties. Vladimir Kazlov, a security guard at the village school, discovered that his house had burned down entirely. Over the summer a Grad missile had landed next to his walnut true. He showed off his ruined vegetable plot – hops, a vine, tomato plants – and the annexe where he used to keep ducks and rabbits. They had disappeared.

Vladimir Kazlov’s Virgin Mary survived the Russian rocket attack that destroyed his home at Prudyanka.
Vladimir Kazlov’s Virgin Mary survived the Russian rocket attack that destroyed his home at Prudyanka. Photograph: Daniel Carde/The Guardian

“I didn’t think it would be this bad,” he admitted, crunching through the gutted shell of his living room. Its icon – miraculously or not – was intact. Kazlov said he would like to rebuild but didn’t have any money. Since Easter, he and his wife had been renting temporary accommodation elsewhere in the Kharkiv oblast. Another projectile crashed into the children’s playground opposite, leaving a dent.

The centre of Prudyanka was a crazy flattened mess. A Russian bomb had landed on the village’s Soviet war memorial. It knocked a chunk out of a statue of a grieving mother, leaving a hole in her grey chest and lopping off several fingers. A piece of shrapnel had obliterated the initials of one of the soldiers who had fallen in battle. Only his surname was left: Onoprienko.

It was a similar story in nearby Slatyane, once a flourishing urban community of 7,000 people. Its railway station was on the route between Kharkiv and Belgorod. Electricity pylons had fallen down around it. On the wall of the platform waiting room someone had written: “Welcome to Ukraine, bitch”. Across the tracks, the shopping mall had been turned into a tangle of broken metal.

About 500 people had refused to leave, despite regular bombardment. One of them, Alexander, was busy repairing his roof. Last month, just after breakfast, an incendiary device gouged a hole outside his front gate. Remarkably, nobody was hurt. “We consider ourselves fortunate,” he remarked. “We don’t have power or anything like that. But we are alive. It’s OK and not OK,” he said.

More than half of the houses on his road, Station Street, lay in ruins. Yuri Postol and his wife, Yulia, said some locals had been reluctant to leave because they were afraid of looters. “The Russians were never really here. It was Ukrainians who were stealing,” he explained. He added: “We were hit by rockets and cluster munitions. A bomb landed on our house. My father missed being killed by two hours.”

Yulia and Yuriy Postol examine a piece of a Russian rocket embedded in the road as they walk to their home in Slatyane.
Yulia and Yuriy Postol examine a piece of a Russian rocket embedded in the road as they walk to their home in Slatyane. Photograph: Daniel Carde/The Guardian

It was unclear if Slatyne would ever be able to recover. An airstrike had ravaged its school. Inside glass-strewn corridors were year eight textbooks on Ukrainian history and photos of pupils, hung on a noticeboard. Water dripped through the ceiling next to a gymnasium with basketball hoops. It was eerie. The only sign of a life was a pigeon, resting on a wonky roof.

Back at Prudyanka, Federenko said he couldn’t forgive Putin for bringing ruin to Ukraine and disturbing its peace. His widowed relative, Claudia, agreed. She wiped her eyes. “I hate him. This isn’t war. It’s terrorism,” she said. “Russia won’t allow us to move away and be free and independent. We simply want to live the way we want to live.”

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