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'We Shed All Our Tears': Retreating Russian Forces Leave Lives Shattered In Eastern Ukraine


Maryna Snizhinska and her relatives stand in their destroyed house in the village of Dolyna, eastern Ukraine, on October 5.
Maryna Snizhinska and her relatives stand in their destroyed house in the village of Dolyna, eastern Ukraine, on October 5.

DOLYNA, Ukraine -- "How do we feel? Fantastic!" Maryna Snizhynska said sarcastically, standing with her sister, brother-in-law, and uncle by the wreckage of the home she had been building for several years in this village in eastern Ukraine.

"We shed all our tears," she said, and her uncle interrupted, saying: "So we are standing here and laughing."

"Like fools," Snizhynka added, and they all burst into bitter laughter.

Dolyna was razed to the ground, like many other villages in eastern Ukraine that found themselves on the front line as Russian forces advanced in the spring and summer, following the February 24 invasion -- and retreated in the face of a stunning Ukrainian counteroffensive in September.

Snizhynska, 42, never managed to move into the new house, and now she never will: It was hit by 12 shells. The home where she grew up and where her parents lived was turned into rubble, too. So was the home of her uncle, Mykola Myronenko, as well as his shop, a general store that sold groceries and household goods.

"The fact is, we are all jobless now," said Myronenko, 58.

Mykola Myronenko's destroyed grocery and household goods shop in Dolyna, eastern Ukraine
Mykola Myronenko's destroyed grocery and household goods shop in Dolyna, eastern Ukraine

Shizhynska had spent the past five days combing through the wreckage of these buildings with relatives, trying to rescue anything that was left from their past lives.

"What wasn't destroyed was stolen," she said.

Dolyna, which lies on the border between the Donetsk and Kharkiv regions, was never occupied. Russian troops reached its edges but failed to break through to Slovyansk, a nearby city where the war between Ukraine and Russia-backed forces in the Donbas region began in 2014. During their counteroffensive, Ukrainian troops stayed inside the houses abandoned by their residents.

The family left the village in March, after the first missiles hit. They fled first to the Svyatohirsk Monastery, about 10 kilometers away, but later left for western Ukraine to seek treatment for Maryna's son, whose leg was badly wounded when the monastery was shelled.

A resident sits in a car next to a destroyed house in Dolyna.
A resident sits in a car next to a destroyed house in Dolyna.

All of Dolyna's residents have left for safer parts of Ukraine, for Europe, or for Russia, they said.

"There is nothing to come back to," Myronenko said, looking at the hills and forests he has been surrounded by most of his life. "It's war, what can one do? If I were a soldier, I would also destroy my house."

Staying Put

The large swath of land recaptured by Ukraine in the counteroffensive in the east stretches from the Russian border north of Kharkiv southward to the east of the city and down into the neighboring Donetsk region -- part of the Donbas.

A rusting tank on the road from Dolyna to Slovyansk
A rusting tank on the road from Dolyna to Slovyansk

One of the villages liberated by Ukrainian Army, Ruski Tyshky, located halfway between Kharkiv and the Russian border, is almost deserted. One recent afternoon, dozens of stray dogs roamed around the rows of destroyed buildings scavenging for anything they could eat in the heaps of rubble and rubbish.

A group of people who have stayed milled around a fire in front of a partially burned block of apartments, cooking food in a pot. The dogs made their way to the spot, drawn by the smell.

Olena Bubiyenko said she and her husband couldn't leave because her mother, who is 81, is paralyzed and unable to walk. She has spent months lying in a bed in the basement of a building that stayed relatively intact, surrounded by cages full of cats collected from around the village.

Olena Bubiyenko stands in front of the apartment building where she is now living in Ruski Tyshky, Kharkiv region, Ukraine.
Olena Bubiyenko stands in front of the apartment building where she is now living in Ruski Tyshky, Kharkiv region, Ukraine.

Russian troops were pushed out of Ruski Tyshky in early May, following 72 days of occupation, but the shelling stopped only a few weeks ago, after Ukraine liberated more land in the counteroffensive.

Bubiyenko harbors no hatred for the Russian soldiers -- one of them, she said, "saved my life."

She was walking down a street one day, wheeling a bicycle with one hand and carrying a bucket of dog food in the other, when a cluster bomb was suddenly dropped on the street, she said, adding that a Russian soldier then spotted her, grabbed her by her clothes and dragged her into a trench nearby. A 7-year-old girl died in front of their eyes.

Later, she said, another Russian soldier -- "a good boy" named Lyosha -- got on his knees and begged her forgiveness "100 times" for what the invading army had done to the village.

"We can forgive them," she said, "but what will we do about our destroyed village?"

A woman cooks food for dogs in Ruski Tyshky, Kharkiv region, Ukraine
A woman cooks food for dogs in Ruski Tyshky, Kharkiv region, Ukraine

Bubiyenko's house has been destroyed by shelling, as have the homes of her mother and sister, and all three have been staying in an apartment with a neighbor. Her daughter and granddaughter are abroad, as are her son and his fiancee -- they traveled to Poland via Russia.

Bubiyenko does not plan to leave.

"There are more than 100 dogs and 100 cats here," she said. "Some of their owners are now coming back to collect them and thank me for saving them."

'Almost Normal Now'

In Lyman -- a Donetsk region town that was liberated when Russian forces withdrew under pressure on October 1 after a 127-day occupation -- an elderly couple loaded pieces of wood into a trailer attached to a three-wheeler motorcycle. A fir tree had been hit by a shell.

"Good guys! They brought a saw and cut the wood for me," Volodymyr Kutsevych said of Ukrainian soldiers, many of whom have been patrolling the town.

Volodymyr Kutsevych and his wife collect firewood in Lyman, eastern Ukraine.
Volodymyr Kutsevych and his wife collect firewood in Lyman, eastern Ukraine.

The retreat from Lyman, a major setback for the Kremlin, came one day after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed documents that Moscow baselessly claims mean Donetsk and three other partially occupied parts of Ukraine now belong to Russia.

A week after the Russian pullback, Lyman was almost empty; the few remaining citizens stood in line for humanitarian aid in the center of town. Most of the surrounding buildings are destroyed. The distant sound of artillery fire is constant, and no one reacts to it.

The roads leading into Lyman were littered with burned tanks and crushed cars. The bodies of dead Russian soldiers in and around the town had been just taken away. Their discarded uniforms, ration packs, and personal belongings lay in the streets.

WATCH: Ukrainian volunteers check the corpses of Russian soldiers for booby traps as they clear the area after fighting around freshly liberated Lyman.

Dead Russian Soldiers Litter Roads Around Liberated Lyman
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Kutsevych had tried to leave Lyman with his wife, but they did not manage to plan an escape until it was too late -- the shelling got too intense, and they stayed put throughout the occupation. They lived with no heating and electricity, and now they were collecting wood to be prepared for the autumn cold.

Kutsevich lost his brother in a shelling, as well as many acquaintances. Russian soldiers stole the Soviet medals and stamps he had been collecting for many years. The couple said their children, who are abroad, could not contact them during the Russian occupation, and now they don't call often.

"Life is almost normal now," he said, throwing the wood into the trailer, "except that my legs cannot stop shaking."

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    Aleksander Palikot

    Aleksander Palikot is a Ukraine-based journalist covering politics, history, and culture. His work has appeared in Krytyka Polityczna, New Eastern Europe, Jüdische Allgemeine, and beyond.

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