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Reporter's Notebook: Civilians In Newly Liberated Ukrainian Areas Tell Of Hardship And Abuse Under Occupation

Residents walk past a war-damaged building in the center of the recently liberated town of Izyum in Ukraine's Kharkiv region on September 13.

IZYUM/BALAKLIA, Ukraine -- At a roadside stop on the outskirts of Balaklia, residents of the nearby Ukrainian village of Verbivka, which was recently liberated from Russian forces, huddled together to receive humanitarian aid. Their mood was palpably relaxed after months of tense occupation and isolation.

For many in the recently liberated territories near the northeastern city of Kharkiv, Ukraine's lightning offensive to reclaim their towns – and the hurried Russian withdrawal -- came as an enormous relief.

This was especially true for Oleksandr, a 53-year-old former Ukrainian soldier who said he had been imprisoned and tortured for weeks by agents of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB).

"They slapped two battery clamps on my hands. 'If you lie, we'll dial it up more,'" Oleksandr recalled the FSB agents telling him.

Oleksandr, a former Ukrainian soldier who says he was brutally interrogated by Russian security officers.
Oleksandr, a former Ukrainian soldier who says he was brutally interrogated by Russian security officers.

When that didn't work, they turned to beating him, Oleksandr said. Not responding to the pain merely prompted them to try harder.

Information Blackout, Uneasy Truce

Civilians liberated by the Ukrainian counteroffensive launched on September 6 describe life under occupation as defined by blackouts, medicine shortages, steady shelling, and debates with Russian occupation forces about the supposed Nazis that Russia alleges are running Ukraine's government and oppressing its people.

The road from Kharkiv to Izyum -- a city with a prewar population of about 45,000 that is some 120 kilometers southeast of Kharkiv --– bears the scars of war. A destroyed Russian Grad rocket launcher sits ruined in front of a boarded-up residence, its launching pod blown off and spilling unfired missiles out like crayons from a box.

A destroyed Russian grad launcher with its rockets still in its launching tubes near Izyum.
A destroyed Russian grad launcher with its rockets still in its launching tubes near Izyum.

Further along, underneath a destroyed bridge, a Russian armored personnel carrier is flipped over, its hull half submerged in water.

At the outskirts of Balaklia, a town on the way to Izyum, residents were still giddy from being liberated.

"We're very happy," one woman said, her face beaming and her eyes bright.

Most of the region was captured by the Russians in the early weeks of the invasion that was launched on February 24. Izyum fell in April. For much of the occupation, residents had no electricity, although gas supplies were uninterrupted.

Two older residents said medicine shipments came only twice during that time. One local said Russian soldiers forced open cash machines and committed at least one rape, for which the soldiers involved were executed.

Nadia, who relocated to the Kharkiv region after Russia fomented a separatist war in her eastern Ukrainian home region of the Donbas, appeared relaxed after the months of stress.

"This is the second time I've lived through this," she said.

Nadia, who has been displaced twice in the past eight years, stands with a neighbor in Verbivka awaiting humanitarian aid.
Nadia, who has been displaced twice in the past eight years, stands with a neighbor in Verbivka awaiting humanitarian aid.

During the occupation, locals had little information from the rest of Ukraine due to electricity, Internet, and cellular-service cuts. One 34-year-old man in Izyum said that several civilians were killed by shell fire after venturing to a nearby hill to try to grab a spotty connection on their cell phones.

The same man, who asked not to be named out of concern for his safety, said he and a friend buried the friend's wife under shellfire.

"It was still winter," he said. "And then came a time when we were doing burials in vegetable gardens."

Many of the Ukrainians described an uneasy truce between themselves and the occupying forces, a mix of Russian soldiers and units from Ukraine's Russian-controlled separatist formations.

Three elderly women standing on the bank of the river that runs through Izyum looked on as Ukrainians troops rolled over a pontoon bridge.

One of them recalled arguing with Russian soldiers who taunted her by saying: "You danced on Maidan," referring to the central Kyiv square where pro-European protesters gathered in 2013-14 to protest the policies of then pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.

"I replied that I'm too old to dance," she said.

Ukrainian Forces Find Bodies, Torture Stories In Liberated Town
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Vitaliy Kazaku, a young man in a leather jacket, was standing in line at the humanitarian aid point near Balaklia. He described the relationship with the Russian occupiers as "more or less calm."

"We even said hello," he recalled.

Ihor, who lives in a war-damaged apartment block on the bank of Izyum's river, also described mostly polite relations with the Russian-backed separatist militia unit that set up camp in a civilian residence near his building.

Now the area around the building was littered with military clothing, helmets, and even body armor, bearing silent witness to the haste with which Russia's forces fled the Ukrainian assault.

Ihor, though, said he kept a secret from them that could easily have cost him his life: Ihor's son is a serving lieutenant colonel in Ukraine's military who previously fought against the separatists in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

Oleksandr's Story

Oleksandr, the 53-year-old veteran who was waiting for aid with residents of Verbivka, served as a sergeant in an intelligence unit in Ukraine’s Sarmat battalion in 2014 and fought against Russia-backed separatists in the Azov Sea port city of Mariupol.

Speaking in even tones and smiling for a photograph with his son, Oleksandr broke into momentary tears as he described his experience under Russian occupation.

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Oleksandr initially went into hiding after Russia occupied the area.

To flush him out, Russian soldiers arrested his son and held him at a school in Verbivka that they had turned into a headquarters and prison.

Later, men in masks came for Oleksandr. He was imprisoned for weeks with about 30 other men at a police station.

"There was little oxygen, little air," Oleksandr said.

When electric shocks didn't work, the Russian officers began beating him.

"One would ask questions, and three would beat me," Oleksandr said. The Russians were trying to get information about the Ukrainian military.

Oleksandr identified one FSB officer by the call sign "Robinson."

Oleksandr was eventually released -- he believes due to his age -- but only on the condition that he check in every two weeks.

On September 14, Oleksandr was supposed to return to the school where the Russians had been based. The school is now a virtual ruin from the latest fighting, with a one lone ammunition box and two burned-out Russian cars bearing testament to the former presence of the occupation force.

A local woman said a female neighbor had been detained there, allegedly after teenagers told the Russians something about her.

Vitaliy Kazaku also said he had heard that Russians would imprison Ukrainian veterans, first at the school and later in Balaklia.

A Systematic Effort

Such detentions appear to have been part of a systematic Russian effort to target and arrest specific Ukrainian citizens.

At one Russian checkpoint in Izyum that appeared to have been manned by troops of the 204th Rifle Division, RFE/RL examined a rain-soaked notebook. One page listed the vehicles belonging to the division's 4th Battalion.

A picture of a woman whom Russian forces were looking for, found at a Russian checkpoint in Izyum.
A picture of a woman whom Russian forces were looking for, found at a Russian checkpoint in Izyum.

Other pages provided photographs and details of local residents to be apprehended. One photograph showed a smiling woman and bore text that noted she might be "moving in dark sunglasses" and "may be accompanied by a man named Kravchenko, Pavel."

"Will be trying to reach Ukraine-controlled territory," the note added.

Another page showed a man and bore the notation: "Upon discovery, detain. Turn over to school No. 2, to call sign 'Kazan,'" an apparent reference to an FSB operative there.

Although Ukrainian officials have already launched investigations into alleged Russian war crimes in the area during the occupation, some locals braced for more disappointment amidst a war that has already taken many thousands of lives.

"I've never seen so many dead people in my life," one man from Izyum, who asked that his name not be used, told RFE/RL. "I don't even bother to have hope."

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    Sam Skove

    Sam Skove is a Kyiv-based journalist from the United States. His work has appeared in The New Republic, Mother Jones, and Military Times, among other places.