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Ghost Town: After Liberation From The Russian Occupation, A Struggle For Normalcy In Eastern Ukraine

The Ukrainian town of Vovchansk is now largely deserted, with businesses boarded up and the few remaining civilians struggling to get by.
The Ukrainian town of Vovchansk is now largely deserted, with businesses boarded up and the few remaining civilians struggling to get by.

VOVCHANSK, Ukraine – The streets of this town less than 4 kilometers from the Russian border are eerily empty. Like much of Ukraine’s northern Kharkiv region, Vovchansk was occupied by Russian forces in the early hours of Moscow’s unprovoked invasion on February 24. It was liberated in September during a lightning Ukrainian counteroffensive that sent Russian forces reeling out of the region.

“A lot of people have left,” said Viktor Bondarenko, 84, one of just a few residents walking along gray streets among locked stores one day late last month. “A lot of people think there will be more fighting here. People got afraid, but I think they should have stayed.”

Although Vovchansk -- with a pre-invasion population of about 18,000 -- was occupied for months, it saw little fighting, as both the Ukrainians and the Russians withdrew from the town without defending it. But the town still comes under regular bombardment from Russian mortars and artillery.

Ukrainian soldiers say the Russians do not bother much about aiming.

“The Russian forces are only interested in terrorizing the population, frightening people,” one soldier, who could not be identified because of Ukrainian military regulations, told Current Time, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. “There are no military targets in this area. There is no point in destroying stores, playgrounds, and hospitals. The only point is to sow panic.”

The constant shelling seems to be having the desired effect as fewer and fewer civilians remain in Vovchansk each day. All the stores, pharmacies, cafes, and other businesses are closed.

Government agencies and emergency services have been depleted, slowing any effort to return to normalcy.

“No matter where you go, the administration or the town council, there is no one there,” Bondarenko said. “You can’t get anything from anyone. I’m bored here all alone. It is really hard.”

Viktor Bondarenko
Viktor Bondarenko

When Current Time caught up with Bondarenko, he was on his way to a Ukrainian military post.

“I’m on my way there now to at least warm up a little,” he explained. “I’m 84 years old, you know. I haven’t had any gas for 10 days and it is as cold in my house as it is outside…. And there’s no electricity either.”

Sixty-year-old Valeriy, who declined to provide his surname, has also decided to tough it out in Vovchansk. He told Current Time that Russian occupation forces tried to force him to join their army.

"We walk around like beggars," says Valeriy, who declined to provide his surname.
"We walk around like beggars," says Valeriy, who declined to provide his surname.

They let him go, he said, only after he proved his age. But soon afterward, he was picked up on the street and forced to dig trenches for two days.

Valeriy had not seen any humanitarian aid for at least four days and complained that no stores or bank machines are working.

“We walk around like beggars,” he said. “I have 18,000 hryvnyas ($485) in my account, but there is no way to get them.”

A local woman who did not give her name said people try not to stray too far from home, in case they need to shelter quickly.

“You run out for bread in the morning as early as possible,” she said. “But even then you don’t know if you’ll make it home or not.”

RFE/RL feature writer Robert Coalson contributed to this report.
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    Andriy Kuzakov

    Andriy Kuzakov is a military correspondent for Current Time who has covered conflicts and events in Crimea, the Donbas, Nagorno-Karabakh, Liberia, Kosovo, and other locations. In peacetime, he has reported on international relations and politics from dozens of countries and covered summits and the UN General Assembly. He has been reporting from the front lines since the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and has been awarded Ukraine's Order of Merit (III).

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