A recaptured Ukrainian town offers a window into life under Russian occupation
AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
Now for a look at what and who remain in one small town that the Ukrainian military recaptured from Russian forces a few days ago. Thousands of square miles of territory in the east ended up back under Kyiv's control amid a sweeping offensive. The rapid change offers a window into life under Russian occupation in some of the areas along the former front line. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Prior to the Russian invasion in February, the village of Hrakove was a small farming community, halfway between Kharkiv and Izium. Russian forces seized Hrakove in the first days of the war. Most of the residents who could escaped. Some fled west into Ukrainian-held territory; others fled east, deeper into Russian-controlled areas, seeking safety in larger towns and cities. The ones who stayed found themselves not only under Russian occupation, but under constant shelling as the two armies fired missiles at each other across the front line.
VICTOR MARAEV: (Speaking Russian).
BEAUBIEN: A retired construction worker named Victor Maraev shows where shrapnel ripped through his living room. He says he spent the first week of the Russian occupation being held in a makeshift jail in the basement of a municipal building in town. His offense was owning a pair of binoculars.
MARAEV: (Speaking Russian).
BEAUBIEN: He says his captors beat him and insisted that the 61-year-old tell them who he was relaying information to on the Ukrainian side. After a week, the Russians lost interest in him, he says, and let him go. According to Maraev, the occupying soldiers were a mix of Russians and what he refers to as rebels from the so-called Luhansk People's Republic. This is a part of Ukraine that broke away in 2014 and is backed by Russia. Most of the soldiers were terrified to be there, he says.
MARAEV: (Through interpreter) They were lied to. They were made to sign contracts, but they didn't want to fight. They were afraid.
BEAUBIEN: As he shows us the damaged buildings in the village, an ambulance crew is collecting the body of a man killed by a landmine just a few hours earlier. The mine, Maraev says, had been laid on the edge of town by Russian troops on a path that led to vast agricultural fields. But no crops were planted this year. The fields are now overgrown with weeds, grass and a few volunteer sunflowers. Maraev says almost every building in town is damaged, mostly from shelling. Some are destroyed completely. There's no electricity or phone service in the village. The gas lines for heat are broken. Ukrainian officials are already sending in truckloads of emergency supplies to the recently liberated territory but face a massive undertaking to restore basic infrastructure. Maraev tells me and my interpreter that the whole Russian occupation was senseless.
MARAEV: (Through interpreter) And they just came, destroyed everything and fled.
BEAUBIEN: The Russian-aligned soldiers fled so quickly, they left behind military vehicles in the street. Maraev shows us the simple house that the Russians had been using as their headquarters during the occupation.
MARAEV: (Through interpreter) Here was their, like, base.
BEAUBIEN: It's strewn with trash. Air mattresses are on the floor. In the corner of the living room, there's a pile of rocket-propelled grenades. As we're leaving, Ukrainian soldiers turn up, asking if there are any stockpiles of weapons around. Maraev leads them up the overgrown grass path to the house with the grenades.
Meanwhile, just across what had been the front line, in the city of Chuhuiv, a shop owner named Ludmila Kladovschikova says the last week has been an emotional roller coaster. Chuhuiv was never occupied, but it was constantly rocked by both incoming and outgoing artillery explosions.
LUDMILA KLADOVSCHIKOVA: (Through interpreter) It was very scary here because they were very close and, you know, artillery, missiles. But it's OK.
BEAUBIEN: Now she says she cries every time she sees what she calls our boys rolling through the streets in tanks and other military vehicles. And after more than six months of war, she says one of the best things now is that the nightly artillery battles have finally stopped. There's still the occasional explosion, but she says she now has gone back to sleeping in her bedroom rather than the hallway.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News, in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.