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Since the start of the full-scale war, Krakovsky has expanded the scope of his volunteer trips, helping residents of the liberated settlements of Kyiv and Chernihiv oblasts. DR
The first thing you notice in liberated Izyum is a very big difference in the mood of the population. In the Kyiv and Chernihiv oblasts that we visited in the first days, people after the liberation did not fully understand that the war had started. Everything took them by surprise and they found themselves in a whirlwind of events, so they were confused and scared. In Izyum, people lived under occupation for six months, had seen enough and seemed to have become accustomed to the war.
The landscape of the city, on the contrary, is very similar to that of the Kyiv region and the Chernihiv region after the liberation: gas stations and shops were destroyed, buildings were destroyed, houses without roofs nor window, and sometimes you find quarters completely spared. In between all this, people go about their usual business, cutting grass and pruning trees.
At the beginning of March, water, electricity and communications disappeared in Izyum. And the only place where you could pick up a Ukrainian mobile signal was Mount Kremenets, the highest point in Kharkiv Oblast. So, having climbed on it, the inhabitants of the city learned how the landscape around them changed, where new destruction appeared, where the attacks came from and from which side they were bombed. Later, a generator was installed in the district administration. So, in the morning, the inhabitants put all their gadgets back to charge and brought them back in the evening to read or watch a movie.
The story continues
The food was cooked over a fire in the courtyard. The situation with food was ok – some markets were open and someone brought things from Russian territory. The invaders also distributed their so-called humanitarian aid – a can of stew once every two weeks.
Later, stores started to open, but with one rule: the price tags had to be in hryvnias and rubles, and if they were only in hryvnias, the store would get robbed.
Pensions were paid to residents in rubles, as were salaries for the city’s maintenance crews. In cash of course. So, obviously, the first question from these people is: “What is the exchange rate of the ruble against the hryvnia in Ukraine now?
At the beginning (of the occupation), the inhabitants were not too restricted in their movements in the city. But before the Ukrainian army went on the offensive, the Russians completely locked people in their homes and did not let them out for several days. It was more difficult for residents of high-rise buildings, as they were bombed more often and many had to live in half-destroyed apartments. And while the erratic electricity supply was back in some places, the water supply was never restored. Unlike Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, the Russians did not invest in communications here at all.
What surprised me is that there are still a lot of young people and children under 14 in the city. It’s such a common story: someone thought they could drive away at any time, someone had nowhere to go and someone didn’t want to leave their garden. Now they are all in good spirits and, to my surprise, they are very friendly and open. Everyone comes to share their happiness, they want to hear the news, they ask how it was in other parts of Ukraine all this time, they talk about themselves. These stories are painfully similar: how one of the family members was killed and how the others survive, because they have to. The shelling often caught the people of Izyum while they were in their gardens. The younger ones immediately ran for cover, while the older ones simply did not have time – so they were killed on the spot with a shovel or mower in their hands.
Above all, I was struck by the stories about the “LPR” that held the city in the beginning. According to the locals, they hated Ukraine and Ukrainians so much that living with them was the worst thing. While the stories, they say, were different, the most common is that the “LPR” drove to a house with two Ural trucks, locked people in the barn and took everything away in silence. Then they would go to the market and sell it.
The Russians had a kind of long-standing conflict with the “LPR”, so sometimes they put them in their place, but the Russians themselves also benefited. A 65-year-old man said that when his car was taken from him, he had to go to the Russian commander and negotiate the money to get his car back. Or here is another story, about a woman whose son took part in the ATO (Anti-Terrorist Operation in the Donbass of 2014). Usually the invaders used the following scheme – as soon as they occupy a colony, they first ask where the ATO military live. So, she says, her son was taken away and she had to pay a “crazy” sum to free him – $400, or about the average salary for a month before the war in Kyiv. For Izyum, this is a large sum. After that, the woman hid her son in the basement until the occupation ended, providing him with food and water.
It wasn’t the worst idea. In the occupied region of Izyum, the practice of kidnapping activists and people with pro-Ukrainian views was widespread. It could have happened anywhere. Russians can check people’s phones on the street and if there’s something on them they don’t like, that person disappears. Or one of the neighbors “snitches” and then a group of Russians deliberately arrives at your door. Some of these people have not been found, some have returned home broken, some have hanged themselves after being tortured, some have completely stopped talking.
Most often, when locals come to us, they start crying and simply describe in one word – “horror”. For example, one afternoon the “LPR” militants got drunk, turned the “Grad” multiple rocket launcher system in the wrong direction and fired into the square, where people were waiting in line for a car with bread. Fifteen people were killed in one shot. Residents also explained that they had to pull people out of burning buildings with their own hands after being hit by a shell, because no one else cared. They were forbidden to go to the cemetery for unknown reasons, as they buried the dead in the forest or in the courtyards.
In general, the concept of the value of life is distorted among people who have lived so long under the occupation. It is highly devalued. For example, here’s the story of a young guy: “You’re walking down the street, and on the other end, some drunk ‘LPR’ guys are arguing over who respects who for what. One of them raises a Kalashnikov at you and starts aiming, while you calmly jump in the grass, because it’s your life.
The same goes for the bombings: people told me they kept playing chess while everything outside the windows buzzed and burned. They had already given up on themselves, no one was moving anywhere, they just kept surviving somehow.
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