Recaptured Ukrainian town offers window into life under Russian occupation: NPR


Now let’s look at what remains and remains in a small town that the Ukrainian army recaptured from Russian forces a few days ago. Thousands of square kilometers of territory in the east came under Kyiv’s control amid a massive offensive. The rapid change provides a window into life under Russian occupation in some of the areas along the former front line. Reporting by NPR’s Jason Beaubien.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Before 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 early days of the war. Most of the inhabitants who were able to escape. Some fled west into Ukrainian-held territory; others fled east, deeper into Russian-controlled areas, seeking safety in major cities. Those who remained found themselves not only under Russian occupation, but also under constant shelling as the two armies hurled missiles at each other across the front line.

VICTOR MARAEV: (speaking Russian).

BEAUBIEN: A retired construction worker named Victor Maraev shows where shrapnel tore through his living room. He says he spent the first week of the Russian occupation in a makeshift prison in the basement of a municipal building in the city. His offense was to possess a pair of binoculars.

MARAEV: (speaking Russian).

BEAUBIEN: He says his captors beat him and insisted the 61-year-old tell them who he was passing information to on the Ukrainian side. After a week, the Russians lost interest in him, he said, and let him go. According to Maraev, the occupying soldiers were a mix of Russians and what he calls rebels from the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic. It is a part of Ukraine that broke away in 2014 and is supported by Russia. Most soldiers were terrified to be there, he said.

MARAEV: (Through an interpreter) They were lied to. We made them sign contracts, but they didn’t want to fight. They were scared.

BEAUBIEN: As he shows us the damaged buildings of the village, a team of ambulance men collects the body of a man killed by a landmine a few hours earlier. The mine, Maraev said, had been laid on the outskirts of the city by Russian troops on a path that led to vast agricultural fields. But no crops were sown this year. The fields are now overgrown with weeds, grass and a few willing sunflowers. Maraev says almost all the buildings in the city are damaged, mainly from the shelling. Some are completely destroyed. There is no electricity or telephone in the village. The gas pipes for the heating are broken. Ukrainian officials are already sending truckloads of emergency supplies to the recently liberated territory, but face a massive undertaking to restore basic infrastructure. Maraev told me and my interpreter that the whole Russian occupation was senseless.

MARAEV: (Through interpreter) And they just arrived, destroyed everything and ran away.

BEAUBIEN: The soldiers aligned with the Russians fled so quickly that they left behind military vehicles in the street. Maraev shows us the simple house the Russians used as their headquarters during the occupation.

MARAEV: (Through interpreter) This is their, genre, basis.

BEAUBIEN: It’s littered with garbage. Inflatable mattresses are on the ground. In the corner of the living room, there’s a pile of rocket-propelled grenades. As we leave, Ukrainian soldiers arrive, asking if there are any stockpiles of weapons around. Maraev leads them down the overgrown grass path to the house with the grenades.

Meanwhile, just across what had been the front line, in the town of Chuhuiv, a shop owner named Ludmila Kladovschikova says the past week has been an emotional rollercoaster. Chuhuiv was never occupied, but it was constantly rocked by incoming and outgoing artillery blasts.

LUDMILA KLADOVSCHIKOVA: (Through interpreter) It was very scary here because they were very close and, you know, the artillery, the missiles. But that’s OK.

BEAUBIEN: Now she says she cries every time she sees what she calls our boys driving 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 night artillery fighting has finally stopped. There are still occasional outbursts, but she says she has now gone back to sleeping in her bedroom rather than in the hallway.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine.

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Michael A. Bynum