At 47 years of age, Artyom has spent 46 days in hell. That is how long he was imprisoned and tortured by the Russians in Balakliia, one of several towns in northeastern Ukraine to be recently recaptured by the Ukrainian army. Since the start of the counteroffensive on September 6, Ukraine has reclaimed 3,800 square kilometers in the Kharkiv region and liberated around 150,000 people, according to Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar. President Volodymir Zelenskiy raises the recovered territory to 6,000 square kilometers between the eastern and southern fronts.
The pain of the inhabitants of Verbivka, a village on the outskirts of Balakliia, is reflected in a special way by the school that was destroyed by the Russians as they retreated. “The enemy has not left voluntarily,” noted Kharkiv Governor Oleh Syehubov, standing in front of the rubble during an organized trip for journalists on Tuesday. Local authorities have a double goal ahead. First, on the military front, to “continue defending our cities,” and second, to re-establish “critical infrastructure such as water and electricity before winter sets in.” Syehubov said he also hoped to soon start making pension payments, offer medical services and reopen banks. In short, “to restore normal life.” At the same time, police officers and officials from the Interior Ministry were already on the ground to investigate possible war crimes. But the governor acknowledged that a definitive normalization will depend on how the military situation evolves because, as he recalled, the region “remains at war, there are always risks.”
On the outskirts of Balakliia, there were caravans of military vehicles of all kinds, from tanks to tanker trucks or those carrying ammunition and supplies. There were also a few cars with families returning home with their belongings now that the Russians have been expelled. Burnt-out remains of armored vehicles were occasionally seen in roadside ditches. In the downtown area, the city was almost deserted, and although there was damage to some buildings, the fighting has not been as intense here as in other parts of Ukraine.
A large crowd formed in the square when a humanitarian organization arrived with a truck to distribute aid to local residents. Around 100 people of all ages, mostly women, tried to elbow their way to the front and raised their hands so as not to be left without their aid package. Three kids who looked between 10 and 12 moved away with theirs and immediately opened them on a bench to check the contents. Tatiana, 53, a worker at a hospice that is now closed, turned around when she saw the tumult.
Residents interviewed in the area, such as Lidia, 83, or Helena, 49, as well as the government in Kyiv, all said that the Russians’ retreat has been plagued by abuses. “The behavior here has been very similar to what we saw in the Kyiv region [which Russian soldiers vacated in late March]. They took everything they could and filled the territory with mines,” said the Deputy Minister of Defense, speaking in Balakliia.
A street that starts in the square leads down to an esplanade located next to houses whose residents recently buried the last two victims of the occupation. Petro Shepel, born in 1973, and Vasiliy Chernov, in 1963, were driving a car when they ran into a Russian military checkpoint, and were shot dead. That was on Tuesday of last week, September 6. Residents found them inside the vehicle the next day and gave them burial, but the bodies have now been disinterred by war crimes investigators working in the liberated areas. Both bodies had gunshot wounds, according to police sources.
Little by little, the abuses committed over these six months are being uncovered. The headquarters of the Russian troops in Balakliia were located at the central police station. Everything is still a mess there after the retreat; the detritus on display last Tuesday included excrement, burnt mattresses and decaying food. A hallway led to the cells, whose iron doors with a small window at face level opened onto spaces of around two by three meters with two cots where seven inmates had to fit in as best they could. Artyom, who was arrested for being the brother of a soldier, has painful memories of his time in here. “They interrogated us with electric shocks for a long time. For about an hour and a half, they tortured people. There was also a big fan that was turned on most of the time, but they turned it off while they were torturing, so that the screams could be heard in all the cells. It was easy to lose your mind, stuck between four walls and listening to all this,” he told reporters in front of the police station.
The visit to Balakliia, the first of its kind in territory reclaimed by Kyiv, was organized by the Ukrainian authorities. Officially, reporters cannot access this liberated zone on their own. Using security as an excuse, reporters were taken here and there and kept on a short leash. At times, there were more than 100 journalists all trying to record and photograph what they considered most interesting. “This cannot be recorded, this cannot be recorded!”, one official shouted at mid-morning when he saw three tanks coming their way. But as the caravan passed, groups of Ukrainian soldiers raised their fists in victory, clearly seeking the reporters’ attention.