A wedding anniversary on the highway of horror: ‘The Russians have taken everything’
The road that connects Izium with Sloviansk offers a bleak panorama of towns and villages that were on the front lines of the Ukraine war and are now completely devastated
This year, Serhii Portianov has not been able to give his wife Olga a gift of wild bluebells. He has done so on all their wedding anniversaries, every May 13 since 1970, missing only one. It is a spring flower that she loves and that he picks from the forest. But now the fields are mined and he doesn’t dare to attempt it. Instead, he buys vodka, to drink with her and sit and talk about life and celebrate the fact they have been together for 53 of their 72 years. Even though their house is no longer a house. And their village is no longer a village.
They have been patiently cleaning the kitchen and one room of the single-floor house where they had lived for decades, and where they raised their children. In the garden, where there used to be a flower bed, there is now an abandoned machine gun nest; at the edge of what used to be the vegetable garden lie the charred remains of an armored vehicle. Olga and Serhii remove debris and pick up souvenirs scattered on the ground, burned, or soaked by the rain. “This is our home,” Serhii says. “It took us years to build it and we will return as soon as we can fit out at least one room to sleep in. I was born in Kamianka, and this is where I want to die.”
At the gates of the house Serhii stokes a bonfire in which he burns rags, which used to be the family’s clothes, as well as bits of Russian uniforms, documents, plastic, and pieces of wood that were once furniture.
Kamianka is one of the villages along the desolate road between Izium and Sloviansk, in the Kharkiv province of northeastern Ukraine. To the left and right, there is only destruction. A ruined monastery where an Orthodox monk wanders around. Houses razed to the ground. Metal roofs filled with holes from gunfire and turned into twisting figures that resemble plasticine. Shattered military vehicles. And mines. Some are visible to the naked eye and there are blast craters in the fields. The huge, fertile pastures of rapeseed and grain are now impassable. So are the gardens of the village’s houses, and practically everything else.
Kamianka and the surrounding villages — Krasnopillia, Dolina, Bogorodichne, Mazanivka — became frontline battlegrounds when the Kremlin launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, during the Russian offensive to gain control of the town of Izium, a Russian-speaking municipality of around 50,000 people and of strategic importance to Moscow because of its position between the city of Kharkiv and the Donbas region. “The Russian trenches reached here,” says Krasnopillia’s mayor, Serhii Bagrii. “On March 12, 2022, the first plane appeared and 80% of the population left. The Russians at one point were 100 meters from German positions during World War II. History repeats itself.” Izium was occupied by Germany from June 1942 until February 1943, when it was recaptured by the Red Army.
Russian air strikes were a daily occurrence throughout March last year, as the Kremlin’s forces advanced and retreated. The Ukrainian Army managed to repel the offensive at first, precisely in Kamianka, but the village was taken at the end of the month and on April 1, Moscow announced that it had gained control of Izium. The town was under Russian occupation until September 10, when it was liberated in a Ukrainian counteroffensive that recaptured much of Kharkiv province.
However, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said last Sunday about Bakhmut, the problem with some areas that have been on the front lines is, whether occupied or not, there is little remaining: they have been devastated to such an extent that they exist only in the memory of their former inhabitants. Liza, 32, who prefers not to give her last name, explains that in her village, Bogorodichne, people are scared to return. “There was terrible fighting and now all the houses are razed to the ground. Our house was completely burned down, as well as everything around it.”
Olga and Serhii are convinced that within a month they will be able to live in their house again, but seeing the state of the rooms and the garden, it is hard to share their optimism. If they do return, they will be alone. The school is in ruins and the houses, too. All that is left is rubble and the remains of abandoned lives: books, children’s schoolwork, crushed cans, bicycles without wheels...
“The first thing to do here is to de-mine so that people can go back to work, because in these villages agriculture was everything,” says Mayor Bagrii. “But it will be a long process.” It will be years before the fields can be farmed again without risk. Some of the mines are Ukrainian, laid to prevent the advance of enemy troops. Others were left by retreating Russian forces. There are also many booby traps. “Under one there is another, so if one is lifted, the other one explodes,” explains Bagrii. In recent months, one was detonated by a passing car and another by a tractor, killing all the passengers.
Serhii and Olga, like almost everyone else, left during the Russian offensive. They fled to Romania at the end of March last year. They say that the battles were so fierce that there was no longer any point in hiding in their shelter. Their house was occupied by Russian soldiers. The door of the shed still has a letter Z painted on it, the symbol of Moscow’s invasion. In the damp, dark basement where they sought cover, there are still remnants of quilts, papers they left behind, and food rations. In the garden there is an ammunition box dating from 1988. The occupiers dug tank positions on either side of the house, with the inevitable result: it was shelled.
The couple has two children, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Their son lives in Kharkiv and their daughter in Izium. Both of their homes in Kamianka have been completely destroyed. One granddaughter went to Germany with her two-month-old baby, another has settled in Romania with her two children and another, in the Czech Republic. “They are scattered around the world,” Serhii laments. “And who knows when we will be able to meet again. I wish this were over now.” Olga, meanwhile, is holding her cell phone in her hand watching a video of Yaroslav dancing on a carpet on a loop. He is one of her great-grandchildren, a year old and living in Germany. The number of internally displaced persons and refugees as a result of the war is more than 13 million, according to the latest data from the United Nations Refugee Agency.
The first thing to do here is to de-mine so that people can go back to work, because in these villages agriculture was everything”Serhii Bagrii, mayor of Krasnopillia
Two neighbors suddenly appear and Olga goes over to say hello. They are Viktor and Anna Korotkii, aged 45 and 42. He used to work in agriculture. She is a teacher. Their house has been destroyed by artillery. They show photos of what their home was like before the war: a nice wooden kitchen, a clean and neat living room, a cozy bedroom. Now everything has been reduced to rubble. They don’t hold out much hope of being able to return, but they have come back to salvage what memories they can. Anna, a language and literature teacher, despairs when she finds a book by one of her favorite poets, Lina Kostenko, torn to shreds.
Their house was also occupied by Russian troops and army ration boxes litter the floor. “The Russians have taken everything,” Anna says. “Or they have burned it, I don’t know. We haven’t found our family photos, or souvenirs that were important to us. A lot of things are gone. The refrigerator, the washing machine.” Anna walks around her ruined house with tears in her eyes. She and her husband don’t expect to return to Kamianka in the short or medium term. “When all this is over... who knows. We had been building and improving this house over 15 years and look at it now. There’s nothing left at all.”
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