Main square of Izyum. Photo: Petr Ruzavin / Mediazona
The Russian army retreated in September, and since then life in Izyum, a city in the East of Ukraine's Kharkiv region, is gradually getting better. There is electricity and water, but the people in town still suffer from the cold: broken boiler stations do not work, and locals warm themselves with stoves. The city is no longer shelled, but the risk of being blown up is still high: mines, trip wires, and unexploded shells are still everywhere. Peter Ruzavin went to Izyum for the second time and talked there to local residents, rescue workers, and demining specialists, as well as security forces who compile lists of local collaborators.
Izyum has been liberated from the Russian occupation for five months now. The city is located 80 miles southeast of Kharkiv, almost at the border with the Donetsk region. It takes less than an hour to get from Izyum to Sloviansk.
Unlike the liberated Kherson in the south, which is shelled by Russians almost every day, life in Izyum is relatively quiet: the front line is not very close, and despite reports of a Russian army offensive in the region, shells do not reach here. The main danger comes from unexploded shells, trip wires left by the Russian military and Butterflies—small anti-personnel mines that are scattered with cluster shells.
Before the Russian invasion, about 50,000 people lived in Izyum. Now, along with those who have returned, barely half that number remain in the city. In the fall, when Ukrainian troops took over Izyum, it had no light or water, but after six months of Russian occupation, the locals poured out onto the streets.
Izyum's streets are much more deserted now. The roads are covered with snow, but electricity and communications work, people also have water in their houses. But the boilers that broke down after the shelling are almost non-operational, so almost all local residents have put stoves in their apartments.
Local life concentrates in the yards around the main street, which doesn't have a single whole building left. Residents of the damaged houses, mostly seniors, sit on benches.
Here's Victor Nakonechny. He used to work as a turner, now retired. His wife Lyubov has worked at the post office for 40 years. Both look perky and cheerful, constantly smoking cigarettes and laughing. They show their five-story building, riddled with shrapnel. Izyum was besieged by the Russian army for a month and a half in the spring, and most of the destruction is from that period. Viktor shows how shrapnel made it inside their apartment as well: “There is no refrigerator, no TV, too, everything is damaged all the way through.”
Windows in most of the apartments are also broken. “Shelling went on from dusk till dawn, and at night too,” Viktor recalls. “And we don't have a basement, there's only the one in the building next door. But our neighbors wouldn't let us in there, only during the day. At night, they said there is no room.” So that's how Victor, Lyubov, their children and grandchildren lived all through the siege, but they do not hold grudges against the neighbors. The main thing, they say, is that everyone is safe.
They recall that the Russian soldiers almost shot their sons once: they were walking down the street and the soldiers “didn't like the way they looked at them.” Lyubov adds that her husband was nearby and was able to persuade the Russians to let his children go.
“As soon as Ukraine came back in, we put a stove made out of a gas cylinder. Otherwise we wouldn't have made it. A lot of people have these,” says Viktor. The thermometer in the kitchen shows 27 degrees. I ask him where they get wood for heating. They answer that the city is full of trees cut down by shells, and they saw them for firewood.
Victor and Lyubov say that electricity, water and communications were restored almost immediately after Ukraine recaptured the city, but the boiler stations in Izyum still do not work. They can't be fixed in winter, so people are waiting for it to get warmer.
“Are there many residents returning? Are there any jobs?”
“There is not much work. Thanks to volunteers that we are alive, and my wife has a pension. On the other side [of the Seversky Donets River], it's a little better, there are stores and some cafes, but here [in the central part of town] nothing works. That part was taken by the Rashists first, and it was basically left intact. And we were pounded from that side for a month and a half.”
“Are people afraid of a new offensive? What do they say among themselves?”
“That's what everyone is afraid of, that it will come back. But I don't believe it will.”
In the autumn, the main place of Izyum was the central square, where Volodymyr Zelensky came after liberation and the Ukrainian flag was raised again in his presence. In the first weeks, locals flocked to the square, discussing how everyone had survived six months of occupation, talking with journalists. Humanitarian aid was also mostly brought there.
Now the square is empty. Lyubov says volunteers no longer bring food there, but distribute it more directly. As we say goodbye, she remarks: “I think I saw you on central square in the first days after the liberation. Your voice sounds familiar.” She also asks me to write down that their 13-year-old grandson, who was transferred to another region after the de-occupation of Izyum, dreams of shaking Zelenski's hand. She also keeps thanking the volunteers for humanitarian aid and the Ukrainian armed forces for the liberation.
One of the main problems on all the liberated regions is explosive objects. All over the country, not only in the de-occupied territories, you posters with appeals to be vigilant, careful, and contact the police or rescue services if suspicious objects are found.
Vladimir Duvansky, senior employee of the Izyum District Department of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine (SESU), says that local residents often suffer from mines. He says that Russians scattered Butterflies even in cemeteries. “There's a lot of that around the villages,” he notes. “Butterflies are still there, and now the snow has fallen. Apartments, private houses are also mined. We find a lot of booby-trapped ones at factories.”
Vladimir describes how the rescue service work is arranged: “A man writes us, ‘Orcs were based in my vegetable garden. Now I want you to check it, because I'm afraid to go back there, I'm afraid to go in there.’ After that, a bomb squad comes on the request and checks it out.”
“I am from the village of Kamianka, near Izyum,” Says Vladimir. “I returned to town after the liberation in September. At first, the rescuers' main job was to deliver water to people until the piping was restored. If you compare it to the population before the war, there aren't that many people left in the city now. If you compare it to when Izyum was just liberated, there are a lot. Light and water are restored, and part of the heat is back. But the infrastructure is also mined. For example, an electrician in Balakleya blew himself up recently. Power lines also need to be cleared, they could have been mined on purpose. And just because of all the fighting was going on, there is a lot of ordinance.”
“And how long will it take to clear the area?”
“Well, they say one year of war means 5-10 years of demining. More than 75 years passed since World War II—and even before this current war we had about 50 applications per year. Imagine the volume of contamination now. So how many years it will all take is unclear. For the villages on the front lines, the bomb squads haven't gone in there properly yet. There will be a lot of work there. As a native of Kamenka I can tell you, there are no houses there, but a hundred people have written us applications for mine clearance, saying something like, ‘I want to go back, check my house.’ It figures, people have no other homes. In Kamenka, people come back, volunteers help to fix the roof, stretch tarpaulin. There was a case where someone stepped on a Butterfly—and that's it.”
While Vladimir is talking about his work, a group of demining experts returns from their shift. Vitaly, the group's chief from the Interregional Mine Action Center, says the most dangerous thing now are the anti-personnel mines scattered all over the Izyum region.
“It's the main danger under everyone's feet,” he explains. “It snowed, and now you can't see the mines. When a man was sweeping up, he saw a Butterfly. But if he didn't, someone would step on it. That is the main danger for the population, and for us.”
“Have a lot of ordinance technicians been hurt?”
“Unfortunately, yes. The total number killed from SESU is 12. I lost three guys too. They were working, there was an explosion, and three of my colleagues died. What was there is unknown, it's impossible to determine now, everything has turned into a huge pit.”
“How often are people wounded now?”
“Just a week ago, a teenager found a ‘Butterfly,’ threw it and got injured. Such things happen once in two to five days. And it is everywhere: Izyum, Balakleya. The day before yesterday, an electrician stepped on a Butterfly and his fingers were torn off.”
Vitaly says that the Russian military, in addition to Butterflies, left a lot of trap wires, mostly in the woods. Before winter, many people used to suffer from them. Now, with the snow, people go out in the woods there less. But once it melts, he says, “they'll run there again.”
In front of the SESU building behind a small fence is a warehouse of cluster Uragan shells found all over the place, which were used to scatter the Butterflies. Local security officials say that residents find them around the area and take as scrap metal, which can be sold at 400 hryvnia per shell. But the shells often contain mines themselves, which detonate and injure people.
Izyum residents remember the occupation over and over again. A local territorial defense fighter recounts that at one point people in the city suffered from starvation because the Russian military did not deliver food. He himself was in another region at the time and was remotely engaged in identifying the locations of the military, but his relatives stayed in the city.
When I ask him if his relatives are all right, he says that they were. An employee of the local security forces who was standing nearby joins in the conversation: “My apartment was taken by my neighbors, my mother was taken prisoner and raped.”
In the first weeks after liberation, several Izyum residents told Mediazona that during the occupation the Russian military raped the mother of a local employee of the Ukrainian security forces, whose house was found because of a tip from neighbours.
Dmytro says he was born and raised in Izyum. After the invasion began, his unit was transferred to Kharkiv, where he fought the first several months. During the time that Izyum was under occupation, Dmytro had no contact with his relatives who remained in the city. According to him, torture and detention were the work of special security groups: “There were FSB agents and Rosgvardians.”
He says the neighbours told them that a member of the Ukrainian security forces lived in this house. They came to his home with searches 15 times, took things, and one time even detained his mother.
“And what about the neighbours? You did not communicate with them?”
“We did. They still live there now.”
“And the ones who told on you?”
“Well, we can only act within the limits of the law.”
“Did not they ask for forgiveness or anything like that?”
“No one asked anything. They said, ‘We don't know nothing.’ What's the evidence? From the neighbours? The evidence base is at least weak, at most nonexistent. I do not know, let the people leave it on their conscience, let them see what is wrong with the city in principle, even with the region, with the whole country, if they like it. I think that if you want the ‘Russian world,’ if you love Vova Putin more, take your suitcase and go to Russia.”
Dmytro says that after a while his mother was released from captivity. She was able to go to Russia, then to the Baltic states, and then—via Europe—back to Ukraine and Izyum. According to him, she is back at work now and is more or less fine, as one could be under the circumstances.
“Is it possible to track down those who did this?”
“It is always possible to find them. Especially in the 21st century, with the Internet. There will be organisations created for this, something like the Mossad. I think that the specialists know their job.” He adds that he is sure that “sooner or later all this will end with a clear victory of Ukraine,” and then “everyone will face the consequences of their actions.”
After the start of the invasion, in March 2022, a new article (111-1, collaboration) was added to the Ukrainian Criminal Code. It is used to judge, for example, those who inform the Russian military about Ukrainian forces or agree to take a position in the occupation structures.
Dmytro says that about 85 percent of those who worked in various occupation structures in Izyum fled together with the Russian military. He specifies that he means just the people who received salaries and fall under the article on collaboration. Dmytro adds, those who remained in the city, for example, had relatives who couldn't be transported. And they are now under investigation.
“And how do these investigations of collaborators work, once the Ukrainian flag returns to the city? How are the lists compiled?”
“People come on their own and start telling what they know: This one did this, that one did that, and that one—see, over there—was a member of the ‘people's militia,’ he came and searched me, took my money, and so on and so forth. The majority of Izyum's residents were waiting for de-occupation. They took away people's property, cars, money, detained a lot. Relatives were taken for ransom.”
“And how much was demanded?”
“It varied. I heard figures of $20,000 and $40,000. People asked relatives to pitch in. I heard that they went directly to Gleb Tkachenko, who was the deputy of the ‘people's mayor’ Vladislav Sokolov. He was cozy with the FSB. He went to them with this issue, they called the price, he came back and said how much was needed. He went to Russia, too.”
In the fall, right after liberation, in Izyum and Balakleya gunfire was heard all the time as a background, and groups of law enforcers went around the surrounding houses looking for the remaining Russian soldiers. I asked whether they are being found now.
“I personally witnessed it when I was standing and talking to one of the brigades at the checkpoint. It's in the area near the forest. A man in civilian clothes goes to the checkpoint. No documents, no nothing, but he says: I'm a local. Well, the military doesn't know the town. I then say: Wait, if you are a local I have a question for you. What area is Turgenev Street? He can't answer. Well, here we are, then tell me who and what you are. He says he's from Stavropol, some Vanya from Stavropol. Well, Vanya from Stavropol, let's go. They were basically came out and surrendered themselves, and there were a lot of them, because what are you going to do in the forest? No food, no water.”
“Do they still find people like that?”
“I'm not ready to answer that question. Maybe. Our people are peaceful, hospitable. There are stories, like in the Kiev region: a grandfather took in a Russian soldier, he said he was a normal guy. I can't say for sure that nothing of the sort happens here. But we are still actively looking for them.”
Dmytro recalls that after the liberation of Izyum he found himself in an army warehouses. “I don't know how tortured the locals were, but they were pulling food from those depots with a kind of brutal instinct, they were so hungry,” he says. “People were so cold, and here were these sweaters. And then flashlights, some kind of batteries.”
He immediately noticed that people's faces in the city have aged dramatically during the time of the occupation: “I've lived and served here for so long... People have aged a lot. For example, those people that I have known for years—their faces aged like fifteen years during one year of the war. That is, of course, how I see it.”
Izyum locals and authorities say most of the population will be back in town in the spring when it gets warmer. But the main dangers of spring will not change: attempts of a new offensive by the Russian army and the consequences of the occupation, mines and trip wires.
Editor: Yegor Skovoroda
Translator: Daria Fomina
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