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Ukrainians in freed village tell of life under months of Russian occupation

Viacheslav Myronenko, 71, stands in front of the entrance of a damaged building where he lives in the freed village of Hrakove, Ukraine (Leo Correa/AP)
Viacheslav Myronenko, 71, stands in front of the entrance of a damaged building where he lives in the freed village of Hrakove, Ukraine (Leo Correa/AP)

Ukrainians in a newly freed village have spoken of life under months of Russian occupation.

Houses and shops in Hrakove, south-east of the country’s second-largest city Kharkiv, lie in ruins, while its school is a bombed-out hull and its church is scarred by rockets and shells – though its golden dome still gleams in the fading autumn light.

Only around 30 people remain, living in basements and gutted buildings, according to resident Anatolii Klyzhen.

Around 1,000 lived there when Russian troops rolled over the border in February, occupying the small village soon after.

Those forces abandoned Hrakove last week as Ukrainian soldiers advanced in a lightning counter-offensive.

That blitz could be a turning point, setting the stage for further gains in the east and elsewhere — but it could also trigger a violent response from Moscow, leading to a new and dangerous escalation in the war.

There were no signs the Russian soldiers were about to leave.

“Nobody knew anything. They left very quietly,” said Viacheslav Myronenko, 71, who has lived in the basement of his bombed-out apartment building with three neighbours for more than four months.

Anatolii Klyzhen carries an empty Russian army food ration packet that was left in his apartment while occupied by the Russian soldiers in the freed village of Hrakove, Ukraine
Anatolii Klyzhen carries an empty Russian army food ration packet that was left in his apartment while occupied by the Russian soldiers in the freed village of Hrakove, Ukraine (Leo Correa/AP)

The detritus of a fleeing army still litters the village: packs of empty Russian army food rations, abandoned crates with instructions for using grenades, a gas mask dangling on a tree and an army jacket trampled into the mud.

Just outside the village by the bus stop, a Russian tank lies rusting on a road pockmarked with craters from shells, with its turret and cannon blown off its body.

Feral dogs roam the mud-rutted streets and authorities warn of mines and booby-traps in the weeds.

“Before, the village looked really beautiful,” said Mr Klyzhen, who spent 45 days living in his building’s basement while Russian soldiers occupied his now-wrecked apartment on the second floor.

He eventually managed to flee, deciding to take his chances at checkpoints.

The Russian soldiers were frightened and paranoid, he said, and would check residents’ mobile phones for anything anti-Russian or that they thought might give away their positions.

Some people were taken away and he never saw them again.

The site where the bodies of two men who had been buried by the side of a road is seen in the freed village of Hrakove
The site where the bodies of two men who had been buried by the side of a road is seen in the freed village of Hrakove (Leo Correa/AP)

“I figured I could die at home or die at the checkpoint,” the 45-year-old said on Tuesday.

But he made it through, and returned after Hrakove was retaken to see what remains of his home.

He found the windows blasted out and Russian army food packets, clothes and boxes strewn around.

In one room lay a pile of TVs that he thinks soldiers may have stolen.

After retaking the village, Ukrainian authorities removed abandoned Russian military vehicles and exhumed the bodies of two men who had been buried by the side of a road after being shot in the head, Mr Klyzhen said.

He thinks they were Ukrainian soldiers but he is not sure.

“They were killing locals, shooting them,” he said.

“There was nothing good in here.”

A damaged church is seen in the freed village of Hrakove
A damaged church is seen in the freed village of Hrakove (Leo Correa/AP)

Serhii Lobodenko, head of the Chuhuiv district which includes Hrakove, said the area saw fierce battles during six months of occupation.

“There were a lot of destroyed roads, private houses, a lot of people dead and a lot of people missing, both military and civilians,” he said as residents in nearby Chkalovske gathered to receive food and water.

“Now we are trying to repair the infrastructure, the electricity and gas. The food is brought in because people did not have food.”

Images of devastation and stories of hardship are emerging from other places recaptured in the Ukrainian advance, including Izium, a strategic city also recently retaken that President Volodymyr Zelensky visited on Wednesday in a rare foray outside the capital.

A few weeks into Russian occupation in Hrakove, Mr Myronenko and his neighbours banded together to clear rubbish out of the basement of their apartment building and turn it into a shelter.

With their apartments destroyed, it remains their home.

Oleh Lutsai, 70, shows the basement of a residential building where he is living with his neighbours
Oleh Lutsai, 70, shows the basement of a residential building where he is living with his neighbours (Leo Correa/AP)

They found a couple of metal pipes and wedged them between the floor and the ceiling, hoping that would keep it from caving in as the building shook from explosions, said one of the four, 70-year-old Oleh Lutsai.

They ventured outside to plant potatoes despite the incessant shelling, knowing they needed food to survive.

“Of course it was scary, it is very scary for everyone, when everything is shaking in here,” said Mr Lutsai.

An oil lamp hung on the wall, casting a soft glow over the cramped room.

A kettle whistled softly on a wood-burning stove that Mr Lutsai and his neighbours built.

Leaving was not an option for him.

“I’m 70 years old, I was born here,” he said.

“Even if I had to die here — but obviously I want to live — I just want to die in Ukrainian Ukraine, not (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s one.

“So why should I run away from here?”