Balakriya, Ukraine’s main city northeast of Kharkiv, was recaptured from Russian forces this week, but remains scarred by intense conflict.
The city and surrounding areas have suffered months of violent conflict. It’s back in Ukraine’s hands as the Kyiv counteroffensive that began earlier this month has begun to bear fruit.
The north side of the city was strewn with dozens of civilian vehicles, lorries, and burnt-out Russian armored vehicles, some bearing Z marks of the invading army.
A few kilometers away, Ukrainian soldiers were working to remove armored vehicles and tanks recently abandoned by Russian forces.
Cases of munitions abandoned by the Russian army littered the highway.
Access to Balakriya, which had a population of 27,000 before the war, has become precarious after Russian forces destroyed two bridges before withdrawing on Wednesday, residents told AFP.
According to Ukrainian media, only about a third of the population, mostly elderly, stayed in the city during the occupation.
Ukrainian soldiers now patrol the main street while several residents walk or cycle.
Some buildings were intact, but many were destroyed or damaged.
“I was happy to see the Ukrainian army” when they arrived on Wednesday, said Oleksandr Sidorov, a 59-year-old local power company employee who fought to maintain supplies despite the conflict. rice field.
At the same time, he lamented the scale of the destruction.
– Borscht for the army –
Many streets were almost empty, but on the main square someone had already raised the Ukrainian flag above a statue of Ukrainian national poet Taras Chevchenko.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry announced on Twitter on Saturday that the Balakriya was back in Ukrainian hands.
Irina Stepanenko, 52, rode her bike in the city for the first time in months and recalled months of occupation.
“There was a lot of fear, shelling. It was scary. We were hiding in the basement for three months,” she explained.
They did not expect the return of Ukrainian troops, she admitted.
But she still didn’t feel safe.
“I’m afraid the Russians will come back. I’m afraid the shelling will start again.”
Andrii Kiktiov, 49, said the Russians killed one of his friends after he broke a curfew during a “very horrible” occupation.
“It was forbidden to travel without a passport,” he said.
“All phones were checked. If they found anything yellow or blue on your phone, they put it on the ground and smashed it with the stock of a rifle.”
Alla Pressac, 53, was overjoyed to see Ukraine reclaim the city.
“Now I am waiting for the macaroni to be cooked. My friend has finished cooking the borscht,” is a traditional Ukrainian soup.
There were “tears, just tears” when the troops arrived, she added.
Twenty-four volunteers, Danilo Grigorenko, were bringing in food and medicine for the orphaned residents.
“People are happy that it has arrived, that people have returned to their (Ukrainian) homeland,” he said. “No Russian occupation, repression, cellars, FSB[Russian Federal Security Service].
“But at the same time, people are traumatized by the occupation.”
And in the distance, people could still hear the regular counterattack of artillery fire.