By LORI HINNANT and VASILISA STEPANENKO
IZIUM, Ukraine (AP) — School was a broken mess. Its six-month life as a Russian base and mechanical workshop ended in August with a Ukrainian missile strike.
His years of educating the youth of Izium were over, but there remained one last gift for the inhabitants who needed it so much: the wood that made up its trellises, its slates, its furniture and its beams.
A handful of elderly residents – some prepared with gloves, sturdy woven bags and hand tools – came out Monday to scavenge firewood from the rubble. It will be months, if not longer, before electricity, gas and running water are restored, and a cold is already setting in.
This town in the far east of Ukraine was one of the first taken by Russian forces after the war began on February 24, and it has become a command center for them. At the beginning of March, Izium was isolated – no cell phones, no heating, no electricity. Residents did not know what was happening during the war, whether their relatives were alive, whether there was still a Ukraine.
They were liberated in a rapid counter-offensive on September 10 that swept through the Kharkiv region and continues in the south near Kherson. But residents are still emerging from the confusion and trauma of their occupation, the brutality of which drew worldwide attention last week after the discovery of one of the biggest mass graves of the war.
” We have nothing. We take wood to heat water for tea and make porridge. Look at my hands! I am 75 years old and this woman is even older than me. We are afraid of winter,” said Oleksandra Lysenko, standing in a pile of bricks. “My grandchildren went to this school and I’m looting it.”
A nearby man loaded the dented hood of a car onto his bike. He planned to use the piece, spray-painted with the letter Z which has become the symbol of the Russian military, to cover an open window frame.
When the war began nearly seven months ago, about half of Izium’s approximately 40,000 inhabitants fled, some of them to Russia itself. The others cowered in basements or behind the thickest walls they could find. Russian soldiers distributed food but rarely enough.
Those with battery-operated radios found the only signal was a Russian propaganda station, feeding them lies about fallen Ukrainian cities, how their government had abandoned them, and how they would be judged as collaborators if the Ukrainian army ever returns. .
The counter-offensive was so swift that the Russians abandoned their ammunition and armored vehicles, sometimes resorting to stealing clothes and cars from locals to escape undetected. This is Russia’s biggest military defeat since the withdrawal of its troops from areas near Kyiv more than five months ago.
Ukrainian soldiers began collecting hastily torn brass buttons from an officer’s uniform or patches with the Russian flag. They also collect Russian ammunition, which fits perfectly into Ukrainian weapons, and reallocate abandoned vehicles that have not become useless.
The Russian occupiers have scattered countless mines, which Ukrainian soldiers are painstakingly detonating one by one. Every few minutes until sunset on Monday, their huge, controlled explosions rocked Izium, which is about a two-hour drive from Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, on straight rural highways.
Maybe it was another world too.
“Is Kharkiv still Ukraine? a woman hesitantly asked a visitor in the first days after Izium’s release.
There’s now a tenuous cellular signal – just enough to text or make a phone call, for those who have a way to charge their phone.
But Monday morning, expectations were high for a more basic form of communication. By the time the mail truck pulled into the parking lot of a closed market, more than a hundred people were busy waiting for the first mail delivery since February.
“I’m glad the mail is working. It means life is getting better. We will live and hope for the best,” said Volodymyr Olyzarenko, 69. He already knew what was in the box sent by his adult children: warm clothes for his brother.
But there will be difficult days ahead.
A site which President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says contains more than 440 graves was discovered last week in a forest on the northern outskirts of the city, and investigators are exhuming the bodies to begin the grim work of identification. Russian officials have distanced themselves from responsibility for the site.
On the southern outskirts, where the fiercest battles have raged, the entire village of Kamyanka is an explosive hazard. Only 10 people remain of the 1,200 who used to live there.
Almost every meter is strewn with bombs and bullets. A Russian rocket launcher rusts in someone’s driveway, the weather is just starting to take its toll on the white Z. And at sunset, the only noise is the barking of dogs abandoned by their owners.
Natalya Zdorovets, the matriarch of a family of five that makes up half the village’s population, said they stayed because it was home. They lost their connection to the outside world on March 5.
“We were in a vacuum. We were cut off from everyone. We didn’t know what had happened. We didn’t even know what was happening in the next street because we only lived here,” she said, pointing to a yard full of ducks, chickens, cats and dogs.
About 2,000 Russian soldiers have taken up residence in the homes evacuated by terrified residents. Then suddenly, just over a week ago, the village fell silent. The family did not know why until the Ukrainian soldiers arrived.
“We cried and laughed at the same time,” Zdorovets said. “We weren’t prepared to see them. We hadn’t heard the news.