Shevchenkove: Relief, but little joy, in a Ukrainian town liberated after Russian occupation

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Its streets were practically deserted on Tuesday, five days after the passage of Ukrainian forces. Their trucks and a heavy police presence were the only signs of the dramatic events of the past few days, and a strong reminder of who is now in charge.

Civilians were few and far between. A few huddled anxiously outside the police station, waiting for their phones to be checked for any signs of collaboration with the occupier.

Ukrainian officials have promised that anyone who collaborates with the occupation forces will face criminal penalties.

Other civilians rushed in and out of their homes, heads bowed and eyes downcast, towards a food truck manned by Ukrainian military personnel, where water bottles and plastic bags full of food were distributed.

Few were willing to speak to the media and CNN cameras were hijacked from the police station by Kharkiv police whenever a handcuffed and blindfolded person was taken away in a police car.

Only two elderly women strolling in a nearby park agreed to speak – at first reluctantly, then with all the pent up emotion of those who have been silent for too long.

“We had no choice,” said Maria, who declined to give her last name for security reasons, bursting into tears. “They just came and kept us busy.”

Her longtime friend Larisa Kharkivska, 73, has agreed to lead the way to the home she shares with her 35-year-old disabled daughter, Svetlana. According to Kharkivska, these are the only people left in her apartment building. Anyone who could afford the $400 it cost to go through Russia did, she said.

She recounted her guilt for having taken the food distributed by the Russians by showing two cardboard boxes containing a few bags of sugar and some rice.

“We couldn’t buy anything in the stores,” Kharkivska said. “And we couldn’t get any money because the banks were closed, so we had to stand there like beggars.”

Their apartment became a prison from which they no longer dared to leave.

“They (the Russians) were walking around with automatic weapons; we were terrified of going out,” Kharkivska said.

Almost every night from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., they had no electricity or water, she added.

“We survived, thank God we survived! But it was very scary. We just hope they never come back.”

Shevchenkove, which lies about 80 kilometers (50 miles) southeast of the city of Kharkiv, was occupied from February 25 – just a day after Russia launched its invasion – and remained largely unscathed despite the bombing as the Russians swept through the city.

On Tuesday evening, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke of “stabilization measures” currently underway in what Ukraine says is 8,000 square kilometers (3,088 square miles) of land retaken from the Russians.

“The remains of the occupants are detained, the collaborators detained and full security is restored,” Zelensky said. He added how important it was to return to “ordinary life” after an area was liberated from occupation.

In Shevchenkove, there are still few signs of this, as authorities try to determine where collaboration ends and survival begins.

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Cnn

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