TROSTYANETS, Ukraine — The last three Russian soldiers in this Ukrainian town are in the morgue, their uniforms bloody and torn. The face of the first is frozen in pain. The second has his wooden pipe on his knees. The third is stuffed into his sleeping bag.
These deaths are not the only ones left behind in Trostyanets, a city strategically located in the northeast of the country, where Russian forces fled a few days ago in the face of an orchestrated Ukrainian assault. A month-long Russian occupation reduced much of the city to rubble, a decimated landscape of mangled tank carcasses, broken trees and shaken but resilient survivors.
There are also stories, impossible to verify, highlighting the kind of hatred left in the wake of occupations and sharing a common thread of brutality: children held at knifepoint; an old woman forced to drink alcohol while her occupants watched and laughed; rumors of rapes and enforced disappearances; and an old man found toothless, beaten in a ditch and defecated on it.
“Oh my God, how I wanted to spit on them or hit them,” Yevdokiya Koneva, 57, said in a steely voice as she pushed her aging bicycle downtown on Friday.
Ukrainian forces are now gaining ground, as more than a month into the war, Russian forces are retreating from their positions north of kyiv, even as Ukrainian soldiers advance here in the northeast. This area was meant to be little more than a speed bump for a sprawling military campaign that would quickly take the country’s capital and leave the east in Russian hands.
Instead, a combination of logistical problems, low morale and poor planning among Russian forces allowed an emboldened Ukrainian army to go on the offensive in multiple axes, overwhelming the occupying forces and breaking their lines of defence. forehead.
The Ukrainian victory at Trostyanets came on March 26 – what locals call “liberation day” – and is an example of how disadvantaged and smaller Ukrainian units launched successful counterattacks.
It also shows how the Russian army’s inability to achieve a quick victory – in which it would “liberate” a friendly population – left its soldiers in a position they were completely unprepared for: holding an occupied city. with an unwelcoming local population.
“We didn’t want this terrible ‘liberation’,” said Nina Ivanivna Panchenko, 64, who was walking in the rain after picking up a humanitarian aid package. “Just let them never come back here again.”
Interviews with more than a dozen residents of Trostyanets, a modest town of about 19,000 located in a bowl of hills about 20 miles from the Russian border, paint a grim picture of struggle and fear during the Russian occupation. Relentless violence from Ukrainian and Russian forces fighting to retake and hold the city raged for weeks and drove people into basements or wherever they could find shelter.
On Friday, dazed residents walked through the shattered city, sorting through the debris as power was restored for the first time in weeks. Viktor Panov, a railway worker, was helping clean up the station which was destroyed by shrapnel, grenades and other scattered explosives. Other men cannibalized destroyed Russian armored vehicles for parts or working machinery.
“I can’t understand how this war with tanks and missiles is possible,” said Olena Volkova, 57, the hospital’s chief medical officer and deputy director of the city council. “Against whom? Peaceful civilians?
“It’s real barbarism,” she said.
The war began in Trostyanets on February 24, the day the Russians launched their invasion of Ukraine. The city soon became a thoroughfare for advancing Russian tank columns as they struck further west, as part of their northeast offensive towards the capital, Kyiv. Thousands of armored vehicles rolled through, smashing highway guard rails and chewing up the roads.
“As the Russians were coming, for the first two days our guys fought back well, as long as they had heavy weapons,” said Panov, 37. “After they ran out, all they had left were guns.”
Further west, the offensive blitz towards kyiv soon encountered fierce Ukrainian resistance, stopping the Russians before the capital, meaning the soldiers would have to occupy Trostyanets rather than simply drive through it. About 800 troops deployed, constructing a dozen checkpoints that carve the city into a grid of isolated neighborhoods.
Locals say they rarely tried to move through the Russian positions, although they described the occupation soldiers as quite friendly in the early days of the occupation, and more confused than anything else.
“The first brigade of Russian forces that arrived was more or less tolerable,” Dr Volkova said. “They said, ‘OK, we’ll help you.'”
This help, Dr. Volkova explained, simply allowed them to remove dead bodies from the streets. She added that around 20 people were killed during the occupation and the fighting that followed – 10 were shot and wounded.
On a few occasions, Russian troops opened “green corridors” for civilians to leave the city, although it was then that some people – mostly younger men of military age – were removed.
At the beginning of the occupation, the policemen of Trostyanets took off their uniforms and blended into the population. Those who were part of the Ukrainian Territorial Defence, the equivalent of the National Guard, slipped into the outskirts of the city and worked as partisans – documenting the movement of Russian troops and reporting it to the Ukrainian military.
Others remained in the city, moving quietly to help residents where they could, even as Russian soldiers chased them away. “We were here throughout the occupation, working to the best of our abilities,” police chief Volodymyr Bogachyov, 53, said.
As the days and weeks passed, food became scarce and all goodwill from the soldiers also disappeared. Residents boiled snow for water and lived on what they had stored in their small gardens. Russian soldiers, without a proper logistical pipeline, began looting homes, shops, and even the local chocolate factory. A butcher spray-painted “ALREADY LOOTED” on his shop so soldiers wouldn’t break in. In another store, another deterrent: “EVERYTHING IS TAKEN, NOTHING LEFT”.
In mid-March, Russian soldiers were driven out of the city and replaced by separatist fighters brought in from the southeast.
It was then, according to locals, that the atrocities began to multiply.
“They were brash and angry,” Dr Volkova said. “We couldn’t negotiate anything with them. They didn’t want to give us green corridors, they searched apartments, took away phones, abducted people – they took them, mostly young men, and we still don’t know where these people are.
As of Friday, city police received 15 missing person reports.
In the morgue, next to the three dead Russian soldiers, Dr. Volkova pointed to a body bag in the corner of the room. “This person was tortured to death,” she said. “His hands and legs are tied up with duct tape, he is missing teeth and almost his entire face is gone. We don’t know what they wanted from him.
Outside the city, Ukraine’s 93rd Mechanized Brigade, a unit of experienced veterans who had seen intermittent fighting in breakaway regions of the country for the past seven years, slowly moved into place. Then, on March 23, they attacked with a bombardment of artillery fire.
The next day, the city hospital is bombed. It is not known exactly who hit the building, but local residents accuse the Russians of firing at the structure. The hospital had been operational throughout the occupation, treating everyone, including Russian soldiers. During the bombardment, only a doctor and a nurse still worked there, and they settled in the basement with patients.
“In the morning, we left on foot with the last two women left in the maternity ward, one pregnant and one who had just given birth,” says Xenia Gritsayenko, 45, a midwife who had returned to work on Friday to do Household chores. up to the room. Tank shells had ripped through the walls, shredding baby posters and setting fire to at least one room. “It was the cry from the bottom of the soul.”
The Russian forces fled on the night of the 25th. Their demolished artillery position in the station square showed signs of an undersupplied and ad hoc force. Fortifications included ammunition crates loaded with sand and thick candy wrappers wrapped in rolls and used to shore up broken windows instead of sandbags. Uniforms lay in wet puddles. Russian procurement documents blew aimlessly in the wind.
A nearby monument that commemorates the World War II victory to recapture the city, affixed to an aging Soviet tank, was damaged, but not destroyed. He had survived one more battle.
On Friday afternoon, Mr. Bogachyov, the police chief, was sifting through reports from townspeople who had collaborated with the former occupiers, while trying to tackle ongoing looting. Yet no one has had any problems siphoning off fuel from the abandoned Russian tanks that dot the roads.
“The information is such as ‘This person was talking or drinking vodka with the Russians’ and ‘This person told them where the house of the person they were looking for is,'” he said.
“There is no information about such collaborations as our citizens taking up arms with the occupiers or treating their own citizens with violence,” Bogachyov said, acknowledging it was hard to tell whether he was struggling. with Russian spies or simply neighborhood grudges.
The morning rain had dissipated by the afternoon. Long queues around aid distribution points have dissipated. A garbage truck snaked along, loaded to the brim with wartime trash and Russian army rations. A few people took selfies in front of the last recognizable Russian self-propelled artillery piece.
Galyna Mitsaii, 65, a worker at the local seed and gardening supplies store near the train station, slowly restocked her shelves, delighted with the day’s weather.
“We are going to sow, we are going to grow, we are going to live,” she said, crying.