Ukrainians in shock after being freed from 6 months under Russian occupation: NPR

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Local residents gather on Tuesday to receive humanitarian aid in Balakliia, a town recently liberated by the Ukrainian army as part of its counter-offensive in the Kharkiv region.

Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/NurPhoto via Reuters


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Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/NurPhoto via Reuters


Local residents gather on Tuesday to receive humanitarian aid in Balakliia, a town recently liberated by the Ukrainian army as part of its counter-offensive in the Kharkiv region.

Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/NurPhoto via Reuters

BALAKLIIA, Ukraine — Lyudmyla Vorona says her hometown of Balakliia, in Ukraine’s northeast Kharkiv region, was unprepared when the Russians took control in early March.

“We didn’t have extra food or toiletries,” says Vorona, 60. “And the children were afraid of all the shelling. We were very cold and hungry.”

So when Ukrainian troops recaptured Balakliia late last week – the first of a series of towns they swiftly liberated as part of their recently launched counteroffensive in the east – locals were delighted .

“We were very happy,” Vorona’s friend Valentryn Dacenko, 60, recalls enthusiastically. “We cried, we kissed, we kissed our warriors, we hugged them. … It’s hard to describe in words.”

The recovery of the area went surprisingly quickly; so quickly that the Russian forces withdrew in such a hurry that they left behind a lot of military equipment and vehicles, and did not release the people they had detained – and allegedly tortured – in the prison of Balaklia.

Drone footage shows destroyed buildings and damaged vehicles in Balakliia in this screenshot obtained from a social media video posted on September 8.

Suspilne Kharkiv/Yevhen Kozhyrnov/Handout via Reuters


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Drone footage shows destroyed buildings and damaged vehicles in Balakliia in this screenshot obtained from a social media video posted on September 8.

Suspilne Kharkiv/Yevhen Kozhyrnov/Handout via Reuters

They spoke to NPR on Tuesday as they lined up for humanitarian aid in the heavily damaged downtown Balakliia. They are two of many locals NPR spoke to during the first press tour of the newly liberated area. Many still seemed genuinely shocked that their city had been liberated.

“The only thing we’re afraid of now is that the Russians might come back. It’s really hard to believe it’s for good,” Dacenko said.

The cleaning begins

A number of buildings were damaged or destroyed in Balakliia, which fell under Russian occupation at the start of the full-scale invasion.

Ashley Westerman/NPR


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A number of buildings were damaged or destroyed in Balakliia, which fell under Russian occupation at the start of the full-scale invasion.

Ashley Westerman/NPR

While the physical damage to Balakliia and surrounding areas is not as severe as the destruction left behind in the Kyiv suburbs of Bucha and Irpin, the city still has a lot of cleanup to do.

Utilities that have been cut for months, such as water, electricity, internet, and cell service, need to be restored. Residents need food and other supplies, Russian soldiers stole food from homes, cleared store shelves and killed farm animals. Several buildings must also be rebuilt, houses repaired and abandoned and bombed-out vehicles removed.

A destroyed Russian military vehicle by the side of the road in Balakliia on Tuesday.

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A destroyed Russian military vehicle by the side of the road in Balakliia on Tuesday.

Ashley Westerman/NPR

There is also the task of assessing the extent of the death toll during the six months of occupation of the region. Officials say they found the bodies of five Ukrainian civilians in Balakliia, but they suspect there are others. At least two of them are men who were allegedly shot dead by Russian soldiers as they walked through a checkpoint. Their bodies were buried in makeshift graves near the city center and have now been exhumed for further investigation.

“We will try to do everything in our power to record all war crimes committed by Russian forces,” Oleg Synegubov, head of the Kharkiv regional military administration, told reporters.

This could be a turning point

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stands with soldiers after attending a national flag-raising ceremony in Izium, Ukraine, on Wednesday. Zelenskyy thanked the soldiers for their efforts in retaking the area, as the Ukrainian flag was raised in front of the burnt-out city hall building.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stands with soldiers after attending a national flag-raising ceremony in Izium, Ukraine, on Wednesday. Zelenskyy thanked the soldiers for their efforts in retaking the area, as the Ukrainian flag was raised in front of the burnt-out city hall building.

Leo Correa/AP

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Tuesday that Ukraine had reclaimed more than 1,500 square miles of territory so far this month. Zelenskyy paid a visit to the region on Wednesday.

The Institute for the Study of War, a think tank in Washington, D.C., says Ukraine recaptured more territory in its latest counteroffensive in less than a week than Russia managed to. capture in all its operations since April.

The Kremlin has acknowledged that it needs to withdraw its troops in the Kharkiv region, and several members of the Russian State Duma have expressed concern about the situation on the front line, according to the institute. Meanwhile, officials in some Russian-controlled areas in eastern Ukraine have urged residents to evacuate.

Seth Jones, senior vice president and director of the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Ukraine’s recent success was the culmination of several things, including spurring the Russians to move a large part of their troops to the south.

A wrecked car in Balakliia seen on Tuesday.

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A wrecked car in Balakliia seen on Tuesday.

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“Ukrainian forces had basically pretended that the priority was going to be in the south, in areas like Kherson,” he said. “The Russians moved some military forces from the north and east to the south, and that provided an opportunity for [Ukrainians to] grow in the northern and eastern regions.”

Analysts say the counteroffensive has damaged Russian troops administratively and morale is at rock bottom. Russia should move more of its troops to retake the territory it has lost — something it really cannot afford to do right now because it would leave them vulnerable on other fronts, Jones says.

Officials say around 15% of the Kharkiv region is still occupied by Russia, meaning the fighting may not be totally over for places like Balakliia.

“I think it will probably be a turning point, probably not. the turning point,” he says.

Polina Lytvynova contributed to this report.

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