Aleksei and his son spent an entire night lying on top of corpses in the cold, dark basement of a school that had been converted into a base for Vladimir Putin’s troops. Endless hours without knowing if they themselves would also be shot by the soldiers who, aboard columns of armored vehicles and preceded by a tornado of artillery fire and shelling, invaded their village, Ruska Lozova, eight kilometers from the Russian border.
Neither he nor his son remove their fear from their bodies. The Russians are no longer in sight. kyiv forces regained control of Ruska Lozova – in the strategic belt that surrounds the city of Kharkov – almost three weeks ago. But the dance of positions continues and the towns that surround the second city of Ukraine are still, at least, in the second line of the front. Aleksei’s house is still under attack.
The Russian Army occupied Ruska Lozova in the first days of the invasion, launched three months ago by the head of the Kremlin. They subjected the town, of about 5,000 inhabitants, embedded in the main road that connects the Russian town of Belgorod with Kharkov, to a military regime, according to the neighbors. Putin’s troops smashed the cell towers, so there was no phone coverage; no electricity, no water. And food became scarce. After several days of hunger crouched in the basement of his house, Alekséi and his son went out to look for food. They were captured by the Russian soldiers, who beat them and threw them on the pile of corpses.
The subject is taboo in Ruska Lozova, where some say that Moscow soldiers found collaborators in this town of low houses and orchards with tulips. Among them, some local chiefs. Grandma Lidia and Grandma Nadia, who are sitting on the porch of the house taking in the cool air, bow their heads when they hear about the invasion. “This is World War III,” asserts the second. Like Aleksei, they fear that the Russian occupation forces will return to Ruska Lozova, where for now no one dares to fix the holes caused by the shells or thoroughly repair the glass broken by the explosions. “Next time they’ll kill us,” says Aleksei’s son, finishing a cigarette in his patio, full of belongings around a large crater caused by a bombardment. The town remains just a ghostly, faded shadow of its former self.
The buzz of the drones
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The war in the Kharkov region now sounds more often like a buzz; that of the drones with which both armies try to discover the other’s positions, weapons and logistics, and then strike them down with artillery. On Friday, a Russian attack hit one of its own vehicles in the center of Ruska Lozova, a now charred car whose color is no longer visible; just a gloomy Z painted on the nose.
Commander Roxolana – a member of the Kraken special unit, part of the Azov battalion, which was part of the operation to recapture Ruska Lozova and is now in charge of her protection – believes that the projectile actually had another purpose. Early Saturday morning, another rocket hit a gas pipeline that, hours later, was still burning with a bright orange flame in the middle of the street.
Kharkov, with a majority also of mostly Russian-speaking inhabitants —like those that Putin claims to protect—, a city that accumulates enormous destruction due to attacks by Kremlin forces, is gradually recovering its pulse. But he doesn’t know calm either. Some cafes, clothing stores and supermarkets reopen. Putin’s troops had used the towns surrounding Kharkiv as a ruthless launch pad against Ukraine’s second largest city.
Success of Zelensky’s forces
The great counteroffensive promoted by the National Guard, the Army and the Ukrainian territorial defense brigades not only managed to give Kharkov air and regain control of strategic enclaves such as Ruska Lozova or Kutuzivka (to the east), but also forced the Russian forces to retreat at some points almost to the border. It was the biggest success for President Volodymyr Zelensky’s forces since the withdrawal of Putin’s soldiers from the north of the country and from the outskirts of kyiv.
Fierce fighting in the Kharkov belt lasted four days. A commander nicknamed Sacha claims that, unsuspecting and misinformed by espionage, Putin’s soldiers tried to advance from various points in the direction of the city and found themselves under coordinated Ukrainian attack, fueled by weapons supplied by Western allies. The trace of that powerful counteroffensive remains around Kutuzivka in the form of a column of burnt-out armored vehicles, tanks, trucks and cars that lie like a mass of iron on the side of the road. In the green ditches they are still waiting for the demining team to remove some Russian corpse. In the refrigerated warehouses of the city of Kharkov there are many more. The Kremlin refuses to claim them. The Russian is an Army that leaves its dead behind.
After the withdrawal from Kharkov, Moscow is relocating these troops —and those positioned in the already conquered Mariupol, in the Sea of Azov— in the Donbas area. The war is centered there now; especially on the Lugansk front, where the Russian Army is brutally besieging the city of Severodonetsk. That area of eastern Ukraine remains in an “extremely difficult” situation, according to Zelensky, who acknowledged on Sunday that the battle for Donbas may be costing the lives of between 50 and 100 Ukrainian soldiers a day.
Grandma Lida and her neighbor Grandma Nadia can only imagine the level of destruction in the village. They hardly stray from their street. And during the more than two months of occupation they hardly left the house. They depended on what they had in the pantry and the help of neighbors. From time to time, they poked their heads out. If they saw soldiers they ran to hide again.
In Ruska Lozova, before the attacks, few believed in a hot war. When the Moscow troops arrived it was a shock. Hardly anyone resisted, says Yelena Valerievna, one of the two grandmothers’ neighbors. The woman, an administrator of a Kharkov nursery school, left in a hurry the day Ukrainian forces recaptured the town. She has only come back a couple of times to see if her house is still standing and she keeps an eye on Grandma Lida and Grandma Nadia.
By the time the kyiv soldiers entered this town, almost half of its inhabitants had fled to Russia through a corridor created by Putin’s soldiers. “The Russians created a great panic,” Valerievna relates. Among those who left out of fear, some later managed to get from Russia to Lithuania. And they hope to return to Ukraine. “They terrorized people by saying that the town was going to be attacked so they would get on buses and leave. And many believed it”, adds the woman. In Ruska Lozova, ironically, the Russian troops dedicated themselves to looting the houses of those who left, says Alekséi. The first group of soldiers took everything. From televisions to panties.
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