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‘Anyone could be taken captive at any time’ Residents of the Ukrainian town of Balakliya describe life under Russian occupation
In early September, Ukrainian forces launched a successful counteroffensive in the country’s Kharkiv region, liberating dozens of towns and villages that had been under Russian occupation for months. If history is any guide, evidence of brutalities committed by Russian soldiers on the formerly occupied territory will likely be surfacing for months, if not years, to come. Shortly after the Russian army’s retreat, Ukrainian journalists traveled to the town of Balakliya and the nearby village of Verbivka to hear from residents themselves about what they went through while the region was occupied. The residents, many of them pensioners, described widespread hunger, arbitrary detentions, and torture.
Journalists from the Ukrainian news outlet Hromadske traveled to Verbivka, a village just a few kilometers from the town of Balakliya in the country's Kharkiv region, to speak with local residents about the more than six months they spent under Russian occupation.
“Life was very difficult,” said a 62-year-old named Olha. “Everyone who was here worked in gardens amid gunfire. They even told us we had ‘kamikaze women,’ women who would keep working in the gardens while being shot at. In order to have some potatoes and not die from hunger.”
Things were made worse by the fact that older people were unable to receive their pensions during the occupation, leaving gardens as the only food source for a great number of people. “When the Russians came, they stole all of the food from the stores and from people’s homes. [...] And they killed all of the farm animals,” said local resident Olha Panchenko.
“For six months, we slept in basements, never undressing, with sweaters and jackets on, because of the shelling. It wasn’t a life, it was a torment,” said 70-year-old Nadezhda.
According to Hromadske, many residents had difficulty talking about the Russian soldiers; some were angry, while others couldn’t speak without tears. “When they arrived, we asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ And they said, ‘Putin promised we’d each get a house and two slaves.’ His mother should have drowned him at his baptism, that Putin. Something’s not right with his head,” said another resident named Nadezhda who’s 72 years old.
70-year-old Natalia said she first encountered the Russian soldiers when they came into her building and insisted weapons were being hidden inside. She said they were shocked when they saw the villagers’ living conditions. “They asked us, ‘Is this a city?’ They came in and saw that we had water and bathrooms in our homes, just like in cities. They said they were going to bring their families here.”
Verbivka residents also reported that Russian soldiers forcibly detained people. According to 67-year-old Vasily, a group of soldiers put a bag over his head and drove him to an unknown location. They then claimed his son-in-law had assisted the Ukrainian Armed Forces and threatened to kill him. Vasily showed journalists a scar from a rope the soldiers used to tie his hands up.
Nearby, Balakliya residents described a similar situation, recalling a lack of food, kidnappings, and theft. Some said they only managed to survive thanks to local farmers.
“The humanitarian aid was terribly inadequate. Three or four cans of food for three weeks. Three kinds of groats, a kilogram each. Half a loaf of bread for a week. That’s what we received. We had no money to buy anything because there was nowhere to work. There was a lot of food in the market, but the prices were two to three times what they were before the war. I believe me and my friends survived thanks to milk, which was very cheap, and which local farmers sometimes gave out for free,” said a local resident named Oleh.
58-year-old Natalia said that the last aid package from the Russians consisted of a box of pasta, a can of condensed milk, a can of mackerel, and a can of stewed meat. “And then they told us how well-fed we were,” she said.
Balakliya residents also said that looting was rampant. According to a resident named Marina, Russian soldiers ransacked every store in town. One group of soldiers from Buryatia, she said, went into people’s homes and took everything they could find. Yelena, a schoolteacher, said that in addition to stealing cars, soldiers stole computer equipment and linoleum from her workplace. Nadezhda called the Russian soldiers “evil,” and gave a similar account of soldiers from Buryatia who “went into homes and dragged out everything they could.”
According to residents, Russian soldiers tortured people in one of the town’s police stations. “Some people were released [afterwards], but others haven’t been seen since,” said Yelena. Serhii Bolvinov, the chief investigator of the Kharkiv regional police, added, “Anyone could be captured at any time and imprisoned by the Rashists. It was almost like a Russian-organized Auschwitz.”
Artem, a Balakliya resident who spent more than 40 days in Russian captivity, told journalists about the conditions he was kept in: “They fed me twice a day. Unsalted porridge. Sometimes there was soup for lunch, if the soldiers hadn’t eaten all of it already. That was like a holiday. [...] They brought prisoners to the toilet twice a day: in the morning and in the evening.”
Hromadske reported that detainees in the police station were beaten and tortured with electric shocks, and that soldiers would shoot at the wall above their heads to torment them. “We have confirmed information that one civilian was killed here. He was handed over to the funeral service outside and taken away. He was then buried in a cemetery,” said Bolvinov.
When Russian forces fled Balakliya, they left people locked inside of the police station. The prisoners eventually broke a window, which allowed one person to climb out and then free the others.
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