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‘What was here before?’ An up-close look at the devastation wrought by the Russian army in Ukraine’s Kherson and Kharkiv regions

Source: Meduza

This fall, the Ukrainian military succeeded in liberating the country’s Kharkiv and Kherson regions from the occupying Russian forces. Photographers who visited the cities of Izyum and Kherson, newly regained by Ukraine, captured images showing what had become of the two urban centers that thrived before Moscow’s invasion; devastated landscapes disfigured by explosions, broken roads, and half-demolished buildings met the eye everywhere. But large cities are just part of this story of destruction: understanding its full scale requires seeing the Ukrainian villages that often mark the shifting front line. At Meduza's request, Ukrainian photographer Yakiv Liashenko visited several war-torn villages and got as close to the destruction as his camera would let him.

A razed village can be a puzzle to a visitor. A foundation that may once have been part of a home, a general store, or something else entirely marks the ground in flat silence. Sometimes, a faint detail suggests what may have stood there before the war. This is how the photographer Yakiv Liashenko describes his trip, which took him to several Ukrainian villages occupied and then left by the Russian army. “Sometimes you stand in a place and you can’t understand what was there before,” he says. “There are no walls, only a foundation. Places like that are often mined. Usually, I’d see anti-tank mines.”

Some villages have hardly any inhabitants left. Usually, those who remain are elderly people who can't imagine leaving the homes that they once built themselves and lived in their whole lives: “They are very attached to those places and to things there,” Lyashenko says.

Even if their children could easily buy them everything they need, all over again, they won’t leave. They sit there under fire, under the shelling, and just won’t go.

Around Kherson

Davydiv Brid was under Russian occupation for seven months — almost from the very start of the invasion. At some point, it became the Russian army’s “fulcrum point” in the southern direction. Because of intense fighting, only a small fraction of the village's buildings survived.

Locals spent most of the occupation hiding from Russian soldiers, afraid of being shot. In May, a procession of evacuation vehicles full of civilian passengers was shelled by Russian Grad missiles; three people were killed. The Russian side made no comment on the attack.

Another almost fully destroyed village is Posad-Pokrovske, just outside Kherson. It was occupied by the Russians in March. They “shelled and burned the village, trying to drive the defenders out of the vicinity, but still couldn’t move the frontline,” wrote the Ukrainian publication TSN.

Entrance to a grain silo, Davydiv Brid, Kherson region
The charred wall of a private home, Posad-Pokrovske, Kherson region
Community center, Posad-Pokrovske, Kherson region
The wall of a private home, Posad-Pokrovske, Kherson region
A room in a private home, Posad-Pokrovske, Kherson region
Kitchen, Posad-Pokrovske, Kherson region

In early October, the Ukrainian army liberated Davydiv Brid. Ukrainian politician Roman Lozinsky noted the strategic importance of the victory: Davydiv Brid, he wrote, was “one of the key points of the Inhulets bridgehead towards Kherson.”

Click on the dots to read the captions

Posad-Pokrovske was liberated much earlier, in mid-March, but the Russian military had already managed to raze it to the ground. Some of its outskirts are still mined. Nonetheless, people have begun to return, eager to get on with restoring the settlement.

The village of Chornobaivka lies between Kherson and its suburban airport. Journalists have called it “a symbol of Russia’s military failures and incompetence.” The Ukrainian army, on the other hand, destroyed dozens of Russian equipment units here. Chornobaivka was liberated in early November, but few people have come back so far.

Aircraft, Chornobaivka, Kherson region
Airport ramp, Chornobaivka, Kherson region
Private home, Posad-Pokrovske, Kherson region
Bathroom, Posad-Pokrovske, Kherson region

Before the war, Kherson’s busy international airport was being renovated. Slated to reopen by March 2022, it was shelled in the very first hours of the invasion. Its airfield is now known as an “aircraft cemetery.”

Click on the dots to read the captions

Around Kharkiv

In September, the Russian army suffered its greatest defeat since the start of the invasion, thanks to a highly effective Ukrainian offensive in the Kharkiv region. But Russia continues to shell the areas within its reach.

Ruski Tyshky is one of the villages that have been almost completely destroyed by shelling, as described by Nikolay Sikalenko, a community leader from nearby Tsyrkuny. Sikalenko says that the village has “nearly vanished”: between 90 and 100 percent of its infrastructure and housing has been demolished by the invading army. Once again, Russia hasn't commented on these reports.

Molten glass in a burned-down garage, Ruski Tyshky, Kharkiv region
Carpet, Ruski Tyshky, Kharkiv region
General store, Tsyrkuny, Kharkiv region
Bus stop, Tsyrkuny, Kharkiv region
Civilian car, Ruski Tyshky, Kharkiv region

Before the war, Tsyrkuny and Ruski Tyshky were part of a tourist area known as “the land of northern fortresses.” Ancient walls, fortresses, and churches made up a centuries-old line of defense that drew many visitors. Liberated in May, the two villages appear to have lost 80 percent of their infrastructure and housing.

Hardly any of the village's former inhabitants are left. Among those who have stayed is an elderly woman who takes care of her paralyzed mother. “There are very few people left in the village,” she says, tallying up those who still remain:

Not a single person on Molodizhna Street, two on Center Street, no one on 40th Anniversary of Victory Street, one person on Kooperativna. And the three of us on Kooperativna as well. The village used to be full of people, but now there's no one. Sometimes people come to repair things, but these houses are uninhabitable. And people don’t stay.

Pharmacy, Ruski Tyshky, Kharkiv region
The gate of a private home, Ruski Tyshky, Kharkiv region
The windshield of a civilian car, Tsyrkuny, Kharkiv region

Photos by Yakiv Liashenko

Photo editing and production by Katya Balaban

Translation by Anna Razumnaya

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