Ukrainian soldiers last month retook Husarivka, an agricultural village with a peacetime population of 500-600 around 150 km southeast of Kharkiv city, after heavy fighting following the Russian invasion on Feb. 24.
As Russian forces pull back after failing to take major cities including Kyiv and Kharkiv to refocus their offensive on the Donbas region in the southeast, residents of the surrounding areas are beginning to clean up after weeks of occupation.
Echoing accounts of ill-disciplined and poorly-supplied Russian forces from other localities in north and east Ukraine where the Russians have retreated, 79-year-old Nadezhda Syrova said young soldiers had gone house-to-house asking for food.
Some of the invading Russians said they were on a training exercise or there to clear Ukraine of bandits and “Nazis”, she added, standing on a patch of ground near her house.
“Where do you see bandits and Nazis here? We are just normal, peaceful people. Ukrainians,” she said.
In fields above the village, burned-out armoured personnel carriers and two smashed Russian anti-aircraft gun carriers sit abandoned in the mud surrounded by detritus including gas masks, computer printers and sodden footwear.
In the village itself, a destroyed Russian tank, already rusting, rests on the road, its blown off turret by its side.
A Ukrainian soldier said fighting went on for around three weeks with his side using anti-tank weapons, including artillery and foreign-supplied Javelin missiles, finally driving out two Russian battalion tactical groups.
“We bypassed the enemy from the right and the left, got into good positions and destroyed their equipment,” said the soldier, who spoke to reporters on condition he be identified only by his nickname Parker.
He said his unit had captured a Russian officer and two scouts from an engineering unit trying to plant mines around the village to stop the Ukrainian attack and had to fight off counter-attacks by what he described as Russian sabotage and reconnaissance groups.
“Three times we fought off attacks when they tried to enter,” he said.
It was not possible to confirm his account independently but at least a dozen destroyed armoured vehicles, including tanks with the distinctive “Z” markings of Russian forces, remained in the village and surrounding fields.
Ukrainian authorities say their forces have killed almost 20,000 Russian troops and destroyed hundreds of tanks and armoured personnel carriers since the invasion began. Other estimates are much lower but Western officials estimate the numbers of Russian dead run into the thousands.
Ukraine also says that hundreds of Ukrainian civilians have been killed while under Russian occupation. Russia has denied targeting civilians but locals in Husarivka said several local people were killed or had disappeared.
Three bodies, burned beyond recognition, have been recovered from the cellar of one house and taken away to be investigated for possible signs of torture, they said.
The state of Husarivka matches accounts in a string of villages east of Kharkiv, a mainly Russian-speaking city near Ukraine’s northeastern border, which was targeted by President Vladimir Putin’s army from the first days of the war.
Though no longer threatening to enter the city, Russia has kept up a partial blockade and subjected it to days of increasingly heavy bombardment.
Kharkiv residential buildings and infrastructure have been hit, causing dozens of casualties, with more than 60 artillery and rocket attacks in one night this week. On Friday, Reuters journalists heard mortar rounds hit northern areas of the city.
(Additional reporting by Alkis Konstantinidis; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)