Resurrect occupied Ukraine after six months of invasion, torture and murder | International
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At 47 years old, Artyom has spent 46 days in hell. It is the time that he has been imprisoned and receiving torture at the hands of the Russians in Balakliia, one of the towns in northeastern Ukraine that have been freed in recent days. Since the offensive launched on September 6, a total of 3,800 square kilometers in which some 150,000 people lived in this region of Kharkov have been vacated by Kremlin soldiers, as reported by the Deputy Defense Minister, Hanna Maliar. President Volodímir Zelenski raises the recovered territory to 6,000 square kilometers between the eastern and southern fronts.
The pain of the inhabitants of Verbivka, a town on the outskirts of Balakliia, is represented in a special way by the school destroyed by the Russians in their flight. “The enemy has not left voluntarily,” Kharkiv Governor Oleh Syehubov explained about the building’s rubble during an organized trip for local and foreign journalists on Tuesday. They have a double objective ahead. First the military, to be able to “continue defending our cities” and, second, to recover the “critical infrastructure such as water and electricity before the arrival of winter.” Syehubov hopes to soon be able to recover the management of pensions, medical services or reopen banking entities. Ultimately, he adds, “restore normal life.” At the same time, the Police and officials from the Ministry of the Interior are already on the ground to investigate possible war crimes. But the governor acknowledges that the definitive normalization will depend on how the military situation evolves in the region because, he recalls, they continue “at war, there are always risks.”
In the surroundings of Balakliia you can see caravans of military vehicles of all kinds, from tanks to tanker trucks or those loaded with ammunition or supplies. There are also, although fewer, cars with families returning home with their belongings loaded once the Russians have been expelled. Burnt-out remains of armored vehicles occasionally lie in roadside ditches. In the urban area, the city is almost deserted and, although there is damage to some buildings, the fighting has not been as intense as in other parts of Ukraine.
The largest crowd in the square occurs when a humanitarian organization arrives with a truck to distribute aid to the inhabitants. A hundred people of all ages, although mostly women, crowd together and put their elbows in and raise their hands up so as not to be left without their package. Three kids of about 10 or 12 years of age move away with their own and immediately open them on a bench to check what they bring. Tatiana, 53, a worker at a hospice that is now closed, turns around when she sees the tumult.
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Neighbors interviewed in the area, such as Lidia, 83, or Helena, 49, and the kyiv government, denounce that after the Ukrainian offensive, the Russians’ flight has been plagued by abuses. “The behavior here has been very similar to what they developed in the kyiv region (where they left at the end of March). They took everything they could and left the territory mined”, denounces the Deputy Minister of Defense in Balakliia.
Going downhill, on a street that leaves from the square, you come to an esplanade next to the houses where the neighbors buried those who were the last two dead during the occupation. Petro Shepel, born in 1973, and Vasiliy Chernov, in 1963, were in a car when they ran into a Russian military checkpoint, who shot at them. It was Tuesday of last week, September 6. Neighbors found them in the vehicle the next day and buried them where they have now been unearthed by war crimes investigators already working in the liberated areas. The two bodies present shots, according to police sources. Taken out of the pit and already in black plastic bags, they are introduced in a van.
Little by little, the abuses committed over these six months are being uncovered. The headquarters of the Russian troops in Balakliia was based at the central police station. Everything is still upside down there, with remains including excrement, burnt mattresses and rotten food. In the corridor of the cells, with iron doors with a small window higher than the height of the face, there are a couple of cots and an approximate space of two by three meters in each room where seven inmates fit in as best they could. Artyom remembers it with pain, who was arrested for being the brother of a soldier. “They interrogated us with electric shocks for a long time. For about an hour and a half they tortured people. There was also a big fan that was on most of the time, but they turned it off while they were torturing, so that screams could be heard in all the cells. It was easy for you to lose your mind all the time between four walls listening to all this, ”he recounts in front of the police station.
The visit to Balakliia, the first of its kind in territory abandoned these days by the Russians, has been organized by the Ukrainian authorities. Officially, reporters cannot access this liberated zone by their own means. With the excuse of maintaining the security of the informants, they are taken and brought back on a short leash. At times, the tour was a real safari with journalists, more than a hundred, trying to record and photograph through the glass what they considered interesting. “This is not recorded, this is not recorded!”, one of those responsible shouted at mid-morning with all the cameras ready on the shoulder when he saw three tanks coming. As the procession passed, groups of Ukrainian soldiers raised their fists in victory, seeking, however, the reporters’ targets.
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