‘Things are still not safe’: Locals fear returning to devastated Kharkiv villages despite Russian retreat


Denis Kozmenko decided to flee his homeland with his young family after seeing how a young mother, who had taken refuge in a school during air raids, was kidnapped and raped by a Russian soldier.

He was among many Ukrainian men who decided to move their wives and daughters from the Russian-held village of Mala Rohan after the 27-year-old was horribly sexually assaulted.

“I saw what happened that night. This poor woman was taken away by this soldier in front of her family, dozens of people. That’s when I realized there was no security, no security at all,” said Mr. Kozmenko, who returned to the village after it was retaken by Ukrainian forces.

“We have a 14-year-old daughter and of course I was concerned. We left our homes the next day and my family hasn’t come since, I won’t be bringing them back for now, things are still not safe here for all sorts of reasons.”

The Independent reported the rape in Mala Rohan, near Kharkiv in north-eastern Ukraine, in late March amid reports of widespread sexual violence following the Russian invasion.

The first trial for rape during the conflict is scheduled to begin in Kyiv in the coming days. A Russian soldier named Mikhail Romanov has been charged in absentia with assaulting a woman after he shot her husband.

The victim, who has a five-year-old daughter, was stabbed in the attack, which began after a drunk Russian soldier broke into a village school where residents had taken refuge from fierce fighting.

The rapist, a 19-year-old soldier named Vladimir, was arrested and taken away by Russian forces after locals identified him. Russian officers then claimed that the attacker had been summarily executed.

Russian helicopter crashed in Kharkiv

(Ivan Kharyniak)

The victim’s family left the villager after the attack and has no intention of returning. Inna Schneider, her neighbor, said: “We don’t blame them at all, why do you want to go back to a place with such memories? The decision to move young women after that was correct, ten left of that very street. We have also heard stories about what has happened to women in other places.

“A lot of families are not coming back at the moment. They worry a lot, people don’t want to make a wrong choice and regret it, although the Russians are leaving.”

The failure to take Kharkiv, just 25 miles from the Russian border, dealt a severe blow to Vladimir Putin’s attempts to dismember Ukraine.

The country’s second-largest city, which is 74 percent Russian-speaking, fought off repeated attempts by Russian forces to storm it, then withstood a prolonged siege and relentless missile and artillery barrages.

Wreck of a car destroyed in fighting

(Ivan Kharyniak)

What is happening now is seen as a crucial turning point in the course of the war. Ukrainian forces pushed back the Russians and retook Mala Rohan and adjacent areas.

But people who fled these communities during the fighting are reluctant to go back. There are fears that the Russians may try to come back, as well as concerns about duds, mines, power and water shortages, and disease.

Russian bodies are still being found in fields and abandoned houses, some of which were placed in shallow graves by local people after authorities failed to remove them, and dug up by packs of dogs. The warm spring weather, with temperatures in the early 20s Celsius, has raised concerns about the spread of contagion.

Russian occupation and Ukrainian counterattacks took a deadly toll on the village. Many residents who died were buried in the gardens of their homes as the cemetery was too dangerous to access due to the fighting.

We saw bodies of Russian soldiers scattered in the alleys of the village and the fields beyond on our last visit and they are still being found. One, an officer judging by the chevrons on his combat jacket, lay in the basement of a house with a head wound and a Grach pistol in his hand.

“He was surrounded, he may have killed himself, that could have been it,” said a Ukrainian soldier. He didn’t want to search the body because he was afraid the dead man’s comrades might have booby-trapped it.

For days, a Russian body lay in front of the house of 87-year-old Vasily Gregorovich. “The first living Russian I saw was when I looked out the window, he tried to shoot me, but luckily he missed,” he recalls. “When they pulled out of here at the end, three more came and hid in my house. I went out and said it [Ukrainian] soldiers and they were arrested. They didn’t fight, they were taken away. I don’t know if they were responsible for crimes like what happened to this young woman.”

A Ukrainian police officer stands in the sports hall of a stricken school in Vilhivka


A little off, Yuri Sorokotigyan planted his kitchen garden with garlic, onions and potatoes. One spot, a hill, was marked with four metal sticks. “Russian dead, maybe half a dozen or so, they’re all in there,” he explained. “I saw hands, faces, badly burned. They were lying around in the field, dogs started eating them. They still come sniffing around, look! Officials say these bodies will be exhumed, but don’t say when.”

There were many signs of Russian material losses. Within a 500 meter radius were a BTR-80 infantry fighting vehicle cut in half, a T-72 tank that was directly hit by a drone and a Mi-17 helicopter that locals say was being attacked by Russian “friendly fire”. was shot down”.

In the cockpit of the former helicopter was a “12 Bar Value Pack” with KIND Nuts & Sea Salt chocolates, with the American manufacturer’s message on the packaging: “Our goal is to make KIND not just a brand, but also a brand make spirit and community to make the world a little kinder.”

“The chocolate was probably stolen from a Ukrainian household,” Mr Sorokotigyan said. “There wasn’t much kindness in that war. So many dead, destroyed houses, for what? We have friends, families in Russia. People used to cross the border to meet up all the time. and now they’re killing each other.”

Mr. Sorotigyan had served in Afghanistan and Germany as a soldier in the Soviet Army. “There were Ukrainians, Russians, Uzbeks, Georgians, all part of the same military. We knew who was on which side. Now we are being invaded and we have people from all these countries fighting in Ukraine. There will be a lot of anger even when this war is over,” he predicted.

All the anger isn’t just directed at the Russians. 46-year-old Pavlo Chiuko stood in front of his house destroyed by a rocket attack and complained: “I’m not bringing my family back. There are mines and bombs that have not been cleared. We also worry about diseases affecting our children, how can you leave dead bodies lying around without getting diseases?

“I have to rebuild my house by myself. There is no help from officials. We hold the local government responsible; Everyone disappeared when the Russians came, we had to take care of ourselves.”

However, not all officers had left. Valeryi, a judge, sent his family from Ukraine to Germany but stayed in the village of Vilhivka.

A local saw his tractor destroyed at a farm in Mala Rohan village


“At first we didn’t know what to expect. The tanks came out ahead of us and some soldiers came to talk to us. At first they seemed quite polite. Many of them were from the DNR [the separatist Donetsk Peoples Republic] and looked very young.

“Then there was a lot of fighting on the streets, and the Russians suffered heavy losses. They showed a different side to them as they retreated, they just opened fire as they passed those houses, it was just revenge,” he said, pointing to the walls of his own house, which were riddled with holes.

A family attempting to flee in a car was attacked, killing three women and two children. The bodies were left for days before being removed, with a dog that did not let rescue workers near the remains having to be shot.

The main school in Vilhivka is charred from the fighting. Olena Mikholaiva’s house across the street was destroyed; She now lives in an abandoned house nearby.

“I was lucky I was at an animal shelter when the house was hit,” she said. “I don’t know where I will end up, we get food from the helpers, so I don’t have to go hungry.”

Ms. Mikholaiva’s two children live outside the village, her daughter abroad. “I hope they come back here one day. Our family has lived in this area for over three hundred years, it is important that people keep their roots even in difficult times,” she wanted to emphasize. ‘Things are still not safe’: Locals fear returning to devastated Kharkiv villages despite Russian retreat

Bobby Allyn

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