Death lingers in a village liberated by Russian forces

AWhen fighting broke out, Lubov Novikova panicked and rushed home. She almost made it to her front door when the Russian tank opened fire. The first shell landed in the road ahead, knocking her to the ground; the second killed her instantly.

The 78-year-old, born in the Russian city of Kursk, lay on the street for six hours, the intensity of the bombing making it impossible to recover the body. Eventually her son Gennady and his two friends Evgeny Sholomiy and Slava Ivanov carried her to one of the few houses left on their street.

The three men also took her to the village cemetery the next morning. A missile hit the cemetery while the hasty burial was taking place. Evgeny was killed. Slava was taken home, bleeding profusely from shrapnel wounds. he died that evening.

Much of this village of Vilkhivka, near Kharkiv, was razed to the ground in months of intense fighting as it changed hands between Russian and Ukrainian forces. In many streets every house was hit. The school and the medical clinic were destroyed. The blasts continue with ongoing fighting in the surrounding areas as the Russians try to retake ground they recently lost.

Trials against Russian troops accused of war crimes have now begun in Ukraine. The first in Kyiv were charged with rape and murder. Prosecutors in Kharkiv have now filed charges of civilian deaths from indiscriminate bombing. Two Russian soldiers, Aleksandr Bobykin and Aleksandr Ivanov, have pleaded guilty to “breaking the rules of war” while serving as members of a missile unit in a court near the city

Other possible war crimes are being investigated, including the deportation of civilians and sexual assaults.

As in many other occupied territories, residents of Vilkivka were forcibly “evacuated” to Russia. There were also, locals say, a number of sexual assaults on women by Russian and DNR forces [separatist Donetsk republic] stationed there.

Foxholes abandoned by Russian forces near the village of Vilkhivka

(Ivan Kharyniak)

These threats, combined with the danger posed by ongoing fighting, caused many of the villagers to flee, keeping the civilian death toll as low as it could have been. According to Ukrainian forces, around 90 Russians were killed in the final recapture of Vilkivka. Ukrainian casualties are not known.

Much of the damage, villagers say, occurred as Russian and DNR troops were forced to retreat. “It was defiance, just defiance, they lost, had to leave and just opened fire on people, houses, that’s how Lubov was killed,” says Yuri Petrenko, 46, one of her neighbors. “A tank stopped at the end of this street, saw that the name of the street was in Ukrainian, and fired a shell that destroyed the sign and the house the sign was attached to.”

Two miles from the cemetery — a quiet hilltop spot covered with spring flowers and pine trees and holes measured by blasts — are Russian foxholes. Dead bodies still lie there, decomposing. A Russian translation of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is found in a hole alongside a sleeping bag, food packages, a pink purse and a broken bottle of brandy. The bodies are said to have been taken to the Kharkiv morgue by Ukrainian authorities.

A foxhole abandoned by Russian troops near the village of Vilkhivka

(Ivan Kharyniak)

Some were buried by villagers, a shallow burial. Andrei Danilyuk found two dead Russian soldiers in his field while returning home after fleeing the worst of the shelling. He was told there would be a delay before they could be picked up.

“The corpses had been there for a few days, animals had started feeding on them, and in this hot weather I was worried about diseases,” says Mr Danilyuk.

“The same bombing that killed the soldiers also killed some of my cattle. We threw them all into the same grave, the Russians and the cattle, what else should we do?”

In parts of the village, the stench of death rises from the rubble.

Vasiliya Kirilev knows that something or someone is under her former kitchen, but does not know who or what. “I’m just grateful that I know it’s not a member of our family, we were able to escape during the occupation,” she says.

Ms Kirilev, 55, and her husband Nicolai, 62, are having to rebuild the house they have lived in for 30 years. Meanwhile, they sleep in a shed in their garden that previously housed goats, ducks, and chickens.

Vasilia Kirilev points to the remains of her house in Vilkhivka near Kharkiv

(Demian Schewko)

The Ukrainian military conducts searches for mines and duds. “We started planting the fields, starting with parsley, onions and spring barley, but only up to this point,” says Ms. Kirilev, pointing to the fields. “After that there are duds and we should stay away, they say.”

But the problems faced now need to be put into context by comparing them to what happened before, stresses Ms Kirlilev.

“Girls, women were afraid to go out, we know about rape. The families who suffered have now walked away. Then they started busing people to Russia, some ended up in Siberia, we heard,” she says.

“There was a man, a former soldier who had served in Afghanistan [Soviet] Army. He was in his late 50s, the DNR soldiers wanted him to join them. He refused and was taken away by bus. In the afternoon when that happened, we got together with another family and left that place in a car.”

Vasilia Kirilev and her husband will live in their animal pen until they can rebuild their house in Vilkivka, which was destroyed by the Russians

(Demian Schewko)

The couple moved to the city of Poltava, taking with them only the bare essentials. “Our village was very beautiful, we had water, electricity, good internet, we had enough to eat, we had a good life,” says Mr. Kirilev. “Then we became refugees and now we have no house, no water, no electricity and have to live with our animals. That’s what this war meant for us.”

Asked whether shelling and rocket attacks on civilian areas should be prosecuted as war crimes, Ms Kirilev replied: “We know that people are responsible and of course there should be justice. I don’t know what will happen, will they stay in prison or be exchanged for our soldiers that the Russians have, who knows?”

Yuri Petrenko mourns Lubov Novikova’s death and the two young men killed at her funeral.

“What happened was terrible,” he says. “We should be thankful that more people weren’t killed. I can understand why people’s punishment is called for, but will these trials bring people back to life? No.” Death lingers in a village liberated by Russian forces

Bobby Allyn

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