After six months of Russian occupation, the inhabitants of Izium regained their freedom.
Two 74-year-olds, Lyubov and Lidia, look along the street. Lidia previously worked in a hospital. Her simple commanding posture, hands clasped behind her back, and calm and composed voice, reveal that Lyubov was a teacher. She had formerly taught Ukrainian in one of the local schools.
The rays of the setting sun fall on the street where they manage to break through the urban sprawl and trees. More of them break through now, because many buildings in this district have been destroyed during the fighting. Like the one Lyubov and Lydia are standing next to, which is burnt to the ground.
On another can be seen the words: “Izium – a city of genuine emotions.”
Our boys are coming
The neighbors went out to watch, because they were overjoyed that the Ukrainian state had returned to their city. It had just come back recently. When Lyubov and Lydia stood there in the street, the Russians had only been out of Izium for four days.
“Our boys are coming. I can feel their aura,” says Lyubov.
A troop of men in uniforms walks down the street. They are not met with furtive crooked glances, only smiles, tears and warm words. The inhabitants, or at least a significant part of those who stayed in the city, had been waiting for the Ukrainian army to return to Izium, where 48,000 people lived until the Russian invasion on February 24.
Izium is the key and most symbolically important achievement of the Ukrainian counter-offensive, as a result of which the Russian army was crushed and forced to flee chaotically from almost all of the areas it controlled in the Kharkiv region over the course of a few days.
Lyubov argues that it was not only the blue and yellow flags that returned, but something more.
“Yesterday I was walking across the square, and people were out for strolls. This hasn’t happened for half a year! People sat in hiding, they were terribly afraid. People feel that something has changed,” says the retired teacher.
Namely, freedom has returned.
“We’re used to freedom. I go where I want, say what I want, and no one forbids me to do so. I couldn’t comprehend how to live in constant fear,” says Lyubov.
That’s why she can overlook that Izium today looks like one big battlefield, that nothing works there and crowds wait for humanitarian aid. Hope has returned that in some time life in Izium will begin to pulsate again.
Nights were the scariest
Izium was one of the targets of the Russians from the first days of the invasion. The road to important locations in the Donetsk oblast, such as Sloviansk or Kramatorsk, runs through the city. In March, fierce fighting took place over Izium, and it was then that the greatest destruction took place.
“They used everything they had. First the air force, then artillery, then the tanks did their job, and finally the infantry came in,” Lyubov says.
Residents have the worst memories of the planes.
“The scariest thing is when they bomb at night. You can’t see the planes, they whistle overhead, they drop a minimum of two hundred and fifty kilograms, it makes the house bounce,” says the 63-year-old photographer Mykola.
“Everyone seems to remember the planes. They bombed us fiercely. We sat in basements. We didn’t know where things would land. There is a four-story building nearby. It was one of the first to be hit, says Vladyslav, a 42-year-old grocery store owner.
According to Ukrainian authorities, 47 people, including children, were killed in that attack.
“Afterward there were dogs running around with torn off arms in their mouths,” adds Vladyslav.
It’s not fear, it’s humiliation
In the first days after the capture of Izium, there were Russian soldiers from the regular army in the city. Lyubov says that they were polite, did not cause problems and avoided conflict. They tried to find a common language. They wanted to be treated like fellow countrymen.
“But it was artificial. We felt it. First they bombed us, then they said: Vsyo budet horosho [everything will be fine],” he states.
Without windows in their houses and for a long time without access to water, electricity, or gas, they vegetated as best they could. The Russian army was quickly replaced by militants from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), subordinated to Moscow, as well as from the Federal Service of the National Guard of Russia, including the infamous Kadyrovites.
In 2014, the war in Donbas broke out, as a result of which at least 13,000 people died. Russian-backed separatists established two unrecognized republics, whose defense against Kyiv became the official reason for the Russian invasion eight years later. Although the front line in Donbas stabilized after 2015, there were regular clashes between the Ukrainian army and militants & Russians.
It was after the separatists and the national guard entered Izium that the attitude towards civilians changed dramatically. Lyubov remembers drunken men in uniform dragging rifles on the ground. One time they came to her house and fired bursts at the windows. There were people in the building. They hid, and when the bullets stopped flying, they came out to see what had happened. They just wanted to do some shooting. On a whim.
Chaos reigned and it seemed that no one was in control of the various factions in Izium. They made the inhabitants wear white armbands to show their loyalty.
“I didn’t so much feel fear, because at your age you are not so afraid anymore, but rather humiliation, because you are nobody in your own land and supposed to be constantly afraid. It was still frosty in March, and I went to the well to fetch water. If you were caught somewhere without a passport or a white armband, they treated you like a non-person.
Somebody just tell me I’m a separatist
In front of the empty shop lies a thermobaric rocket launcher with the faintly visible letter “Z” that Russian forces mark their vehicles with. The rockets stick out in a disorderly fashion.
Behind them, in front of the shop, sits Vladyslav on a chair placed outside, next to him is his wife Olena and their friend Nadiya.
They don’t pay attention to the destruction, the wreckage and the rockets, to the abandoned tank with the inscription “Allahu Akbar” on the barrel. This horror has become their everyday, and the life that is now returning is something unusual for them.
Vladyslav is an ethnic Russian, he grew up in the Donetsk oblast, in the territories that are currently occupied. His father is from the Kuban region. In the last years of the Soviet Union he served in the army in Ukraine and stayed here.
When a Russian soldier now told him that he was one of them, Vladyslav’s father replied: “For me, you are an occupier.”
Vladyslav and Olena did not leave the city, because the war entered Izium faster than they realized. They could only go to Russia and from there try to get somewhere else. But Vladyslav did not even want to think about departing for the country that had attacked his home.
“That’s why we stayed here, because this is our land,” he says today. “Just say to my face that I’m a separ, and after the school of life we’ve been through here, I won’t care about the law.”
“Separ” is a colloquial term for Russian separatists.
We suffered, now you suffer
People fighting on the Russian side broke into Władysław and Olena’s shop eight times. It was primarily done by those from the armed groups of the two unrecognized republics. They were the ones standing at the nearby checkpoint and hanging around the neighborhood.
Vladyslav is seething with anger, nervously playing with a drill. The couple complains that beatings, thefts and looting have become the norm over the past six months.
After regaining control of the area, the Ukrainian police found mass graves in one of the forests, where over 440 people were buried. At the time of writing, the bodies have not been identified.
In Vladyslav and Olena’s shop, the occupiers broke down the door, smashed the fridge, and came to drink wine. They even dug out a musty chicken and liver from the long-defunct refrigerator, the smell of which the couple can’t get rid of to this day.
“I used to work in law enforcement agencies, I used to conduct searches, but I’ve never made such a mess in my life,” says Vladyslav.
They also walked out with a white Puma baseball cap. Vladyslav was attached to it because he brought it home from his vacation in Egypt. But he knew that sooner or later he would see it again. A week later, at the police station, a fighter from the LPR was wearing it. Vladyslav came over, took it off the armed man’s head and scolded him.
Due to his temperament, Vladyslav constantly got into trouble. One time, the militants dug a trench near his shop, so he filled it in at night. He was arrested. They locked him up, beat him, and threatened to castrate him. Olena said they would give her husband back tomorrow so she could bury the body.
It was the citizens of Ukraine who sided with the unrecognized republics in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, who looked at the inhabitants of Izium with the greatest reluctance.
“The Russians hated us, that’s a fact. But it was those from the DNR and LNR who told us: we suffered for eight years, now you suffer,” says Vladyslav.
Wire on the pinky finger
The photographer Mykola lost his studio, as well as the cameras, lenses and lamps in it. A tank shell hit it and what was left was stolen by looters. Before the invasion, he photographed weddings and for advertisements.
Mykola remained in the city by himself. His daughter left first. He had told his wife to leave Izium in May, after he had returned from a week in detention that had left scars on his wrists.
It happened like this: in late April, two cars and a truck drove up to his house. About twenty men in uniform jumped out. They launched a drone to survey the area. Neighbors were thrown to the ground. They burst into his house. They searched everything. Later it turned out that one of the residents had reported that Mykola was making improvised explosives.
Why did the neighbor do this? Mykola doesn’t know. He doesn’t rule out that they forced him to, so he isn’t holding a grudge.
The uniformed men found nothing in his house. They confiscated Mykola’s two phones and a computer (later they gave back only the latter, but they removed the hard drive from it). They put handcuffs on him and then a bag over his head.
To this day, he does not know where they took him. However, he remembers well how they beat him. During interrogations, they wrapped his pinky fingers with wire and then connected them to electricity. They asked him if he loved Russia. He replied that he did not. When they called him “Khokhol” – a derogatory term for a Ukrainian in Russian – he corrected them that he was Ukrainian. He was hit hard for both.
They finally released him and left him alone.
Virtually nothing worked in the city. According to Mykola, the authorities established by the Russians talked a lot, but did not take any action. Only from time to time did electricity appear in his house. They also distributed humanitarian aid, which was taken advantage of by residents because it was difficult to get anything else apart from what grew in their own gardens.
“The authorities here acted in accordance with so-called Brownian motion. They were running, shouting, but nothing else besides,” says Mykola.
The Russians he talked to seemed to him to be people from another planet. They were surprised that there were washing machines and refrigerators in houses, that each house had its own toilet. One Russian asked him where to buy VHS tapes. Mykola replied that it was difficult even to obtain DVDs because no one had used such inventions for a long time.
He saw soldiers carrying women’s underwear and bras from someone’s house and packing them into cars.
“They took everything they saw,” concludes Mykola.
Tears after the storm
For months, the authorities in Kyiv announced that the Ukrainian army would go on a counter-offensive. However, they spoke only about the south of the country, where fighting is ongoing, especially over the Kherson oblast, which borders occupied Crimea.
But on Tuesday, September 6, the Ukrainians struck in the Kharkiv region, in the north-eastern part of the country. The Russians seemed completely surprised by this. Their defenses were broken and they had to flee, abandoning many serviceable vehicles, weapons and ammunition.
In less than a week, according to Kyiv, they lost 8,000 square kilometers. Before the Ukrainian army entered, at least several thousand people left these areas for Russia; some of them siding with the occupation authorities.
When the counter-offensive began, the Russians announced a curfew in Izium for several days. No one was allowed to leave the house 24/7. At that time, from dawn to dusk, there was a terrible bustle in the streets and you could hear the columns moving out.
Mykola says that when he looked out the window, he saw that some cars didn’t even have tires, and sparks were flying from under the rims. A stolen washing machine was attached to the armor of one of the tanks.
Finally, the city fell silent.
After that, no one controlled Izium for several hours. Only after some time did Mykola see an infantry fighting vehicle. Soldiers were walking next to them singing “the Red Viburnum” – a popular Ukrainian song that became a symbol of this war.
Oh, in the meadow a red kalyna has bent down low,
For some reason, our glorious Ukraine
is in sorrow,
And we’ll take that red kalyna and we will raise it up,
And, hey-hey, our glorious Ukraine,
We will cheer you up!
Mykola sang along with them. If he had been more sentimental, he definitely would have burst into tears.
People were leaning out of windows, going outside. They waved and shouted “Hello boys!” Smiles appeared on their faces.
Lured by the silence, Lyubov and Nadiya also went out into the street. They couldn’t hold back their tears.
They thought that they would not live to see the moment when Ukrainian soldiers appeared in the city again.