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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Returning to a retaken village, Ukrainians face the reality of destruction

Inspecting the damage to the Zakharchenko family’s property in the recently recaptured village of Yatskivka.

By Carlotta Gall

As Ukrainian tanks and howitzers rumbled through the main intersection in this village on their way to the front Tuesday, members of a family stood with shocked faces before the wreckage of their property.

Every building around them was damaged or flattened by war. The family’s two sturdy brick stores and café-bar lay smashed and looted. Their house was gutted by fire, the motel rooms behind it ransacked.

“I don’t know how to fix this,” the owner, Nikolai Zakharchenko, 78, said as he looked at the destruction. “We don’t have the means,” his wife, Veronika, 76, added.

The Zakharchenkos were one of the first families to return to this quiet country village in Donetsk province surrounded by fir forests, which was retaken by Ukrainian troops less than two weeks ago in a sweeping counteroffensive that has broken Russian control of huge swaths of territory in northeastern Ukraine.

Yet amid the euphoria of reclaiming their lands and homes, Ukrainians are only just beginning to understand the scale of the damage the war has wrought after first Russian troops attacked and occupied the area, and then Ukrainian forces mounted a counteroffensive last month.

Zakharchenko had brought a bag of keys to the doors of their property, but everything had already been broken open — the windows shattered, the doors blown apart. The family members had fled without possessions but came back to an empty home and destroyed businesses, and they would not be able to stay. Someone — probably Russian soldiers, they guessed — had stolen even the beds, Nikolai Zakharchenko said.

Russian planes bombed the village in March, causing a great conflagration that burned for a day and a night, villagers said. But gradually things quieted down, one man, Oleksandr, 48, said.

The Russians occupied empty houses, fixed the electricity and paid residents to clean the streets. They handed out food packets and canned meat to those, like Oleksandr, who had no work. “They would throw packets to us,” he said. “They had more cans than bullets.”

Then, in September, Ukrainian troops began advancing, and the two armies shelled each other’s positions. The fighting lasted two days, and this time Ukrainian tank and artillery fire destroyed more of the village, Oleksandr said. Most of the Russian troops pulled out, but they left a small force holding positions. Gunbattles raged through the night as the Ukrainians attacked, and the next morning they heard Ukrainian voices in the street.

The back-and-forth of the fighting strained residents to the limit. Svetlana, a kindergarten teacher, said columns of Russian troops and armor withdrew down the road for more than 12 hours on the night of Sept 9. The Russians left some units manning positions in the village, and residents huddled in their cellars for 12 more days as artillery fire whined overhead toward the village beyond before the Ukrainians moved in to attack.

“This is a resort village; people come here to relax,” Svetlana said. “But they turned it into a gray zone.”

Her husband, Oleh, 54, a construction worker, butted in with an appeal to the presidents of both Russia and Ukraine. “Please calm down,” he said. “Let people live in peace. Why do our people have to die?”

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