In a field in Malaya Rohan, southeast of Kharkiv, lies the partly charred wreck of a Russian helicopter. Valentin, a villager, takes his young son to visit the wreckage, and the child explores the strange craft, first with circumspection, then he starts running from one side to the other and asking questions.
The only part still intact is the tail, on which the white “Z” of the Russian Armed Forces stands out. Valentin explains that the helicopter has been there for at least three weeks, “but at that time the village was empty, everyone had left.”
Between bombed-out roads and village homes, there is hardly anyone to be seen: the one family we encounter looks at us with suspicion, and when they see we are “press” they nod their heads and hurry back into their home, closing the iron gate behind them. Their house is almost completely intact except for the windows, which no longer have window panes. Their neighbors have it worse: some houses are missing walls, others have holes in their roofs, and many are burned out.
It often happens that old houses catch fire after bombings, and when that occurs, only pieces of rock wool or other insulation remain attached to the dangling rafters, while in what’s left of the rooms, the few surviving objects are indistinguishable in the sooty blackness that covers everything.
Between one house and another, there are destroyed Russian tanks, with the turret separated from the body of the vehicle and the tracks ripped open. You can look inside some of them and see nothing more than a tangle of molten metal and wreckage. Nearby are small light gray spots on the ground, like puddles of molten metal; these are the lighter metal alloys that liquefy due to combustion, drip out and mix with the soil. “Imagine the tank driver,” a colleague told us a few days ago, “trapped like a rat in an oven. What a horrible way to go.”
At the foot of a hill, a large barn served as a makeshift barracks. Inside were sleeping bags, military uniforms and dozens of boxes of Russian army rations. The soldiers had even built themselves a small shooting gallery with an empty ammunition box and old newspapers. There are signs of a hasty retreat, but even more signs of later people rummaging through, opening all the boxes and crates and leaving only the unusable items on the ground.
Next to a bed is a Russian newspaper with Putin’s face on the front page and a quote from him about the May 9 parade. If it was actually true, as many believed in the West, that by that date the Russian president wanted to present some kind of trophy to his people, if not victory, today the situation seems very far from that scenario.
In the Kharkiv region, the Ukrainians have managed to go on the counterattack. The regional capital, which with 1.5 million inhabitants was the second most populous city in Ukraine, is only 50 kilometers from the Russian border and has never been occupied.
All around it, however, the city was almost surrounded by a siege. “Almost” – as Oleg, a now unemployed waiter who worked downtown, tells us, that was because “they would have preferred that the civilians all evacuate to limit the casualties during the shelling.” However, passing through Saltivka, northeast of downtown, the notion of Russians having such concerns is hard to believe: buildings here are missing entire floors, many facades have been blackened by flames, stores and kiosks along the sidewalks are nothing more than smashed roofs, broken glass, and remnants of machinery or various products.
There are still charred vehicles on the roadway, and halfway down the driveway leading out of town, toward Tsyrkuny, a piece of cardboard with black lettering reads “mines.” Just beyond, the road is closed, a row of tank obstacles alternates with one of barbed wire, and there are also occasional concrete bollards. This is the image of a city trying to defend itself after being hit hard.
The same road, just outside the urban ring, turns into a provincial road and passes through Tsyrkuny, Rusky Tyskhky and four other villages before reaching the Russian border. These small towns are important because they have been recaptured by the Ukrainian army just in the last three days. One can pass through Tsyrkuny now, but Rusky Tyskhky isn’t safe yet. In other areas, such as Derhaci, territory is still contested, but the trend remains the same. The counteroffensive is advancing, not as triumphantly as some media have portrayed it, but it is moving forward.
This in itself is already extraordinary, considering the proximity of Russian territory and the possibility of the invaders’ troops being resupplied and receiving reinforcements. One wonders if indeed the Kremlin is so disinterested in this area as to let the Ukrainians recapture so quickly what it cost them so much effort to occupy. Not least because this trend is widespread, including in villages southeast and north of Kharkiv.
In Vilkhivka, for example, between Tsyrkuny and Malaya Rohan, among the cottages of the well-to-do who could afford a private pier and extravagant architecture, the bodies of Russian soldiers are still lying out in the open. In the center of the village there is a body lying prone at the foot of a charred truck; along the road, two more bloated bodies are lying in an advanced state of decomposition on the grassy verge, and near a dirt path there is a mass grave with 11 bodies. The fact that they are Russians is clear from their clothing: some even have Soviet Union insignia on their belt buckles.
It looks like some of them could have been shot in the head, but in their state it is impossible, at least for a journalist, to reconstruct the true story. What is clear is that the Ukrainians are regaining ground and that the Russian soldiers are once again being left to their own devices by their generals, whether dead or alive.
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