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‘Things are still not sure’: Residents fear returning to battered Kharkiv villages despite Russian withdrawal

DEnis Kozmenko decided to flee his home with his young family after seeing a young mother, who had taken refuge in a school during airstrikes, being trained to be raped by a Russian soldier.

He was among many Ukrainian men who decided to move their wives and daughters out of the village of Mala Rohan, which was under Russian occupation, after the horrific sexual assault on the 27-year-old woman.

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

“We have a 14 year old daughter, and of course I was worried. We left our homes the next day and my family hasn’t been back since. I’m not going to bring them back at the moment, it’s still not safe here, for all sorts of reasons.

The Independent reported the rape in Mala Rohan, near Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine, in late March, as reports began to emerge of large-scale sexual violence following the Russian invasion.

The first trial for rape during the conflict is due to open in kyiv in the coming days. A Russian soldier, named Mikhail Romanov, will be charged in absentia with assaulting a woman after shooting her husband dead.

The victim, who has a five-year-old daughter, was stabbed in the attack which began after a drunken Russian soldier burst into a school in the village where residents had taken refuge during heavy fighting .

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

Russian helicopter shot down in Kharkiv

(Ivan Kharyniak)

The victim’s family left the village after the attack and have no intention of returning. Inna Schneider, their next door neighbour, said: “We don’t blame them at all, why would you want to come back to a place with such memories? The decision to move the young women afterwards was right, ten just left of that road. We have also heard stories of what has happened to women elsewhere.

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

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

The country’s second-largest city, 74% Russian-speaking, fought back against repeated attempts by Russian forces to storm it, then withstood a prolonged siege and relentless missile and artillery fire.

Wreckage of a car destroyed in the middle of the fighting

(Ivan Kharyniak)

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

But people who fled these communities during the fighting are reluctant to return. There are fears that the Russians will try to return and there are also worries about unexploded ordnance, mines, lack of electricity and water, and disease.

Russian corpses are still being found in fields and abandoned houses, some that were put in shallow graves by locals, after authorities failed to remove them, were dug up by packs of dogs . Warm spring weather, with an early temperature of 20 degrees Celsius, has raised concerns about the spread of contagion.

Russian occupation and Ukrainian counterattacks have taken their toll on the village. Many deceased residents were buried in the gardens of their homes, the cemetery being too dangerous to attempt to reach due to the fighting.

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

“He was surrounded, he may have committed suicide, it could have been that,” said a Ukrainian soldier. He didn’t want to search the body, fearing that the dead man’s comrades had set him up.

A Russian corpse had remained for several days in front of the house of Vasilyi Gregorovich, 87. “The first living Russian I saw was when I was looking out the window, he tried to shoot me, luckily he missed,” he recalls. “As they retreated by the end, three more came to hide in my house. I came out and told the [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 policeman stands inside the sports hall of a battered school in Vilhivka

(AFP/Getty)

A little further, Yuri Sorokotigyan was planting his vegetable garden with garlic, onions and potatoes. A patch, a mound, was marked by four metal rods. “Russian dead, maybe half a dozen, they’re all in there,” he explained. “I saw hands, faces badly burned. They were hanging out in the field, the dogs started eating them. They still come to sniff, look! Officials say those bodies would be exhumed, but they don’t say when.

There were many signs of Russian material losses. Within a radius of 500 meters were a bisected BTR-80 armored personnel carrier, a T-72 tank which had been directly hit by a drone and an Mi-17 helicopter which locals said was shot down by Russian “friendly fire”. ”.

In the cockpit of what had been the helicopter was a “12-bar pack” of KIND Nuts & Sea Salt chocolates, with a message on the pack from its American makers: “Our goal is to make KIND not just a brand but also a state of mind and community to make the world a little kinder.

“The chocolate was probably stolen from a Ukrainian house,” Mr Sorokotigyan said. “There hasn’t been a lot of kindness in this war. So many deaths, houses destroyed, what for? We have friends, families, in Russia. People crossed the border to meet all the time. and now they are killing each other.

Mr. Sorotigyan had served in Afghanistan and Germany as a soldier in the Soviet army. “There were Ukrainians, Russians, Uzbeks, Georgians who were all part of the same army. We knew who was on which side. Now we are 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 is not only directed at the Russians. In front of his house destroyed by a missile strike, Pavlo Chiuko, 46, complains: “I am not bringing my family back. There are mines and bombs that have not been cleared. We are also worried about the diseases that affect our children, how can we leave corpses without diseases breaking out?

“I will have to rebuild my house myself. There is no help from officials. We blame the local government for this; all disappeared when the Russians arrived, we had to take care of ourselves.

However, not all officials had left. Valeryi, a judge sent his family out of Ukraine to Germany but remained in the village of Vilhivka.

A local man saw his tractor destroyed on a farm in the village of Mala Rohan

(EPA)

“At first we didn’t know what to expect. The tanks arrived on the road ahead and soldiers came to talk to us. They seemed quite civil at first. Many of them were DNR [the separatist Donetsk Peoples Republic] and looked very young.

“Then there was a lot of fighting on the road and the Russians took heavy casualties. They showed them another side when they retreated, they just opened fire as they passed these houses, it was just revenge,” he said, pointing to the hole-riddled walls of his own home.

A family trying to escape in a car was attacked, killing three women and two children. The bodies were left for days before being removed, with a pet dog that would not let emergency service workers near the remains to be put down.

Vilhivka’s main school was charred by the fighting. Olena Mikholaiva’s house across the road was destroyed; she now lives in an abandoned house nearby.

“I’m lucky I was in a shelter when the house was hit,” she said. “I don’t know where I’m going to end up staying, we get food from the aid workers so I’m not hungry.”

Mrs. Mikholaiva’s two children live far from the village, her daughter abroad. “I hope they will come back here one day. Our family has lived in this region for more than three hundred years, it is important that people keep their roots even in difficult times,” she insisted.


The Independent Gt

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