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Russian troops withdrew completely from the Sumy region of northeastern Ukraine earlier this month – locals are now assessing the death and ruin they left behind.
“Tragically, we find corpses of civilians every day. Bodies that show signs of torture, hands and feet tied up, bodies that have been beaten and bruised, broken and fractured bodies. After all this, these people were usually shot in the head,” Sumy Oblast Governor Dmytro Zhyvytskyy told POLITICO in a phone call.
Authorities have identified more than 120 civilians killed during the occupation.
Sumy was one of the first areas stormed when Russia launched its latest invasion of Ukraine on February 24. This attack stalled, and after weeks of fierce fighting, Russian forces withdrew to concentrate on the Donbass region to the south.
Last week, Zhyvytskyy announced that the “orcs are gone” – using the pejorative term Ukrainians have adopted for Russian soldiers. He advises people not to return home until the area has been cleared of mines and traps left by invaders.
“When the Russians were driven out of this area, they planted landmines everywhere. In Trostianets they even put mines in the cemetery, for some reason,” he said, referring to a town of 20,000 people just 40 kilometers from the Russian border that served as a base for the Russians.
“It’s not safe to go home. Every day, landmines and unexploded shells are still neutralized on our streets,” said Yuliia Klymenko, a 26-year-old from Trostianets.
Zhyvytskyy described the horrors of occupation in a war launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin with the ostensible aim of freeing Ukraine from the Nazis.
“They were shooting at people in the streets,” Zhyvytskyy said. “To begin with, it could be for as little as having a cell phone in your hand. Later, they would shoot anyone and everyone indiscriminately. People who wanted to bury bodies were not allowed Either the bodies lay in the streets or the neighbors took them to their yards and gardens and buried them there.”
The governor, appointed to the post in June, also said Russian troops looted Ukrainian towns, stealing “everything they could” before leaving.
“Locals say it was impossible to tell the difference between a tank and an APC [armored personnel carrier], because they were all littered with things – refrigerators, chairs, etc. “, he said. “Pensioners, ladies in their eighties, had their blankets stolen, as well as ragged and worn carpets that were 30 years old. They stole animals – sheep, cattle, etc. They stole roofing sheets, they fixed these things on their vehicles and left.
Meanwhile, Russian forces dumped the bodies of their own dead soldiers. “They couldn’t even take back their own bodies. Instead, they stole all kinds of bric-a-brac. It says a lot about their character,” Zhyvytskyy said.
Although the Russians have retreated across the border from Sumy, Zhyvytskyy fears they will return if they manage to defeat the Ukrainian army in what is seen as a crucial battle in the Donbass region.
“It will not only be a battle for Donbass. It will be a battle for the future of European civilization,” Zhyvytskyy said. “If we lose Ukraine, they won’t stop. They will continue, threatening the rest of the world.
The region needs “a new Mannerheim line”, Zhyvytskyy said, referring to the fortifications and strongpoints used with great success by Finland when it was attacked by the Soviet Union in 1939.
“At the border, we need defense points, turrets, minefields and trenches. All of this must be state-of-the-art, reliable. We also need an air defense system,” Zhyvytskyy said.
For that to happen, Ukraine needs much more help from the West, Zhyvytskyy said, echoing pleas from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other politicians.
“The whole world is not doing enough. They do not react adequately. With the sanctions, the decisions came too slowly. It’s so disappointing,” he said.