Where Russians Retreated, Ukrainians Find Devastation

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KAMIANKA, Ukraine — Little moved in the village of Kamianka, except for a cat bolting from under the rubble of a destroyed house and metal roofing banging in the wind.

Serhii, a livestock farmer, sat slumped beside the burned ruins of his home.

“I came here in case I could find anything and to clear up a bit,” he said. “But there is nothing,” he said, gesturing with a sweep of his arm at the wreckage.

The scale of the destruction is staggering across hundreds of towns and villages recently vacated by Russian troops in the Kharkiv region of eastern Ukraine. The few residents who have traveled back into the war zone to check on their property, like Serhii and his wife, Iryna, often stand speechless with dismay before the devastation.

Throughout Ukraine, the war had destroyed or damaged about 120,000 houses and 16,000 apartment buildings by the end of September, according to the Kyiv School of Economics, which estimated overall physical damage at $127 billion. The World Bank, European Union and Ukrainian government have estimated recovery costs at about $350 billion.

For months Kamianka, which lies on a main highway, marked the front line between Russian and Ukrainian forces, and not a single building in the village escaped damage. Russian troops retreated last month in the face of a Ukrainian counteroffensive, leaving the village littered with unused Russian shells and mines, its wooden church burned to the ground, its school with gaping holes in its walls.

Ukrainian emergency services had just collected the remains of two civilians — Serhii’s neighbor, who was killed in a shell blast in March, and another man crushed in his car by a Russian tank on the main road around the same time. The Russian troops who had occupied the village since April had not bothered to bury the dead Ukrainians, Serhii said.

A neighbor, Oleksandr, 66, stopped by in his car and said there was another civilian lying dead in a cellar at the end of the village. Ukrainian engineers had not cleared mines from the village so no one could retrieve the body yet, he added.

For the Ukrainian authorities coming in to pick up the pieces and restore the local government, the task is both immense and still dangerous. Ukrainian troops and civilians have suffered casualties from mines, and Russian jets and artillery continue to bombard towns after withdrawing from them.

Russian S-300 missiles struck the town of Kupiansk, an important transport hub, repeatedly after Ukrainian troops recaptured it in late September. Three missiles hit a line of houses on the edge of Kupiansk earlier this month, Oct. 10, demolishing two homes and gouging yards-wide craters in a garden and the street.

“It was a huge explosion of tearing metal,” said Elena, 63, a disabled woman whose house burned down. She escaped, leading her neighbor, Anna, who is 87 and blind, down the stairs to take shelter in a barn.

“We lost everything, all our furniture, all our clothes, everything we owned,” she said.

The missiles may have been aimed at Ukrainian troops who had lodged briefly in the house next door, but the result has been to punish the civilian population and new administration.

The newly appointed mayor of Kupiansk, Andriy Besedin, 39, said the attacks were Russian forces taking revenge after being forced to cede a vast swath of territory.

“The calculation of the enemy is beyond common sense,” he said. “What they cannot take, they simply destroy.”

But he said the strikes were also part of a countrywide campaign by Moscow to target energy supplies and civilian life, to undermine the Ukrainian government and test support for the war.

“They shell the civilian population, destroy private houses, so people have nowhere to live, and you have to solve these issues — it is very difficult.”

Ukrainian officials are in a hurry, acutely conscious of the need to bring vital services to destroyed areas where people have been surviving with little food, medical help, water, gas or electricity.

They are also dealing with a sometimes hostile population that for six months was fed pro-Russian propaganda that incessantly blamed Ukraine for the artillery fire and hardship they have suffered.

In the town of Staryi Saltiv, women were ladling out soup into containers for a line of townspeople as other volunteers ran a generator for people to charge their cellphones. The town has been without electricity or running water since April, with no sign of a return of services yet, said Lyudmyla, 52.

She worked as a nurse at the local high school before the war, and started the soup kitchen on her return to the town a few weeks ago because she said people were hungry. The town was cut off by the fighting for months, she said, and residents had only survived thanks to their habit of self-sufficiency and keeping stores of food in their cellars.

“Some people had chickens and rabbits,” she added. “People were sharing a lot.”

But even if the roads had opened and food assistance was starting to arrive, she said she feared people could not survive the winter without utilities, in particular residents of the high-rise apartment buildings on the edge of town.

Officials across the region almost universally answered with one word to describe their greatest challenge: “Winter.”

In the city of Izium, where 18,000 residents lived through the Russian occupation and the fighting, the administration has managed to reconnect electricity and water in most neighborhoods, the mayor, Valerii Marchenko, said.

He warned people that the government would be able to repair the central heating for only one-third of the city’s apartment complexes. Yet most residents, many of them seniors who had stayed throughout the war, were still refusing to leave, he said.

“They understand they will not have heating,” Mr. Marchenko said. “But they do not want to evacuate even though we are offering the opportunity.”

The city was working on a solution to install wood stoves or electric heaters so residents could at least heat one room in their apartments, he said. “It’s the only possibility because they do not want to leave.”

There is a hardiness verging on obstinacy on display among residents who have survived the war sheltering in their basements and cellars.

“The mood is good,” said Yegor, 16, gulping down his lunch from a soup kitchen.

“There’s no shelling — electricity and gas are back on,” he said. “All we need is the internet.”

He and his friend Denys, 15, were going around town using temporary internet hubs provided by volunteers and as they were passing had joined the lunch line on a side street.

A few blocks away a group of neighbors sat chatting on benches in the courtyard of their apartment beside a collection of makeshift wood stoves made out of rusty buckets and small grills. It was only the third day, after six months, that they did not have to cook on the outdoor stoves, thanks to the restoration of electricity, one of the women, Svetlana, said happily.

“For two months we did not have a crumb,” said her neighbor, Lyudmyla, who was wrapped up in a fur-trimmed coat and gloves. Russian soldiers gave them bread and rations twice a week, otherwise they would not have survived, she said.

A retired teacher, Lyudmyla, did not criticize Russia but reserved her greatest complaints for the Ukrainian mayor and his officials who she said had evacuated the city in March and left the remaining residents without recourse.

“Why is the mayor who betrayed us allowed back?” she asked. “He fled and left us with nothing.”

The mayor, Mr. Marchenko, said he was well aware of the complaints.

“Many people have not recovered from the Russian agitation,” he said. “The Russians were saying that Ukraine abandoned you and the government ran away and did not provide you with any help when in fact it was the Russians who did not allow a humanitarian corridor.”

The solution, he said, was to deliver services to the people faster and better than the Russians had. “All we can do is show that Ukraine is better.”

Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting from the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions.

Sumber: www.nytimes.com

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