According to locals, the recapturing battle of Vilkhivka took place at the end of March, but the Ukrainian army prohibited access to the area until a few days ago. A sign of newfound confidence, soldiers in tank tops are lying in the sun.
Symbolically, the inscription “Azov was there”, with the symbol of the Ukrainian regiment resembling the Nazi swastika, was affixed to one of the tanks next to the “Z” which had been painted there by Russian troops.
Dozens of houses in this village of around 2,000 inhabitants were gutted by shells, explosions or fires. We discover clothes, children’s toys, household appliances… The streets are strewn with debris, bullet casings and other remnants of ammunition. The massive two-story school was gutted by fire.
– “It was hell here” –
The body of a Russian soldier was still in the garden of the establishment on Saturday while in the gymnasium, apparently used as a dormitory by the Russians, we discover boxes of empty anti-tank ammunition, sleeping bags, instant pasta in a shambles where there is also a basketball and school books.
Detonations are regularly heard in the distance, without it being possible to know whether they are explosions caused by deminers or artillery fire.
Near the school, volunteers are distributing food to the handful of inhabitants who have remained. The Russians had occupied the area since the start of the war on February 24 and their offensive on Kharkiv, says Edgard Andressovitch, an electrician who has never left the village.
According to him, the Russians, who were already present, suddenly increased in power at the end of March (some inhabitants speak of March 26, others of March 25 or 24), investing the village and in particular the school. Most of the inhabitants fled at that time.
“The Russians told us: If your army doesn’t shoot, we don’t shoot. I asked them what they were doing there.
The next day, a deluge of fire descends on the city with intense fighting. “Little by little the village was destroyed. Too many shells. If you have never heard or seen that, you cannot understand. Houses have been obliterated”, protests Lyoubov Ivanivna, 70 years old. “It was horrible”.
“To be honest it was hell here. Our houses were exploding and burning. I saved mine by putting out a fire,” says Viktor Ivanovitch, slightly drunk, consoling himself from the damage and fear with alcohol .
Evguen Zagoumeny returned to “rebuild (his) house. We have to live somewhere. We are not going to live in the metro (in Kharkiv, where the inhabitants have taken refuge to protect themselves) forever”.
– Fear of a Russian return –
Sergueï Bilinikhine, carpenter, is already at work. “I feel like I don’t have a house anymore. Only the walls remain, no more windows or ceilings,” he says after nailing wooden planks to a window. “God permitting, I would have finished before the fall.”
“Why should I be sad? My walls held, neighbors lost everything… My family is alive, my children (two sons aged three and seven) are healthy,” he said.
If the Russians have left, the inhabitants are not reassured. The border is only about thirty kilometers away and Russian troops are still about ten kilometers from Kharkiv.
“It’s very close. They came here as if they were at home. I’m worried”, concedes Edgard Andressovitch, assuring however that he will stay “as long as he can”.
“The Russians are not good people. If I tell you what I think, it will beep-beep-beep (noise of censorship on TV). They can come back. I’m worried. They keep shooting” , launches Sergei, who did not give his name. “But I was born here. I grew up here. This is my motherland. I won’t leave. This is my whole life.”