TSENTRALNE, Ukraine — Relatives hug each other in the middle of the road. They clasped each other’s hands and tears welled up in their eyes. Others sobbed outside their homes. All have longed for this moment – to be reunited with their loved ones after Russian troops withdrew from their village in southern Ukraine.
Families were torn apart when Russia invaded in February, as some fled and others shrunk. Now, many are meeting for the first time in months, after Moscow’s latest withdrawal amid a Ukrainian counter-offensive aimed at retaking a swath of territory between the regional capitals Kherson and Mykolaiv and the Black Sea.
The most significant withdrawal has been from the city of Kherson itself, but troops have also retreated from neighboring villages in recent days. The Associated Press visited four such villages this week and saw people reunite with loved ones.
“This is just an explosion,” Andriy Mazuryk said. The 53-year-old left his mother in the village of Tsentralne in April and fled about 30 kilometers away.
His mother didn’t want to leave, but Mazuryk had a son in the Ukrainian army and was worried the Russians would kill him. He said that even though the occupying army confiscated people’s phones, Mazuryk still managed to talk to his mother and other relatives almost every day because they were secretly calling.
“Thank God we are still in daily contact… the relatives who took the risk,” he said.
According to local authorities, more than half a million people have left the Mykolaiv and Kherson regions since February, although exact numbers are difficult to calculate. It is not clear how many have returned.
While some, like Mazuryk, had only a short way back home, others were already traveling from across the country when they learned the Russians had left. Igor, a soldier, gets a break from fighting in the hard-hit Donbas region so he can see his family.
Jumping out of a truck in the village of Vavylove, Igor hugged his mother waiting for him in the middle of the road. “I know that it will happen, that we will win and our whole land will be liberated,” Igor said, on condition that he only use his name as the soldiers’ common names. Ukraine because of security concerns.
Some villagers said they were surprised at how quickly the Russians left. After Russia announced the partial mobilization of about 300,000 reservists in September, locals say thousands more troops poured into the area and exploited a lot.
Some say that in the weeks leading up to the retreat, Russian soldiers hoarded equipment and dug trenches, making it look as if they were going to stay.
While most people say that Russians live self-contained, living conditions under their occupation are dire: Electricity, water, and phone service are cut off. The broken bridges made it difficult to move between villages to buy and sell food. And mines lurk everywhere.
The Russians are gone – but those problems remain.
Oleh Pylypenko, head of the administration of the villages visited by the AP, said there have been at least a dozen accidents involving landmines in recent days.
Speaking to residents in each town on Sunday as local volunteers distributed food aid, Pylypenko warned people not to let their children play in the abandoned trenches and promised he would restore them. Restore electricity, water and communications as soon as possible.
As winter approaches, aid groups warn that it is crucial to restart such services quickly. “We must act quickly to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe during the winter months,” said Saviano Abreu, spokesman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Ukraine.
However, most people in the village said they are not too worried about the future. They are glad that the Russians are gone.
Galina Voinova, a resident of Znamianka village, said: “This is the first night I can’t sleep. Since February, she has fallen asleep because of the shelling.
But the anguish of the profession isn’t over for everyone.
Tatiyana Pukivska’s husband was detained by the Russians because they were informed that he was providing the Ukrainian military with the coordinates of their location, she said. The 41-year-old resident of Tsentralne said she hadn’t seen him since, as she wiped tears from her cheeks.
Standing nearby, her mother-in-law dried up her tears.
“Oh my God, it’s horrible,” said Lesia Pukivska, holding a photo of her son’s ID card. “I feel that he is alive and that he will return home. If only someone can help us, we are powerless.
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