IZIUM, Ukraine – The school is a ruin. Its six-month life as a Russian base and mechanical shop ended in August with a Ukrainian missile strike.
Izium’s youth education years are over, but it has one final gift for residents who need it so much: the wood that makes up its latticework, its chalkboard, furniture, and beams.
Some elderly residents – some already stocked with gloves, sturdy woven bags and hand tools – came to pick up firewood from the rubble on Monday. It will be months, if not longer, before meaningful electricity, gas, and running water are restored, and a chill has set in.
This city in the far east of Ukraine was one of the first to be occupied by Russian troops after the war began on February 24, and it became a command center for them. By early March, Izium was isolated – no cell phones, no heat, no electricity. The residents do not know what is happening in the war, whether their loved ones are still alive, whether there is a Ukraine left.
They were liberated in a quick counterattack on 10 September that swept through the Kharkiv area, and that continued to the south, near Kherson. But residents are still buoyed by the embarrassment and grief of their profession, whose brutality gained worldwide attention last week after the discovery of one of the mass graves. greatest in the war.
“We have nothing. We are gathering firewood to boil water to make tea and cook porridge. Look at my hands! I am 75 years old and this woman is even older than me. We are afraid of winter,” said Oleksandra. Lysenko, standing on a pile of bricks, said, “My grandchildren have come to this school and I am robbing it.”
A man nearby piled a crumpled car hood onto his bicycle. He plans to use the spray-painted part with the letter Z representing the Russian army, to cover the open window frame.
When the war began nearly seven months ago, about half of Izium’s approximately 40,000 inhabitants fled, some of whom went to Russia. The rest hid in basements or behind the thickest walls they could find. Russian soldiers hand out some food, but rarely enough.
People with battery-powered radios discover that the only signal is a Russian propaganda station, giving them lies about how Ukrainian cities have fallen, how their government has abandoned them. and how they will be tried as collaborators if the Ukrainian army returns. .
The counterattack was so swift that the Russians abandoned their weapons and armored vehicles, sometimes resorting to stealing the residents’ clothes and cars to escape undetected. It was Russia’s biggest military defeat since withdrawing its troops from areas near Kyiv more than five months ago.
Ukrainian soldiers began hastily collecting uniform buttons that had been pulled from an officer’s uniform, or patches decorated with the Russian flag. They are also collecting Russian munitions that fit Ukrainian weapons, and are repurposing abandoned vehicles that haven’t rusted yet.
The Russian occupiers had scattered countless landmines, which Ukrainian soldiers were carefully detonating one by one. Every few minutes on Monday, until sunset, their massive controlled explosions rocked Izium, about a two-hour drive down the highways from Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv. straight countryside.
It could also be another world.
“Is Kharkiv still Ukraine?” A woman hesitantly questions a tourist in the first few days after Izium’s release.
Now there’s a flimsy cell signal – just enough to send texts or make calls, for those who have a way to charge their phones.
But on Monday morning, expectations were high for a more basic form of communication. By the time the truck pulled into the parking lot of a closed market, more than a hundred people were gathering, waiting for the first delivery of parcels since February.
“I’m glad the mail is working. That means life is getting better and better. We will live and hope for the best,” said Volodymyr Olyzarenko, 69. He already knew what the box his grown-ups had sent him contained: warm clothes for his brother.
But there will be difficult days to come.
A site where President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said more than 440 graves were discovered last week in a forest on the northern outskirts of town, and investigators are exhuming the bodies to begin work. identify identity. Russian officials have shied away from responsibility for the site.
On the southern outskirts, where the fiercest battles took place, the entire village of Kamyanka was an explosive hazard. Only 10 people out of 1,200 people live there.
Almost every yard is littered with bombs and bullets. A Russian rocket launcher is rusting in someone’s driveway, the weather is only starting to affect the white Z. And when the sun goes down, the only sound is the barking of abandoned dogs.
Natalya Zdorovets, the matriarch of a family of five that make up half of the village’s population, says they stay because this is home. They lost their connection to the outside world on March 5.
“We are in a vacuum. We were cut off from all the world. We don’t know what happened. We don’t even know what’s going on in the neighborhood because we just live here,” she said, pointing to a yard filled with ducks, chickens, cats and dogs.
About 2,000 Russian soldiers have settled in houses vacated by frightened residents. Then suddenly, more than a week ago, the village fell silent. The family did not know why until the Ukrainian soldiers arrived.
“We cried and laughed at the same time,” said Zdorovets, “We were not prepared to see them. We have not heard the news.”