TROSTYANETS, Ukraine — The last three Russian soldiers in this Ukrainian city lie in the morgue, their uniforms bloodied and torn. The first’s face is frozen with pain. The second has his wooden pipe on his lap. The third is in his sleeping bag.
These dead aren’t all that’s left behind in Trostyanets, a strategically located city in the northeast of the country, where Russian troops fled a few days ago after an orchestrated Ukrainian attack. A month-long Russian occupation left much of the city in ruins, a decimated landscape of mangled tank hulls, fallen trees and clattering but resilient survivors.
There are also stories, impossible to verify, that emphasize the kind of hatred left in an occupation wake and share a common thread of cruelty: children being held with a knife; an old woman forced to drink alcohol while her occupiers watched and laughed; whispers of rape and enforced disappearances; and an old man found toothless, beaten in a ditch and pooping on it.
“Oh my God, how I wanted to spit on them or hit them,” Yevdokiya Koneva, 57, said in a steely voice as she pushed her old bike toward the center of town on Friday.
Ukrainian forces are now gaining ground as Russian forces withdraw from their positions north of Kiev more than a month after the war, while Ukrainian soldiers are making headway here in the northeast. This area would be little more than a speed bump for a sprawling military campaign that would quickly take the country’s capital and leave the east in Russian hands.
Instead, a combination of logistical difficulties, low morale and poor planning among the Russian forces allowed an emboldened Ukrainian army to go on the offensive along multiple axes, crushing the occupying forces and splintering their front lines.
The Ukrainian victory in Trostyanets came on March 26 – what residents call “Veepation Day” – and is an example of how underserved and smaller Ukrainian units have launched successful counter-attacks.
It also shows how the Russian army’s inability to win a quick victory – where they would “liberate” a friendly population – put their soldiers in a position they were totally unprepared for: holding an occupied city with an unwelcome locals.
“We didn’t want this terrible ‘liberation’,” said Nina Ivanivna Panchenko, 64, who walked in the rain after picking up a package of humanitarian aid. “Don’t ever let them come here again.”
Interviews with more than a dozen residents of Trostyanets, a modest town of about 19,000 inhabitants nestled in a bowl of rolling hills about 20 miles from the Russian border, paint a grim picture of strife and fear during the Russian occupation. The relentless violence of both Ukrainian and Russian troops fighting to retake and hold the city raged for weeks, driving people to basements or wherever they could take shelter.
On Friday, dazed residents walked through the devastated city, sorting among the rubble as some power was restored for the first time in weeks. Viktor Panov, a railway worker, helped clear the shrapnel-shattered train station of unexploded grenades, grenades, and other scattered explosives. Other men cannibalized destroyed Russian armored vehicles for parts or working machines.
“I don’t understand how this war with tanks and missiles is possible,” said Olena Volkova, 57, the hospital’s chief doctor and deputy head of the city council. “Against whom? The peaceful citizens?”
“This is real barbarity,” she said.
The war started in Trostyanets on February 24, the day the Russians launched their invasion of Ukraine. The city soon became a gateway for advancing Russian tank columns as they pushed further west as part of their northeasterly offensive toward Kiev, the capital. Thousands of armored vehicles rolled on, breaking highway guardrails and eating up roads.
“When the Russians drove in the first two days, our boys fought back well, as long as they had heavy weapons,” said Mr. Panov, 37. “Once they ran out, they only had guns. †
Further west, the offensive blitz to Kiev soon met fierce Ukrainian resistance, stopping the Russians near the capital, meaning soldiers had to occupy Trostyanets rather than simply march through. About 800 troops fanned out and built a dozen checkpoints that cut the city into a grid of isolated neighborhoods.
Residents say they rarely tried to get through the Russian positions, although they described the occupying soldiers as friendly enough in the early days of the occupation, and more confused than anything else.
“The first brigade of Russian troops that came in were more or less acceptable,” said Dr. Volkova. “They said, ‘Okay, we’ll help you.'”
That help, Dr. Volkova explained, was that they could just get the corpses of the dead off the street. She added that about 20 people had died during the occupation and subsequent fighting – 10 had suffered gunshot wounds.
On a few occasions, Russian troops opened “green corridors” for civilians to leave the city, although then some people – mostly younger men of military age – were kidnapped.
At the beginning of the occupation, Trostyanets police officers took off their uniforms and mixed with the population. Those who were part of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense, the equivalent of the National Guard, slipped to the periphery of the city and worked as partisans – documenting the Russian troop movements and reporting it to the Ukrainian army.
Others remained in the city, moving quietly to help the residents where they could, even as Russian soldiers hunted them down. “We were here throughout the occupation and worked to the best of our ability,” said police chief Volodymyr Bogachyov, 53.
As the days and weeks passed, food became scarce and so did the soldiers’ good will. Residents boiled snow for water and lived on what they saved from their small gardens. Russian soldiers, without a proper logistics pipeline, began looting houses, shops and even the local chocolate factory. A butcher sprayed “ALL BUILT” on his shop so the soldiers wouldn’t break in. In another shop, another deterrent: “EVERYTHING IS TAKEN, NOTHING LEFT.”
In mid-March, the Russian soldiers were turned from the city and replaced by separatist fighters brought in from the southeast.
It was then, residents said, that the atrocities began to increase.
“They were brash and angry,” said Dr. Volkova. “We couldn’t negotiate anything with them. They wouldn’t give us green corridors, they ransacked the apartments, took the phones, kidnapped people – they took them, mostly young men, and we still don’t know where these people are.
By Friday, the city’s police had received 15 reports of missing persons.
In the morgue, next to the three dead Russian soldiers, Dr. Volkova pointed to a body bag in the corner of the room. “This person has been tortured to death,” she said. “His hands and legs are taped, his teeth are missing and almost his entire face is gone. It is not known what they wanted from him.”
Outside the city, Ukraine’s 93rd Armored Brigade, a unit of veteran veterans that had seen occasional fighting in the country’s separatist regions for the past seven years, was slowly coming into position. Then, on March 23, they attacked with a bombardment of artillery fire.
The city’s hospital was shelled the next day. It is not entirely clear who hit the building, but local residents accuse the Russians of shooting at the building. The hospital had been operational during the occupation and treated everyone, including Russian soldiers. During the shelling, only one doctor and one nurse worked there, and they moved to the basement with patients.
“In the morning, we left on foot with the last two women still in the maternity ward, one pregnant and one who had just given birth,” said Xenia Gritsayenko, 45, an obstetrician who returned to work on Friday to clean up. . up the department. Tank shells had gone through the walls, shredding baby posters and setting fire to at least one room. “It was the cry from the bottom of the soul.”
The Russian troops fled on the night of the 25th. Their destroyed artillery position in the station forecourt showed signs of undersupply and ad hoc forces. Reinforcements included ammunition crates loaded with sand and thick wrappers for candy bars, bundled into rolls and used to support shattered windows instead of sandbags. Uniforms lay in soggy puddles. Russian supply documents were blown aimlessly in the wind.
A nearby monument commemorating the World War II victory to retake the city, attached with an aging Soviet tank, was damaged but not destroyed. It had survived another battle.
On Friday afternoon, Mr Bogachyov’s police chief was going through reports from townspeople confirming the former occupiers and trying to deal with the ongoing looting. But no one had any problems transferring fuel from the abandoned Russian tanks onto the roads.
“The information is like, ‘This person talked or drank vodka with the Russians’ and ‘This person showed them where is the house of the person they were looking for,'” he said.
“There is no information about collaborations, such as our citizens taking up arms with the residents or treating their own citizens with violence,” said Mr Bogachyov, acknowledging it was difficult to say whether he was dealing with Russian spies or just resentment from his neighbors.
The morning rain had burned off by noon. The long lines around humanitarian aid distribution points disappeared. A garbage truck sauntered past, loaded to the brim with war waste and Russian army rations. A few people took selfies in front of the last recognisable piece of self-propelled artillery Russian self-propelled artillery.
Galyna Mitsaii, 65, an employee of the local seed and garden supply store near the train station, slowly stocked her shelves, happy with the day’s weather.
“We will sow, we will grow, we will live,” she said, crying.