The trauma of the population of Izium after the Russian occupation: “We have nothing”

A man cycles along a road in front of a Ukrainian flag in the recently reclaimed area of ​​Izium (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

the school was trashed. Its six-month life as a Russian base and machine shop ended in August with a missile attack in Ukraine.

His years educating the youth of Izium were over, but he had one last gift for the much-needed neighbors: the wood that made up its lattices, its blackboards, its furniture and its beams.

the trauma of irizu after the russian occupation
Local residents collect firewood for warmth from a destroyed school where Russian forces were based. (AP Photo/Evgeny Maloletka)

A handful of elderly residents, some prepared with gloves, sturdy woven bags and hand tools, arrived Monday to rescue firewood from the rubble. It will be months, if not longer, before electricity, gas, and running water are restored, and already a chill is setting in.

This city in the far east of Ukraine was one of the first taken by Russian forces after the war began on February 24, and became a command center for them. In early March, Izium it was isolated: no cell phones, no heat, no electricity. The residents did not know what was going on in the war, if their relatives were alive, if there was still Ukraine.

the trauma of irizu after the russian occupation
A woman collects firewood for warmth (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

They were freed in a swift counter-offensive on September 10 that swept through the Kharkiv region and continued into the south near Kherson. But residents are still emerging from the confusion and trauma of their occupation, whose brutality drew global attention last week after the discovery of one of the largest mass graves of the war.

“We have nothing. We carry firewood to heat water for tea and to make 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. “My grandchildren went to this school and I am looting it”.

the trauma of irizu after the russian occupation
Tetyana, 68, collects firewood (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

A man standing nearby loaded a battered car hood onto his bicycle. He planned to use the part, which was spray-painted with the letter Z symbolizing the Russian army, to cover the frame of an open window.

When the war began nearly seven months ago, about half of Izium’s estimated 40,000 residents fled, some of them to Russia itself. The rest took refuge in cellars or behind the thickest walls they could find. Russian soldiers doled out some food, but rarely enough.

the trauma of irizu after the russian occupation
A man walks past a destroyed car marked “Z” (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

Those with battery-powered radios discovered that the only signal was a Russian propaganda station, feeding them lies about which Ukrainian cities had fallen, how their government had abandoned them, and how they would be tried as collaborators if the Ukrainian army ever returned.

So swift was the counteroffensive that the Russians abandoned their ammunition and armored vehicles., sometimes resorting to stealing residents’ clothes and cars to escape detection. Was the elderly defeat military of Russia since the withdrawal of its troops from areas near kyiv more than five months ago.

the trauma of irizu after the russian occupation
Grenades and ammunition are seen on the floor of a destroyed school where Russian forces were based (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

Ukrainian soldiers have begun collecting brass buttons hastily ripped from an officer’s uniform, or patches emblazoned with the Russian flag. They are also collecting ammunition Russian weapons, which fit very well into Ukrainian weapons, and are reusing abandoned vehicles that have not rusted to the point of being useless.

The Russian occupiers scattered countless mines, which the Ukrainian soldiers are painstakingly detonating one at a time. On Monday, every few minutes, until sunset, its huge controlled explosions rocked Izium, which is about a two-hour drive from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, on straight country roads.

the trauma of irizu after the russian occupation
People receive water as humanitarian aid (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

It might as well have been another world.

“Kharkiv is still Ukraine?” a woman asked a visitor hesitantly in the first days after Izium’s liberation.

the trauma of irizu after the russian occupation
A Ukrainian soldier jumps out of an armored personnel carrier (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

There is now a dim cell signal, just enough to send a text message or make a phone call, for those who have a way to charge their phones.

But on Monday morning expectations were high for a more basic form of communication. When the mail truck pulled into the parking lot of a closed market, more than a hundred people milled around waiting for the first postal delivery since February.

the trauma of irizu after the russian occupation
Hennadiy Lysenko, 58, stands in front of his family’s house that was destroyed during the fighting (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

“I am happy that the mail is working. It means that life is getting better. We will live and hope for the best.”said Volodymyr Olyzarenko, 69 years old. He already knew what was in the box sent by his adult sons: warm clothes for his brother.

But difficult days will come.

the trauma of irizu after the russian occupation
Emergency workers load a body into a refrigerator truck after it is exhumed (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

A site that President Volodimir Zelensky said contains more than 440 graves was discovered last week in a forest on the northern outskirts of the city, and investigators are exhuming the bodies to begin the grim work of identification. Russian officials have distanced themselves from responsibility for the site.

On the southern outskirts, where the fiercest battles took place, the entire village of Kamyanka is a bomb hazard. Only 10 people remain out of the 1,200 who used to live there.

the trauma of irizu after the russian occupation
Emergency workers load the bodies into a refrigerated truck after they are exhumed in the newly reclaimed area of ​​Izium, where one of the world’s largest mass graves was discovered. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

Almost every courtyard is dotted with bombs and bullets. A Russian rocket launcher is rusting in someone’s driveway, the weather just starting to take its toll on the white Z. And as the sun sets, the only sound is the barking of dogs abandoned by their owners.

Natalya Zdorovets, the matriarch of a family of five that makes up half the town’s population, said they stayed because it was home. They lost their connection to the outside world on March 5.

the trauma of irizu after the russian occupation
A view of unidentified exhumed graves of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers at a cemetery in the recently reclaimed area of ​​Izium (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

“We were in a vacuum. We were isolated from everyone. We didn’t know what happened. We didn’t even know what was going on in the neighboring street because we only lived here,” he said, pointing to a yard full of ducks, chickens, cats and dogs.

Around 2,000 Russian soldiers settled in the houses vacated by the terrified residents. Then suddenly, just over a week ago, the town fell silent. The family did not know why until the Ukrainian soldiers arrived.

the trauma of irizu after the russian occupation
A boy rides his bike in the recently reclaimed area of ​​Izium. (AP Photo/Evgeny Maloletka)

“We cry and laugh at the same time,” Zdorovets said. “We were not prepared to see them. We hadn’t heard the news.”

(with information from AP)


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