The bright and hot summer sun is almost at its zenith. We drive on an empty road through green fields. It seems that there is no living soul for miles around. Sometimes we meet a truck that takes goods to the grocery store or a few locals who drive between the villages. Involuntarily I look to the northeast, towards the Russian border. The landscape hasnʼt changed — itʼs deserted. Almost the only reminder of the presence of people is checkpoints.
The town streets are not too crowded either. A man is sitting at the bus stop waiting for either a minibus or a passing car in the direction of Sumy. At first, it seems that the occupation did not affect the city — neither burnt nor shot houses are in sight. A few kilometers behind the trees, a five-story building appears with black, blind windows. In a minute — several burned one-story buildings. On the opposite side of the road near the train station is the townʼs central square. In place of the flower beds here is now a swamp.
Instead of cafes and shops there is a fire-ravaged remains that the locals dismantle for the second month already. Near is the bus station building, with only the walls remaining, pigeons settle there. People are slowly gathering at the train station: a suburban train is leaving soon. Some of the townspeople come to me to talk. For example, Olga. She looks a little over forty, and goes to the train with her father
— And you are journalists, right? Did you see that further down the road? Just arrived? Then be sure to go there. There are still many burned houses. The Russians have been here for almost a month, but they have caused so much grief, — says Olga. — I was going to the station, I look — there is a cup in the window. Can you imagine? The house is completely burnt down, and there is a whole cup on the windowsill. This photo reminded me that Borodyanka kitchen cabinet, — the woman continues. — They [the Russians] were based in this area. They dug trenches, put their machinery. And at the train station they made something like a headquarters. Littered it, painted all the walls... And in its toilet, which is in the basement, people were tortured. I lived in Sumy during the occupation, and my father was here, — says Olga and hurries to the train.
We go inside one of the burned buildings near the train station. Just in front of the door, or rather what is left of it, the turnstile stands among the ruins. On the floor there are broken bricks and remnants of goods: a few burnt slippers in the corner, some jars on the soot-black shelf are next to them. Underfoot is molten glass from jars. To what was once sold here is possible only by the smell that hurts the nostrils: burnt matter and washing powder. Household ins and outs were sold here.
Another local stops in front of the entrance. Halyna is 60 years. When the Russians came to Trostyanets, she first hid with her family at home, then moved to friends in a quieter part of town.
— All sorts of powders, gels, hair dye were sold here. In short, this was a convenience store. And here, on the corner, we had a tool shop. It started working maybe a few months [before the invasion]. Now all thatʼs left from the shop is the sign. And on the other side there was a cafe. Now it has no walls, — says Halyna, looking at us.
We go to the central square with her. Halyna lives behind the train station. She says that the garden helps her not to lose herself: work on the land calms her down. In addition, itʼs nice to see the result — planted vegetables are already sprouting.
— You should come to us before the war. This was such a beautiful place. Just how many tulips grew here! Everything, everything was destroyed. They [the Russians] dug trenches, smashed [all the flowerbeds] with machinery. They appeared in our city almost immediately. Brought the artillery, fired at Okhtyrka. We also got some shots. One night a shell exploded near the house, and all the windows were smashed. The granddaughter said that she woke up and saw her grandfather in the corridor. And he died a long time ago. I donʼt know how it works or if there is something supernatural, but maybe my grandfather really was there... He didnʼt let the shock wave to get into his granddaughterʼs room so that she would stay safe," says the woman, a little embarrassed.
After the explosion, Halyna continues, their family decided to move in with friends. And when they were leaving the house in a hurry, they couldnʼt find the cat. They thought he had escaped. After the liberation of the town they went to visit their house.
— And imagine: we go into the house, to the granddaughterʼs room. And I remember very well that she had a handful of nuts on the table when we left the house. I look — the nuts are is gone. Iʼm calling our cat. And here he comes out of the corner. So thin! Just the bones and skin! He, poor thing, was alone for about 20 days. We didnʼt even expect to see him anymore. He is a member of our family, we missed him so much. We took him to the vet, now we are nurturing him carefully, — the woman says. Then Halyna goes on with her business, and we go inside the train station.
Employees of the station are gradually cleaning it up: most of the waste that the occupiers left has already been removed, the floor has been washed. The fact that there were battles here is reminded by the torn ceiling, broken windows and traces of a shell on the outside, under the roof. In the basement-toilet, which Olga mentioned, the light is dim. There are no obvious traces of torture in the room, the tiles are clean, boxes are piled up in the utility rooms. The cleaning lady washes the floor and doesnʼt want to talk. So we go outside to take pictures of the burned railway cars — they are standing on the adjacent tracks. As soon as we get on the track, a man in an orange vest, a train station worker, comes to us across the platform.
— Hi! Donʼt walk on the tracks! Because they [the authorities] will shout! And look under your feet! By the way, do you know that the Russians set up a sniper position on the station roof? They shot the town from here. And then our artillery hit them. So after they were kicked out of the city, our people went up to the roof and found a leg. It seems to be all thatʼs left of that sniper, — the man says, laughing. He doesnʼt want to tell his name.
Opposite the central square is a market. We go there. Currently, the market isnʼt working, so there are almost no people there. Iʼm trying to clear the wet ground from my boots. It falls on the curb.
— Thatʼs right! Come on! I clean here, and you clean your shoes. Come on, donʼt be shy! — The woman shouts sarcastically at me.
Natalia is local, she is 70 years old. I apologize for the mud and notice that the area in front of the market entrance is swept, and there are broom and scoop in Nataliaʼs hands.
— Are you journalists? And I think, whose car is standing here?.. Because itʼs definitely not a local one, we all know locals, — says Natalia, standing aside. — Did you come to film us? Then you had to go earlier! There was still burnt machinery, after the Russians left it got cleaner here. Volunteers from Sumy came to us with bus and a truck. I wonʼt even tell how many garbage bags were loaded [on the truck] then. The volunteers said they would come more often, but there are too many problems with fuel now, there is no diesel anywhere.
We ask how it was in the occupation.
- Well, see for yourself. There is no central square anymore. The Russians brought their machinery here, and our artillery burned it. Just before leaving, they [the Russians] fired at the five-story building opposite the square. I donʼt even know whatʼs left from it. There seems to be only one person still living there on the ground floor. Everything else just burned down, — the woman complains.
The occupiers, she says, entered the city in several waves. The first ones passed very quickly — there were young Russian soldiers. The second, according to her, consisted not only of Russians, but also of separatists from Donbas, who came with the Russian army.
— The latter were more aggressive. One day they allowed walking around the town, the next day they didnʼt. A man was shot here at the crossroads. By the sniper from the train station, probably. So he lay here for several days until [the occupants] allowed his mother to take the body. I remember one of these occupiers shouting at me, "Werenʼt you scared when you captured Donbas?" And I tell him: "Look where you are. I almost never left the region. Where am I, and where is that Donbas of yours?". I have never been to those parts of Ukraine, — says Natalia emotionally.
The woman continues the story of the occupation. She says they tried to hide from the Russians in the local forestry and went there in the first days of the large-scale war. They were able to live in peace for just a week. Then the occupiers got to those places as well.
— They took everyone to the yard. They were looking for something — I donʼt know what. Maybe the military who fought in the Donbas. They gathered the whole family on the street and started asking questions. For example, why my son is not in the army. I explain to them that he has only one kidney and even that one works badly, so how to imagine him in an army? They didnʼt believe. They checked the phones. In one manʼs phone found a number of daughter who lives in Moscow, began to ask who he was calling and why. And he was already in despair: he once served in the Soviet army, it seems, in this Cantemir division [that took part in invading Sumy Oblast]. He showed them the documents. Then they let him back into the house. And my grandson was taken away, put barefoot in the snow. It was cold, early March. I tried to come to him — they didnʼt let me. Kept shouting something about Donbas... I ask them: “What has a grandson do to all this? He is only seven years old, what do you blame him for? Why is he barefoot in the snow?”, the woman says and becomes silent for a while.
In the end, she says, the Russians were expelled from the city. Now she and her neighbors are trying to rebuild their pre-war lives. However, locals are afraid of the return of the Russians. They are especially afraid that they wonʼt have a chance to escape, as there is almost no fuel in the region today. Natalia says she does not know how people will save their families possible next time.
We are trying to find diesel for our car. No result. In Sumy Oblast, it seems, there is none on any gas station. So at our own risk we go to Okhtyrka, which the Russians never managed to capture. Somewhere at the entrance to the city we come across a large yellow sign with the inscription "Great Construction". A few hundred meters away, a brand new car bridge — blown up. Now there is a pontoon crossing over the river. Behind it are several burned houses. At the nearby checkpoint we ask for permission to make photos. The military is not in the mood. First he sends us to the mayor of Okhtyrka for permission, and then, leaning over our car, starts shouting:
— Well, you should take the guns and stand here with me, not to meddle with your photos!
Silently we go on. We donʼt immediately understand that we have already got to Okhtyrka: private sector houses that once met visitors on the outskirts of the city, are destroyed to the ground. According to locals, it was here where the heavy fighting took place in the early days.
There is a bunch of people in the city center. Almost no vacant places in the local café with large panoramic windows: both military and civilian sit there. A little further on the bench near the park, teenagers are shouting. A few hundred meters from us — the building of the shopping center was destroyed. After the explosion, the floors from the roof to the basement have collapsed. Someoneʼs work uniform still hangs on the survived wall. And through the doorway on the third floor one still can see the advertising of the nail salon.
Across the road is the city council building. Only a front wall left of it, and it also seems about to collapse. Thereʼs a funnel from the shell at the entrance. The Ukrainian flag flutters on the remains of the roof. Among the ruins and remnants of concrete can still be found personal belongings of people — for example, the torn book "48 Laws of Power" by Robert Green. Passing by the ruins, the locals are speeding up.
We go to the survived shopping center, which is across the street from the remains of the city council building. Here, workers returned to the store, which once sold gift wrapping, balloons, and ribbons. Several girls sweep small debris off the floor. Anna, one of them, tells about the first days of the Russian invasion.
— You know, it was very scary. We have several military units in the city, it was clear that they would be shot at. But these are not combat units, theyʼre engineers. Their aim is to rebuild bridges or put a pontoon crossing. But they, together with the 93rd brigade, had to fight. In the first days we had heavy fighting here. Ours let the first column of Russians enter the city, and then hit them in the rear. And they fought with them on the outskirts [of Okhtyrka], — says Anna.
She left the city in mid-March and returned in late May. Prior to the full-scale Russian invasion, she had her own small shop. Now the business has to be started from scratch: the rented premises suffered from shelling. In the first days after the return, she inserted new windows, took away broken glass and mutilated goods. According to Anna, new orders have already started to appear.
— We need to make a living from something. And people want a holiday. So we are working again. Go to the City Council, it was destroyed in the first days. Or you can go to high-rise buildings. Just be careful: some roads were blown up by air bombs, so they are impassable, — says Anna, showing on the phone the route near Okhtyrka Thremal Power Plant, which was destroyed by Russian planes in early March.
We drive along a concrete fence with barbed wire. Behind it is a skeleton of the burned building. We reach the block of high-rise buildings — none of them have intact windows. Somewhere the floors collapsed, under one there was once a panoramic balcony, and in another the projectile flew right in a flat on the first floor. According to locals, the flat burned together with its owner, who did not manage to hide in the bomb shelter.
At one of the intersections is a small shop named Province. Before the war, food and household chemicals were sold here. The blockages are being dismantled: on the night of March 8, an air bomb exploded nearby. Now several men load broken bricks into a cart. One of the workers agrees to talk. A tanned, muscular man, in his 50s, leans on a shovel with which he has just thrown a brick. Calls himself Oleksandr.
— The Russians could not take the city: ours blew up the fucking bridge at the entrance to the city. “Great Construction”, all that stuff. It was opened a year ago. And the Russians stayed behind the river, and began firing artillery and missiles at the city. Bombs were dropped from planes. Here it fell in early March. Part of the store collapsed, a funnel on the road was several meters deep. Trees that grew here were uprooted and thrown into nearby houses. And the houses themselves were broken by the shock wave, — says Oleksandr, throwing bricks into the wheelbarrow.
His colleague takes the wheelbarrow to a large pile of construction debris nearby. The men say they did not leave Okhtyrka. They helped the locals to evacuate, worked with the Territorial Defense Forces, helped to dismantle the debris after the missile hits. And thereʼs still a lit of work: the Russians continue to launch missiles at Okhtyrka.
— The last one we had was, it seems, on May 17. And air raid alarms are constant. Although I have no idea what to bomb here. All barracks have been burned down a long time ago, — says Oleksandr and returns to work.
We go to the broken private houses nearby, past the typical Soviet garages. Cats play in the grass, insects buzz in the air. Flowers break through the torn metal of garages. A woman opens the gate in the fence. She asks us not to reveal her name.
— I donʼt need my house to be a PR tool. I wonʼt give an interview and I do not want to speak. Because they go here and there, advertise themselves, and for me — nothing changes. Everyone has been here: Frenchmen, Americans, Britishmen, and 1+1 [TV channel]. And the mayor came — was photographed with the house in the background. He promised to help. So what? Where is that help? — the woman says emotionally.
— But we are photographers, we are not from television. But if you are against this, we will not shoot, — together with colleague we are trying to calm her down.
— Well, if you want to make pictures, go ahead. But I donʼt give interviews. And we can drink tea now. A friend of mine just brought it to me, — the woman says more calmly.
We go into the yard. The first thing that catches the eye are the remains of the veranda, the blue wooden doors. Everything else is a stone foundation without walls. In addition to us and the hostess, her friend Tamara is in the house. She brought food — hot soup and tea. The woman that first shouted lives with acquaintances and comes to the destroyed house during the day: to dismantle the blockages, then to work in the garden. There is simply no place to cook here — no gas or electricity. While the woman is having lunch, Tamara shows the remains of the house.
— This house was for several families. It seems to have been ten or eleven oʼclock on the evening of March 8. She [the hostess] said she was making a cake for the holiday. Womenʼs Day. And suddenly the connection was lost. Then I found out he was hit after the explosion, — says Tamara.
We walk around the home. The former kitchen-living room resembles a cellar, dark and empty, with dust settled on the floor and walls. Light is given by several rays of sunlight, which penetrate through the cracks in the window frames, covered with fiberboard. The recently renovated bedroom on the second floor has been converted into a terrace — the walls were blown down by a shock wave, and the roof of the house now stands where the bed once stood.
We go out into the yard. The women show a small garden where squashes will soon give sprouts. The hostess complains that her house is constantly visited by local looters-alcoholics who try to steal something — the remains of a refrigerator or TV, or even roses.
— Can you imagine? A few weeks ago my roses were dug out of the garden! I was even thinking of writing on the house: "Come in September, roses in May do not take root!" Various commissions came, described the house, the damage. It turned out that I was not entitled to compensation or at least any assistance from the state, because I was not a displaced person. I stayed in Okhtyrka and did not go to the neighboring area, — says the woman, pouring tea into cups that survived the bombing.
The woman shows the backyard, which once had a fence. Now it lies on the remains of a neighborʼs house. A few tens of meters from the garden there is a large funnel from a bomb and a fragment of a gas pipe.
— I was told when I asked for help that I should be grateful that the gas bills are not coming. In short, the mayor was photographed in the background of my house, and the local authorities cannot help me. Neither with reconstruction nor with money. But thatʼs nothing. One day everything will be good, — the woman calmly says.
We stand in the shade of trees in the yard. The women cover the bench with a napkin, take out cookies and sweets, and offer to treat ourselves. They apologize for the impromptu tea party on the ruins.
— Iʼm afraid that when the war is over, we will be rolled into the asphalt. Why? Well, Zelensky said that prefabricated houses will be demolished. And I do not believe that something new will be built in their place. And as they build, it is unlikely we will be given apartments for free. It will only get worse. In Russia, no matter what, the courts work. As well as the law. I have acquaintances there, so I know. And we here… — Tamara says confidently.
I explain her the Russian legal system. Tell about the persecution of people. About political sentences for posts on social networks. About Ukrainian political prisoners held by Russians in prisons since the beginning of the occupation of Crimea.
— Fine. I wonʼt argue with you. You probably know better. But just understand: we do not believe that they will help us, — says Tamara awkwardly.
Time to go. The women stay near the ruined house, waving goodbye. The phone starts vibrating. Another air raid alarm in Okhtyrka.