Signs of life and death in a liberated eastern Ukrainian village

As Russian forces retreat from the area around Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, residents of a small village on the outskirts of the city face the prospect of rebuilding their shattered town.

The retreat of Russian forces from Kharkiv has left a devastated area for survivors to rebuild

Klizub Artem, a karate instructor in Vilkhivka, Ukraine, on the outskirts of Kharkiv collects sports equipment from the local school that was destroyed during the Russian invasion. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

Everywhere you look around Vilkhivka, there are renewed signs of life and even more potent, lingering signs of death following the savage struggle that unfolded this spring on the edge of Kharkiv, Ukraine.

Until just a few weeks ago, this rustic village about 20 kilometres east of Kharkiv in the eastern part of the war-torn country was under the boot of the Russian army.

It was one of the first communities near the country's second largest city to be liberated in a slow, painful counter-offensive that has only recently gathered momentum. 

Russian troops are now giving ground northeast of Kharkiv, taking their massive artillery pieces and the death they rained down on unsuspecting civilians with them.

On Sunday, there was still the rumble of shellfire as the Ukrainian military conducted a tour of the marshy fields and lightly forested laneways that were littered with wreckage, including burned-out Russian tanks, a downed, incinerated attack helicopter, empty ammunition boxes and a body.

The blackened, bloated corpse of a Russian soldier was sprawled on the grounds of a burned-out school in the village, which had been used as a supply and ammunition hub for the occupation forces.

It was reduced to rubble by Ukrainian artillery and that's when locals believe the soldier was killed and left behind by his fleeing comrades.

'Who's going to bury him?'

The body is believed to have been there for more than a month, much to the horror of some returning residents.

"Who's going to bury him?" asked Nikolai Noskov, who lives nearby and returned on Sunday after more than a month in the city. The village is mostly empty, but he's convinced people can be rounded up to remove the body.

"Let the military give us instructions. Guys, there are guys here. There are healthy men here. We're going to bury it," said Noskov. He was quick to imply he had little sympathy for the dead Russian and that he was a patriot with the Ukrainian trident tattooed on his arm.

Nikolai Noskov, who lives near the school in Vilkhivka where the body of a dead Russian soldier has apparently laid for a month is asking the military for permission to bury the man. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

A few metres away, Klizub Artem, who taught karate at the school, was picking through the rubble of the gymnasium looking for plastic hoops and sticks and other training equipment that could be salvaged.

He looked over at the corpse and said something had to be done. Otherwise, his own people would be seen as stooping to the kind of barbarism that has characterized the Russian invasion, he said.

"I think we have to take this body and try to send [it] to Russia for parents and relatives who say it was a person," said Artem, who described a harrowing life under occupation with no electricity and little food in -20 C weather.

Just down the road, Maryna Vorobjova was cooking eggs in a heavy cast iron pan over an open fire in the backyard of her partially damaged home on Sunday.

Her soon-to-be-seven-year-old daughter had been due to attend the school, but now as a family they are struggling to survive without electricity.

She described how the fighting swirled around their neighbourhood with raging rockets, and how she and her husband hid in the basement, trying to shield the children.

Maryna Vorobjova, a resident of Vilkhivka, tried to explain to her young daughter why there was war on their doorstep by saying two evil uncles were fighting. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

'Two evil uncles were fighting,' mother explains

"We were all praying, 'God, please save us,'" Vorobjova said. "We were hoping for someone to come and save us."

Explaining the war on their doorstep to her daughter was tough. She told her that "two evil uncles were fighting" and didn't say much more than that.

It was a shock when the Russians came at the end of February. Nikolai Marynchuk, who lives just up the road and across from the Vilkhivka school, said they tried to carry on with "average stuff, only very carefully."

The burned-out school at Vilkhivka. Russian forces used it supply and ammunition hub and warned locals not to reveal their location. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

They were warned by the Russians "not to go near the school" and ordered not to provide any information about their whereabouts.

A little more than a month later, when Ukrainian troops retook the area, they came knocking and searched for Russian soldiers before attempting to retake the school.

"Well, at the end of the day, I know I haven't seen it, but I heard screaming all the time: 'Come out! Get out! Get out of school! Give up, we'll keep you alive,'" Marynchuk said.

By evening, "the school was on fire" and there was "shooting all night."

The village was officially reclaimed on March 26.

Praying for the enemy

Standing on a wide, windswept field and looking at the blasted wreckage of a Russian Mi24 attack helicopter, Mykola Medynskyj, a Ukrainian army chaplain, said he's been asked if he prays for the enemy. He does, he said, but the prayer is that the Russians get back one hundred fold what they have inflicted on Ukraine.

Medynskyj, tall, steely-eyed and replete in a flak vest over his flowing robe, is part of a small team that included a social worker, which has wandered through the village talking to locals about their experiences under occupation. He also ministered to the troops in the area.

Mykola Medynskyj, a Ukrainian army chaplain, said he's been asked if he prays for the enemy. He does, he said, but the prayer is that the Russians get back one hundredfold what they have inflicted on Ukraine. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

Before the invasion, he said, there had been some sympathy for the Russians, given the proximity to the border — a sentiment that has now evaporated.

"When the Russians came, people felt the malice of looting, murder, violence, that is, satanic, not human," Medynskyj said. 

"There's no longer the perception of Russia as a neighbor and [now] the understanding that Russia is a terrorist state."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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