IZIUM, Ukraine (AP) — In this war-scarred city in Ukraine’s northeast, residents scrutinize every step for land mines. Survivors wait with trepidation for their loved ones to be found behind closed doors. Close-knit communities are poisoned by the hunt for Russian collaborators.
This is Izium, a city located on the Donets River in Kharkiv. Although it was retaken in September by Ukrainian forces, it still has to live with the consequences. legacy of six months of Russian occupation.`
Ukrainian civilians were tortured, vanquished and arbitrarily detained. Many bodies were discovered in mass graves and whole neighborhoods were destroyed during the fighting.
Izium is a stark reminder of the human costs of war. Residents say that six months after the liberation, they still pay the price.
Large red signs warning “MINES” rest against a tree between a church and the city’s main hospital, which is still functioning despite heavy Russian bombardment.
Everyone in this city has a story about a mine: They either stepped on one and suffered a loss of a limb, or they know someone who did. Everyday, mines are found hidden along riversbanks, roads, fields, roofs and trees.
Petal mines, which are high-explosive anti-infantry mines, are of particular concern. Although they are inconspicuous and small, they are prevalent in the city. Human Rights Watch found that Moscow has used at most eight types of antipersonnel mines throughout eastern Ukraine. These are prohibited under the Geneva Conventions.
In a January report, the rights monitor also called on Kyiv to investigate the Ukrainian military’s apparent use of thousands of banned petal mines in Izium.
“No one can say now the total percentage of territory in Kharkiv that is mined,” said Oleksandr Filchakov, the region’s chief prosecutor. “We are finding them everywhere.”
Residents are cautious and stick to their established paths. Even so, they are not always safe.
“We have an average of one person a week with wounds” from mines, Dr. Yurii Kuzentsov said. “I don’t know when I will ever go to the river or the forest again, even if our lives are restored, because, as a medical professional, I have seen the consequences.”
One patient fell on mines twice. The first time was June, when he had lost a part of his heel; the second was October, when he had lost his entire foot.
Most of Kuzentsov’s patients said they had been cautious.
“They were sure this would never happen to them,” he said.
Oleksandr Rabenko (66) walked 200m from his home and stepped onto a petal mine while walking along a familiar path to the river for water.
Eduard, his son, had demined the narrow path using a shovel. Rabenko had walked it many times up to Dec. 4, when he broke his right foot clearing some sticks.
“I still don’t know how it got there, maybe it was the snow melting, or the river carried it,” he said. “I thought it was safe.”
Rabenko feels excruciating pain in the foot, even though it is gone.
“The doctor said it will take months for my brain to grasp what happened,” he said.
Halyna Ziharova, 71 years old, is able to recall exactly what happened with her family of eight.
A bomb struck her son Oleksandr’s home last March, killing 52 people sheltering inside the basement. They included eight of Zhyharova’s relatives — her son and his entire family, including two daughters.
In September, seven relatives’ bodies were found in a very bad state of decay. She explained that it took many months to identify the bodies. Now she is waiting for just one more identification — of her granddaughter.
Of the 451 bodies exhumed in Izium, including nearly 440 found in mass graves, 125 have still not been identified, said Serhii Bolvinov, the head of the Investigations Department of Kharkiv’s National Police.
Some are so decomposed it’s difficult to extract a DNA sample, he said. Sometimes authorities cannot find a DNA match between relatives. It can take many months to complete this tedious task.
Zhyharova hopes her granddaughter’s remains will be identified soon so she can finally lay her family to rest.
“I’ll bury them, put gravestones,” she said. “After that, what to do? Live on.”
Izium was home to 50,000 people before the war. This is just one example of the scale of destruction. According to Ukrainian officials, 70%-80% of residential buildings were damaged. Many have black scorch marks and punctured roofs.
Slowly, residents return home, shocked to find their homes abandoned and their belongings missing. The Russian advance into Izium was possible because of the support of local collaborators.
“There were cases in the beginning of the war when collaborators led Russian armed forces units through secret routes and led them to the flanks and rears of our units,” said Brig. Brig. Dmytro Krylnykov was the commander of joint forces in Kharkiv. “This happened in Izium.”
“Many of our soldiers died because of this, and we were forced to leave Izium for a while, and now we see what the city has turned into,” he said.
Every house in Kamyanka, a village near Izium bears the scars from war. Twenty families have returned, and many have aimed their hatred at Vasily Hrushka who has remained. He has been made the village pariah.
“They say I was a collaborator, a traitor,” the 65-year-old said. “I did nothing wrong.”
Hrushka says he stayed in the village while Russians overtook it, because he didn’t want to abandon his cows and three calves, fearing they would die in his absence. He fled with his family and sought refuge in the cellar.
Russian soldiers knocked at the door and asked if there were any Ukrainian servicemen living in the house. They sprayed the house with bullets to ensure he didn’t answer.
Later, they brought canned food to them. He also gave them milk. He was asked if he had ever consumed alcohol.
This was seen as treason by residents. They asked why he didn’t do more to help Ukrainian forces by finding a way to give away Russian positions. But Hrushka said there was no way to do that — the Russian soldiers destroyed his phone lines.
“I was living in madness,” he said, “I did what I did to survive.”
He was called in for questioning by the SBU, Ukraine’s security service. They claimed they had heard rumors that he was leading the life of a Kamyanka chief.
“I was the chief only of my own home,” he told them. They let him go.
His fortunes changed in November.
He was out foraging for firewood when the temperatures dropped and he stepped on a tal mine, which caused him to lose his left foot.
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