Town of the Damned

Published by The Daily Mail (9th November, 2022)

Lisa was staring in shock at the block of flats once filled with happy families. The two ends still stood but the middle had collapsed into rubble. Books, carpets, curtains and shoes poked out from bricks, burned wood and twisted metal.

On the fourth floor, a woman’s clothes were visible hanging in a door-less wardrobe: a maroon dress, white blouses, a black belt. Neatly folded bed linen was on the shelf above. In the next-door room, a jumble of files stashed in a cupboard.

This was the site of a massacre. Scores of lives snuffed out in seconds by Russian bombs — and Lisa had returned home to see where her childhood friend Olena had died alongside her husband, two young daughters, parents and grandmother.

‘Two years ago we celebrated our graduation anniversary with all our classmates getting together, including Olena. If only I knew that was the last time I’d ever see her, I’d have said and done things so differently,’ the 30-year-old told me.

‘What we saw on the news was one thing, but when I’m standing here and looking at this building I try to imagine what it was like for the people living here.’

At least 50 people died when weapons of war exploded in their homes. The cries of trapped people could be heard for three days. The bodies of Olena and her family lay rotting in the ruins for 11 weeks; it is feared some corpses still remain there.

This attack took place in March, during a month of brutal fighting for Izyum. Then the town in Kharkiv region suffered the terror of Russian takeover for six months — followed by the joy of freedom when Ukrainian forces swept forward to regain it in September.

Yet the wounds will take years to heal. For Izyum is a shattered town filled with shattered people — possibly the most devastated place in Ukraine, where one man said they are living in ‘caves’ amid the wreckage as they await the freezing winter.

This industrial town, founded in the 17th century with a Cossack fortress and now 40 miles from the war’s front line, highlights the scale of struggle facing Ukraine even if it wins its fight against Vladimir Putin’s forces.

Lisa pointed out their nearby school. It was wrecked too — like every other school in the town — and I had just met one of the teachers, who wept in the street when an aircraft flew overhead as she walked home beside me with her shopping.

‘I’m sorry, I’m very emotional. I start crying when I hear this sound now,’ said Vera, 65, who teaches Ukrainian language. ‘This sound is so horrible to me because after hearing the sound of an aeroplane I stepped outside and saw everything was on fire.’

She told of seeing ‘hell coming to earth’ when those flats were targeted, with ‘people screaming in basements, dying in the fire, and you can’t do anything to help them.’

The pensioner was far from alone in weeping. Tears fell down faces of young women and old men alike as we spoke, since almost everyone in this town has confronted horror. Liberation is simply the first step in recovering from such events.

More than 1,000 residents in a place of 47,000 people before the war have died. A mass grave was found in the forested outskirts filled with torture victims. At least 37 men, taken into Russia, are still missing. Many more fled after collaborating.

Now Putin is trying to destroy Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. And as temperatures fall, dropping below freezing at night when I stayed in Izyum, an astonishing 85 per cent of homes, shops and offices in the town centre bear the cruel scars of war.

‘We live in caves here,’ said Dmytro, 48, a construction worker. ‘We can survive without water or electricity since we went through so much. Whatever is to come our way does not scare us. It just can’t get any worse.’

But as we talk, we hear the sound of distant explosions and a passing pensioner panics. ‘No one is at peace here,’ she exclaims loudly. ‘Anything can happen at any time. Please, may there be no more war, we’ve suffered so much.’

Dmytro admits everyone in the town is tormented by the sound of aircraft. ‘I’m a grown man but I duck down every time I hear the noise. They would fly really low and drop their bombs again and again. They knew we could not hide from them.’

As I walked along the streets, scrunching through glass and stepping around shell craters, almost every building — from banks to bus stations, cafe to the courtroom, police station to post offices — had chunks blasted off, windows blown out, roofs burned.

Holes in the walls of hastily abandoned homes exposed the humdrum debris of daily life such as cots, coats and cups. Signs warned of mines, even next to a hospital.

A plaque on the wall of one stately building, bearing the Soviet hammer and sickle, showed that a Red Army rifle regiment had been based there in 1943 — but like all others around the central park, it was wrecked after the invasion by today’s Russian troops.

Somehow a sign spelling out ‘I love Izyum’ by the destroyed town hall survived the blitz — as did the mural of John Lennon saying ‘Give Peace A Chance’ that felt laced with grotesque irony amid such carnage.

About 14,000 people remain amid the ruins: survivors of the destruction as Russian forces, on one side of the river which snakes through Izyum, fought to capture the entire town. Now they tell tales of brutality, beatings and looting during occupation.

One mother of young children said Russian troops had come to her house saying they were searching for her husband to execute him as he was a military veteran. ‘I told them it was too late’ said Yulia, 39. ‘He’d died a week earlier so I buried him by my house.’

Then she quietly told how three drunk soldiers came back, dragged her outside by her hair and assaulted her at gunpoint. ‘They raped me and humiliated me,’ she said. ‘After this I went into hiding with my children until the end of the occupation.’

Another resident, detained over an innocuous text message found on her phone, had to listen to screams of people being brutalised. ‘We are all trying to forget what happened,’ said Anna, 36, who worked for a gas firm.

‘My boss and his wife were held for ten days and tortured since their son worked for Ukraine’s security service. It was horrific — I don’t know how they survived. They were kept in different basement cells. She was raped. We all know of such cases.’

Their pain was intensified since the worst looting and atrocities were carried out by militia from Luhansk, the neighbouring region of Ukraine seized by Putin in 2014, and illegally annexed after a sham referendum last month.

‘We are one country but they came to kill us,’ said Anna. ‘Russia is a different country but Luhansk is our people. They came with such hatred. That was the scariest thing — that your own brothers could treat you like this.’

One local dignitary also spoke of their crushing feeling of powerless: first hiding in a basement with many others, uncertain if they would escape explosions blowing up their homes, then finding themselves at the mercy of young thugs with guns.

‘They could take you off and shoot you or your loved ones whenever they wanted,’ said Andriy Plishan, 61, head of a consumer association, whose son was beaten.

Officials say state workers, military veterans and activists were targeted. ‘Their desire was to get rid of all the people who refused to accept that Ukraine was part of the Russian empire,’ said Kostyantyn Petrov, secretary of the city administration.

He said many of the 471 corpses found in the mass grave had their hands bound or bullet holes in their heads. ‘It is very likely they died from torture — but then, it is also a crime against humanity when people are dying in their homes from missile strikes.’

Oksana Bezpalenko, 33 watched neighbours being led off with bags on their heads and cats shot for fun by occupying troops while her children — aged between 12 and four — saw someone beaten to death in their yard. ‘A lot of people suffered here,’ she said.

She was heavily pregnant during the bombing. Now her daughter Milana — born in a corridor of the last functioning hospital after Oksana defied the curfew and braved threats to shoot from soldiers at a checkpoint — is one of just 370 children living in Izyum.

The child’s birth was aided by Yuriy Kuznetsov, who was for almost two months the only doctor working in Izyum, as he battled to save lives in a hospital wrecked by air strikes.

This selfless trauma surgeon worked tirelessly for weeks on end in a makeshift operating theatre created in the cold, dingy and poorly lit hospital basement, patching up bodies left horrifically injured by bombs, bullets, mines and shrapnel.

‘The most difficult casualties were the chest wounds with collapsed lungs, heavy bleeding, extreme shock from pain, and trying to stabilise shredded limbs,’ he said. ‘We did not have an anaesthetist so many things were not possible.’

One day this doctor had to deal with 17 injured people arriving in three hours. Early in the war, many patients were injured by cluster bombs. In recent weeks, butterfly mines led to amputations — and his own home was hit in the fight to free the town.

Little wonder that his face looks etched with fatigue. Kuznetsov, 55, said he found it hardest when he could not save patients — especially those he knew in this close-knit town. ‘Any death is horrible but it is especially painful if you know the person.’

He recalled one friend who carried in his wife pleading for help. ‘He was screaming for me to save her. She had a direct hit on her heart but she was beyond medical help. In a state of shock he’d brought in her body when she was already dead.’

The hospital morgue overflowed with corpses, the stench of death intensifying due to the lack of electricity and the coroner’s execution by the Russians — although the hospital director said forensic teams were now sorting out these grotesque scenes.

Most people staying in Izyum are elderly. Many rely on meals cooked by volunteers. One social worker said some residents were left so traumatised that they hoard donations of food and clothes.

‘I went to my neighbour’s apartment and could not enter because of all the supplies stacked inside. People have not been to the shops for nine months and are scared so they’re panicking a bit,’ she said.

Yevhen Horbenko, a teacher who gave me a sofa in his flat for the night, told me of listening to Ukrainian radio under occupation and hearing that his town had suffered worse destruction than Mariupol, the port that was besieged and battered so badly.

He lost more than a stone during the fighting and occupation. His son was hit in the arm by three shards of shrapnel. Yet Yevhen would risk his life to run to the top of a hill to find a phone signal to call his wife, stranded on the other side of the front line.

He told me he knew liberation had come when he woke up to silence rather than missile sounds. Their flat escaped comparatively lightly: a few broken windows, two blown-out doors and a hole in the apartment block’s roof, patched up by residents.

‘I was in a state of shock when I came back here,’ said his wife Natalia, 63. ‘When I saw my husband, I just stood staring at him for 20 minutes. Then when he took me around the city, I struggled to take in the terrible new reality.’

City officials are assessing the damage, reconnecting gas and hoping to restore heating to almost one-third of the 198 city centre apartment blocks before winter. The Red Cross is also handing out blankets and heaters.

But there are disquieting hints of tension. I heard anger against officials who fled the city, bitterness over failures to deliver assistance, concern over the lack of jobs and — perhaps most corrosively — deep fury over claims of collaboration.

One rape victim told me she had been accused of sleeping with the enemy. Another woman said her husband was forced to work for the occupiers but was now held for collaboration. A sweet-natured man who sheltered scores of people in his basement was suddenly accused of collaboration in the street by a prominent city official.

Yet for all the suffering and trauma, only 12 people have accepted evacuation. Most residents seem to feel pride or communal relief in survival, fused with fierce determination to get through the travails of winter and rebuild their broken town.

‘I hope the city can be rebuilt,’ said Lisa after looking at the distressing scene of her friend’s death. ‘No matter the condition of their apartments, people cover up their windows and say they can survive. They say: this is our hometown, our motherland, we are not going anywhere and we want to rebuild it. This inspires me so much.’

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