Relief, but little joy, in one Ukrainian town liberated after Russian occupation
Shevchenkove may have been liberated after more than six months of Russian occupation, but in the run-down streets of this small town in northeastern Ukraine, there are no scenes of joy.
Its streets were practically deserted Tuesday, five days after Ukrainian forces swept through. Their trucks and a heavy police presence were the only signs of the dramatic events of the past few days, and a strong reminder of who is now in charge.
Civilians were few and far between. A few, huddled anxiously outside the police station, waited to have their phones checked for any sign of collaboration with the occupier.
Kharkiv police declined to tell CNN what would happen to anyone who was accused.
Ukrainian officials have vowed that anyone who collaborated with occupation forces will face criminal sanctions.
Other civilians hurried in and out of their homes, heads down and eyes downcast, to a food truck manned by Ukrainian military personnel, where bottles of water and plastic bags full of food were handed out.
Few were willing to speak to the media and CNN’s cameras were turned away from the police station by Kharkiv police each time someone handcuffed and blindfolded was taken away in a police car.
Only a pair of elderly women taking a walk in a nearby park agreed to talk – at first reluctantly and then with all the bottled-up emotion of those who’ve been silent too long.
“We didn’t have any choice,” said Maria, who declined to give her last name for security reasons, bursting into tears. “They just came and occupied us.”
Her long-time friend, 73-year-old Larisa Kharkivska, agreed to lead the way to the home she shares with her 35-year-old disabled daughter, Svetlana. According to Kharkivska, they’re the only people left in her building. All those who could afford the $400 it cost to leave through Russia did, she said.
She told of her guilt at having taken the food given out by the Russians as she showed two cardboard boxes holding a few bags of sugar and some rice.
“We couldn’t buy anything in the shops,” Kharkivska said. “And we couldn’t get money because the banks were closed, so we had to stand there like beggars.”
Their apartment became a prison they dared not leave.
“They (the Russians) walked around with automatic weapons; we were terrified to go outside,” Kharkivska said.
Almost every night from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. they had no electricity and no water, she added.
“We survived, thank God, we survived! But it was very frightening. We just hope they never come back.”
Shevchenkove, which lies about 80 kilometers (50 miles) southeast of the city of Kharkiv, was occupied from February 25 – just a day after Russia launched its invasion – and was left largely unscathed despite shelling as the Russians swept through the town.
On Tuesday night, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke of the “stabilization measures” now underway in what Ukraine says is 8,000 square kilometers (3,088 square miles) of ground recaptured from the Russians.
“Remnants of occupiers are being detained, collaborators detained and full security is being restored,” Zelensky said. He added how important it was to return to “ordinary life” after an area was freed from occupation.
In Shevchenkove, there is little sign of that yet, as authorities try to work out where collaboration ends, and survival begins.