NOVA BASAN, Ukraine – Terrified and hungry, residents of Nova Basan, a town east of Kyiv, emerged from their huts and farmhouses on Monday and described how they endured the horrific ordeal of Russian occupation – arrests, threats and a strict curfew them into their homes with no outside communication for more than a month.
Nova Basan, some 60 miles east of the Ukrainian capital, is among a string of towns and villages retaken from Russian control after fighting in the last week of March and are only now coming back to life.
“It was terrible,” said Mykola Dyachenko, the official in charge of managing the city and surrounding villages. “People didn’t expect anything like that.” He said he was one of about 20 men held captive by Russian troops for 25 days during the occupation.
He looked exhausted, his face waxy and pale. He said he was subjected to mock executions 15 times while being questioned about local Ukrainian territorial defense forces and ammunition stored in the area.
His interrogators fired an assault rifle over his head during questioning, he said. His eyes were taped, but he heard and felt the shot above his head. “It was psychological pressure,” he said. “They tried to smack information out of me that I didn’t share.”
Two other men also described being arrested by Russian troops and told of soldiers hitting, punching and kicking them with rifle butts. One described being tied up with his arms hanging. Another, Oleksiy Bryzgalin, 38, a construction worker, said he was tied to a chair with a grenade between his legs for 30 hours and also fired a gun near his head during interrogation.
Detainees were moved around and held in barns and cellars and given only two potatoes a day, with only one bathroom break a day, Mr Bryzgalin said.
The detainees said they fled their makeshift prison as Russian troops prepared to withdraw last Wednesday. Five days later, Mr. Bryzgalin said he still had leg pain and trouble sleeping because of the cramped quarters.
The municipal manager, Mr Dyachenko, said he did not yet know how many civilian casualties there were and said he was just beginning to organize search teams to screen residents. On Monday he set out to investigate the report of an execution of six people by Russian soldiers on February 28 in a nearby village, he said. That was shortly after Russian troops arrived in the area, he said.
Mr Dyachencko said he also knew of a civilian who was killed in his car at a gas station when Russian troops first entered the city. And, he said, a wounded member of the Territorial Defense was held captive with him but was taken away and not seen since. The Kremlin has denied any Russian involvement in atrocities.
In the end, despite the fear and rough treatment of the civilian population, the Russian troops may have suffered more casualties than the townspeople. The Russian withdrawal was part of a planned withdrawal announced by Moscow a week ago but ended in a chaotic and bloody retreat after a fierce tank battle last Thursday, soldiers and volunteers who took part, as well as city residents, said.
On Monday, Ukrainian soldiers loaded the bodies of dead Russian soldiers into a trailer towed by an army jeep. The soldiers were killed when a Ukrainian tank crept near the town entrance and opened fire on the Russian checkpoint guarding the main crossroads, according to the soldiers and volunteers involved.
“It’s the first lot we picked up,” said Sr. Sgt. Andreiy Soroka, 38, the Ukrainian soldier in charge. “Nine and a half bodies,” he said matter-of-factly.
Four of the men died in the armored personnel carrier that was blown up by a Ukrainian tank, he said. Others among the dead Russian soldiers included a captain who was found in a nearby building and an 18-year-old conscript who had been shot in the garden of a house, Sergeant Soroka said.
A destroyed tank and armored vehicle on the road were remnants of the battle as a Ukrainian tank opened fire on the Russian vehicles. They brought up the rear of the Russian presence, which had begun packing up and leaving the city a day earlier.
Russian troops suffered a heavy defeat days earlier in the city of Lukyanivka and failed to recapture that city, said the commander of a volunteer battalion, Oleksiy Serediuk, who took part in the fighting. “They were disappointed and started moving away from several places,” he said of the Russian troops. That prompted the Ukrainian army command to pursue the retreating army, he said.
“The military command made a very wise decision to firstly make their withdrawal a chaotic escape and secondly to cut off their escape route.”
He said the battle in Nova Basan was chaotic as the Russians had to fight their way out and the Ukrainians tried to cut off their escape route. In the battle, a Russian armored vehicle crashed into a line of shops and another fell off the street, he said.
“Most Ukrainians didn’t believe in this operation,” he said, adding that Ukrainians are much fewer and inferior to Russians. “But it was successful. We created real chaos with few people and few vehicles.”
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As he spoke, soldiers pulled out the Russian armored car that had crashed into the row of shops. A group of men, retired taxi drivers, surveyed the damage while a line of women waited for the first sale of fresh meat in more than a month.
As of Monday, it had been four days since Ukrainian troops regained control of the city, but many of the residents were only just beginning to venture out of their homes. The relief on their faces was heartfelt.
“I was sitting at home shaking,” said Maria Rudenko, 82, who nervously peered around the corner of her street before approaching a car distributing food aid. “I was so scared of the shooting that I’m afraid to walk around.”
During the occupation, Russian troops searched homes, confiscated cellphones and computers and ordered people to stay indoors, local residents said. With communications and supplies down and people unable to go to shops, they began to feel hungry and scared.
“Sometimes I sat three nights without a candle,” said Ms. Rudenko. The power was out in most parts of the city, and the gas was still out. “Everyone ran away from here and I was left behind. I only had potatoes and a few pickles to eat.”
Further down the road to the southern edge of town, three friends began to cry as they picked up bags of food from a group of volunteers.
“Every day was hard, but the hardest day was when we were freed,” said Olha Vdovichenko, 70. “Everyone hid inside and we prayed. The shelling started at 6 a.m. and continued without a break until 7 p.m..”
When everything went quiet, Ukrainian soldiers were already in the city looking for abandoned Russian soldiers. A woman, who gave her name as Tania, said one of them asked her if there were any enemies nearby. “I was shaking and I was like, ‘Who are you?'” she said. “He said ‘our’.” She ends up cooking borscht in two large pots for the whole Ukrainian unit.
The Ukrainian soldiers also told Olha Maysak, 66, that the city was liberated. “At 6 p.m. the guys came over to tell us,” she said.
But her neighbor, Mrs. Vdovichenko, didn’t know it was over. She woke up at 7 a.m. the next morning to hear some men talking outside.
“He said we’re free, we’re free,” she said. “That’s how I knew it.”