For six months, Susanna Nikolayevna lived in an information vacuum, receiving almost no news about what was happening beyond her occupied city. Izyum rarely had electricity, and to get a data connection on her phone, she had to stand near the Russian military checkpoint on the edge of town, something few locals felt comfortable doing.
So it came as a shock Sunday when she left the basement bomb shelter where she and her 10-year-old son had spent the previous night and saw two truckloads of soldiers having lunch under the Ukrainian flag.
“We don’t understand the situation,” Ms. Nikolayevna said. “It was like a fairy tale. For six months there were Russians here, and then they just came and retook the city so easily. Why didn’t they do this earlier?”
No one, including the Ukrainian generals who planned the 10-day-old counteroffensive that has liberated Izyum along with almost all of the country’s eastern Kharkiv region, could have predicted how swiftly the Russian army would collapse. Nor was it foreseeable that the Russians would easily abandon this strategically important city, built on rare high ground overlooking the plains of Eastern Ukraine. Izyum is seen as a key to the fighting in both Kharkiv and the neighbouring Donbas region.
Few were as surprised by the sudden turn of events as the residents of Izyum. Their isolation was so complete that none of the people who spoke to The Globe and Mail this week knew about the makeshift grave discovered Thursday, where Russian troops appear to have buried 445 local residents and 17 Ukrainian soldiers who had died during the six-month occupation.
The Izyum Telegraph, a newspaper produced and distributed by the occupying Russians, had only told readers that President Vladimir Putin’s troops were making progress, “liberating” more and more of Ukraine from its supposedly fascist rulers. In line with Kremlin propaganda, the paper never called the conflict a war, just a “special military operation.”
“There is no war here. But we have no windows, no heating and no gas since the start of this special operation,” said Zoya Timofeyevna, a 69-year-old retired accountant who was standing in line for food aid Thursday. A tear rolled down her face as she described life in a city that has seen the front line move through it twice since March. “We’ve had to fetch water from wells and sit in our basements holding candles. I don’t understand why this is happening.”
Lieutenant Andrii Bashtovyi, a platoon leader from the 25th Brigade, which took part in the offensive, recounted the “bizarre” experience of trying to convince locals that he and his men really were part of the Ukrainian army. “People had no information, so when you tell them the entire Kharkiv region, or 90 per cent of it, is clear, they don’t believe you.”
Lt. Bashtovyi, who was a magazine editor before he joined the army, said the speed of the Ukrainian advance had been startling, even to those who took part in it. “They were trying to fight back, but the tempo, man, even me and my officers were shocked by our tempo,” he said, cradling an assault rifle he had upgraded with a Russian grenade launcher he had recovered after the battle. “In the end, they were just leaving their guns and running away.”
The 25th Brigade captured enormous amounts of Russian ammunition and equipment, he said, including tanks and anti-aircraft weapons. “Tomorrow or the day after these will be used by us.”
Occasional gunfire crackled in the city Friday, as Ukrainian troops continued to search for Russian fighters believed to be hiding in the region. There were also several small explosions as the Ukrainians carried out controlled detonations of Russian landmines.
Evidence of the military rout that took place is scattered along the road to Izyum. The main highway from the regional capital of Kharkiv is an impassable mess of shell craters and damaged bridges, framed by flipped, burnt cars. An unmarked anti-tank mine lay visible on the side of the road.
The only way through was via a pair of abandoned concrete checkpoints with “LPR” spray painted on them – indicating they had once been manned by soldiers of the so-called “Lugansk People’s Republic,” a part of Eastern Ukraine where Moscow organized a phoney referendum in 2014 and which only Russia and Syria recognize as an independent state. The next checkpoint bore the letters “KhPR,” suggesting plans to create a “Kharkiv People’s Republic” as well.
The remaining road was blocked for almost an hour Thursday as a Russian T-72 tank that had lost part of its tracks was loaded onto a flatbed truck – one of at least 90 tanks that open-source analysts say the Ukrainians have captured, damaged or destroyed since the counterattack began.
Travellers to Izyum then had to swerve past another T-72, this one pointed toward Izyum and painted with the Ukrainian flag, that was embedded in the metal rail along the side of the road. On the right, a Russian T-80 – designed to provide greater battlefield mobility – had apparently gotten its gun trapped as it manoeuvred in the ditch alongside the road and was being towed away by Ukrainian troops. On the other side of the shattered highway, the bloated body of a Russian soldier, missing part of his lower legs, lay face up in the bushes.
The sign at Izyum’s city limits had been defaced with blue spray paint proclaiming it “New Moscow.” Apparently there was little local enthusiasm for the idea, as three-quarters of the city’s pre-war population of 45,000 fled before the Russians arrived.
Six months into a war that has seen Russian forces repeatedly committing war crimes, the scale of destruction in Izyum is nonetheless jarring. Almost every building in the city centre has sustained damage, most of it during the fierce three-week battle in March that saw the Russians occupy the city.
A small hotel was missing its roof, several supermarkets and the main post office had been destroyed by heavy weapons fire, and rows of homes were scorched and uninhabitable.
On central Tolstoy Street, a pair of side-by-side five-storey apartment blocks had been reduced to a pile of rubble. Locals said the buildings were destroyed by a Russian air strike during the fighting in March and that 45 people died inside.
One of the more intact apartment blocks in the city had been decorated before the war with a giant mural of John Lennon and the words “Give peace a chance!” In response, the portrait had been shot repeatedly in the face.
The main bridge across the Siverskiy Donets, the river that divides the city in two, was destroyed in the most recent fighting, so humanitarian aid was delivered to the north side of the city Thursday via a pontoon replacement constructed by the Ukrainian army.
“We’re going to be coming here every day. There’s no water or electricity or anything,” said Alex Nau, a 27-year-old University of Regina student and co-founder of the charity Hero Ukraine, who drove a truck of food aid into Izyum, where it was distributed by World Central Kitchen.
On the north side of the bridge, Vitaly Zhulin lives on the second floor of a two-storey building overlooking a telephone office that Russian forces had used as a base. Belying the effectiveness the Ukrainian military displayed during the recent offensive, Mr. Zhulin said Ukrainian artillery had repeatedly tried and failed to hit the base while Izyum was under Russian occupation, destroying several nearby homes in the process.
On Thursday, the premises were littered with loose ammunition left behind by the 30 Russian soldiers who suddenly deserted their posts.
“On Saturday morning my mother and I went to the shop and saw an armoured personnel carrier sitting there empty, with ammunition and grenades and everything inside, but no soldiers. The next day we saw the Ukrainian flag on this APC,” said Mr. Zhulin, who was also surprised by the arrival of Ukrainian troops, because the only news he had received over the past while was via the Izyum Telegraph.
He returned home Sunday to find that the telephone office-turned-military base had been deserted in apparent panic. “They left behind their boots. They didn’t even finish their tea.”
The Kharkiv offensive: More from The Globe and Mail
In photos: Mass grave unearthed in Kharkiv region
For a small Ukrainian special-forces unit, the Kharkiv counteroffensive was a dangerous mission to distract the Russians as their comrades retook an occupied city. Senior foreign correspondent Mark MacKinnon explains how it worked. Subscribe for more episodes.