100 Days of War in a Ukrainian village – National

VILKHIVKA, Ukraine — Liubov Novikova was in her house at 20 Studentska St. on March 2 when a Russian rocket landed in her yard and a fragment struck her head.

Her son Gennadiy was out getting milk when he heard the explosion. By the time he got home his mother, a Russian-born dairy farm worker, was dead.

The villagers dug her grave and were covering her in dirt on the grassy slope overlooking the Rohanka River when they also came under attack from Russian artillery.

Yevgeny Shalom, 22, died instantly. Valeri Ivanov, 26, lost his hand and was wounded in the leg but couldn’t get to a hospital in time and bled to death.

“It’s a horror for everyone,” said Alexander Novikov, a farmer who was present when the cemetery attack happened.

A ‘Good Village’

A village in the grasslands and forests east of Kharkiv, Vilkhivka is made up of four hamlets spread around the lake formed when the river was dammed to irrigate the corn and soya farms.

Post office building, Vilkhivka, Ukraine, May 21, 2022.

Stewart Bell/Global News

The pride of Vilkhivka is its school, properly located on School Street. The meat plant employs those who don’t commute to factories in Kharkiv. Virtually every home has a vegetable and flower garden.

Named after its alder trees — vilkha in Ukrainian — Vilkhivka was an unexceptional former Soviet farm town until Russian tanks crossed the border and roared into town in late February.

Over the next 100 days, the village became a microcosm of Ukraine as it endured occupation, depopulation, deportation, shelling, street battles, killings and a reckoning.

The residents who have trickled back since Ukrainian forces retook the village in late March found a largely deserted demolition site. The main road into town passes unused mines and wrecked cars.

An armoured vehicle blocking the entrance to Vilkhivka, Ukraine, May 19, 2022.

Stewart Bell/Global News

A destroyed armoured vehicle that blocked the road had to be pushed onto the shoulder. The bridge over the river was destroyed. A missile protrudes like a lawn dart from the grass beside Central Street.

The school was used as a military position and has been reduced to a concrete frame with collapsed walls. Its front steps are strewn with broken glass, artillery fragments and ammunition, some of it unexploded.

There is still no electricity, gas or water. The bodies of Russian soldiers and their victims continue to turn up. War crimes prosecutors are investigating civilian deaths.

Stefania Leskiv, whose home was destroyed by a rocket, with photo of her late son.

Stewart Bell/Global News

“We had such a good village, better than the others,” said Liubov Kurkina, the deputy of the village council, whose office was looted by Russian soldiers.

The Invasion

Kurkina stuck it out for most of the occupation. A week after she returned, she walked the streets, compiling a list of which houses were inhabited and which were destroyed.

To the sounds of distant artillery, she walked on with her list, trying to bring order back to what remained of the village.

“It’s ours who are shelling,” she shrugged. “We are used to it.”

She said Russian tanks rumbled through the village on the first day of the invasion. They were on their way to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city and a key target of President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to dispossess his neighbour.

A large Russian column arrived two days later but when it tried to move west towards Kharkiv, the Ukrainian defences were waiting five kilometres down the road in Elitne.

The Russians spread out in the woods around Vilkhivka and took over vacant homes, locals and military officials said. There was shooting and shelling as the two sides fought it out.

Olena Bobrysheva in her garden on School Street, Vilkhivka, Ukraine, May 19, 2022.

Stewart Bell/Global News

“We were so scared, we were just hiding,” said Olena Bobrysheva, a Kharkiv turbine factory worker who lives with her husband on the main floor of a house on School Street.

The couple hunkered in their bathroom, the most secure place in the house. Cut off from Kharkiv by the frontline, they became self-reliant, eating their stored canned goods and potatoes.

When the winter temperatures dipped, groups of four or five Russian soldiers would come out of the forests to draw water from the wells and knock on doors looking for food and warm clothing.

But Bobrysheva said she never spoke to them and they didn’t come to her home. They were an unwanted presence and she kept her distance. Their shelling attacks were harder to avoid.

The first civilian death

One week into the invasion, Liubov Novikova was at home in her three-room cottage. A TV sat in the corner of the living room, and there were framed portraits of Jesus and the Virgin Mary on the bookshelf. A family picture hung on the wall.

Liubov Novikova’s house in Vilkhivka, Ukraine, May 19, 2022.

Stewart Bell/Global News

Novikova kept goats and chickens in her yard. “I used to buy eggs from her,” her neighbour Igor said. He said he did not see what happened but he heard it. A rocket struck, and then a second.

Her hands were white when her son Gennadiy found her. The rocket that killed her landed five metres from her house. The walls were too thin to protect her from the flying shrapnel.

What appears to be the crater left by the attack was just inside her chain link fence. It was sprouting spring ground cover. Her grass was overgrown. Her son said the shell came from the direction of Russian positions.

Why they targeted her property is unknown. Another rocket later landed on the street outside the home. It is still there in the ring it made at the edge of the road.

“She was a very good person,” Gennadiy said of his mother.

He said she was born in the Russian city of Belgorod, making her a Russian pensioner killed in her home by a Russian invasion supposedly ordered to protect Russians. Such is the logic of Putin’s war.

Cemetery Attack

There was discussion about where to bury Novikova. The cemetery is near the treeline, 400 metres from the closest homes. It is exposed and some wondered if it was safe.

A cemetery in Vilkhivka, Ukraine, May 22, 2022.

Stewart Bell/Global News

Villagers digging a grave could be mistaken for soldiers building trenches. The alternative was to put her in her garden but Novikova deserved better. She had been a farm laborer all her life. During Soviet times, she held a position at the government farm in Vilkhivka.

“We didn’t want to do it in the yard near the house,” said Novikov, a farmer who worked with her and was part of the burial. It might be dangerous to go to the cemetery but who would open fire on a funeral?

They dug a grave and placed her in it. As they were covering her corpse with dirt, a shell came in and exploded. Nobody was hurt, but then another round soared in and killed Shalom.

The men placed him in the crater left by the explosion and covered him over. Ivanov died later. The account was confirmed by five sources. Global News visited the scene and found evidence of shelling, both in the cemetery and on the road to it.

Alexander Novikov, May 22, 2022.

Stewart Bell/Global News

“No one thought this could happen in a cemetery,” Novikov said, standing on his property amongst his farm equipment and pigs.

He said when the Russians stayed in the village they would question locals about where to find things, but they didn’t appear at his farm and he left on March 16.

He returned on May 7 to find 80 of his cattle dead from shelling. He can’t work his fields because they need to be cleared of mines and ordinance.

“The most important thing is we are alive,” he said.

Village office raided

Witnesses recounted two cases in which Russian forces opened fire on civilian vehicles in Vilkhivka. A farmer said he was bringing fuel to his property when the Russians shot at his van. He said he ducked just in time to save himself. There are still bullet holes in his windshield.

“I was really lucky,” he said.

He showed Global News two rockets that had hit his property. Both appeared to be parts of cluster munitions, which are banned by most countries but which Russia has used extensively against civilians in Ukraine.

Vehicles on Ukrainian Street, Vilkhivka, Ukraine, May 21, 2022.

Stewart Bell/Global News

War crimes prosecutors are also investigating the death of Valery Kot, who was driving towards Vilkhivka with a load of medicine when a Russian tank blasted his sedan on March 15.

Around that same time, a convoy of Russian vehicles arrived at the Vilkhivka village office, Kurkina said. They broke in through the main doors, shot up the front hallway and went upstairs.

They took down the Ukrainian flag and went through three filing cabinets in the secretary’s office before making off with property ownership documents. They took the safe as well, she said.

The troops said they would be back in two days and wanted a new village council chosen, presumably one acceptable to the Russian government, but they never returned, Kurkina said.

Battle of Vilkhivka

On March 25, a convoy of SUVs, trucks and armoured vehicles, some flying Ukrainian flags, approached Vilkhivka under clear skies.

They were members of the Kraken Battalion, a volunteer unit started by veterans of the Azov Regiment, which the Kremlin has branded neo-Nazi to justify its invasion.

Based in Kharkiv, Kraken has trained and mobilized hundreds of fighters to defend the city and works under Ukraine’s ministry of defence, said one of its co-founders, Konstantyn Nemichev.

Nemichev coordinated the battle to retake Vilkhivka and can be seen in a video of the operation, wearing an olive green ball cap and camouflage body armour.

Backed by Armed Forces of Ukraine tanks and “trophy equipment” seized from the Russian army, the Kraken fighters battled their way into the village, moving from street to street.

The Russians retreated to the school, Nemichev told Global News in an interview. Drone video shows the Ukrainian forces approaching the school behind behind a tank that fired repeatedly at the building.

After two hours, the Russians began to surrender, Nemichev said. Twenty-seven prisoners were taken. They are shown in a video in the back of pick-ups and SUVs, stripped to their underwear with hoods over their heads and their hands bound behind them.

About 70 were killed, the Ukrainian military said. While the officers were from Russia, the foot soldiers were recruited from the Donetsk People’s Republic, the Ukrainian region seized by Russian-backed armed separatists in 2014, Nemichev said.

A rocket by the roadside, in Vilhivka, Ukraine.

Stewart Bell/Global News

“They come for money,” Gennadiy said of the Russian army soldiers.

He said he spoke to them during the occupation and they were from poor regions and were amazed by Vilkhivka’s paved roads and brick houses.

They were 18 to 20 years old, had joined the army on contract and thought they were being sent on a training mission, he said. One of them was a tank driver on the last month of his contract. Gennadiy said he later heard he was dead.

As they retreated from Vilkhivka, the Russians told residents that air strikes were coming and they should leave. Transport trucks ferried some of them seven kilometres north to Verkhnya Rohanka, the village deputy said.

About 70 villagers were then moved across the border to Belgorod, she said. It’s unclear whether they went voluntarily. The Russians wanted them to move in with relatives in Russia, but most went on to Poland, Germany, and Latvia, according to Kurkina.

Having lost Vilkhivka, the Russians shelled the area relentlessly. Olexi Kettler, a 32-year-old construction worker, was walking to the bus stop on April 21 to collect humanitarian aid when a shell pierced his upper back.

His mother holds a photo of Olexi Kettler, killed by Russian shelling on April 21, 2022.

Stewart Bell/Global News

“It’s not right because we lived well before, peaceful,” his mother Nadia said outside her home near Vilkhivka. “We worked all our lives and we never disturbed anyone.”

She buried him in the yard, beneath the laundry line. He stayed there until a war crimes prosecutor dug him up on May 27 as part of an investigation into the conduct of the Russian forces.

Cleaning up

A Ukrainian counter-offensive that pushed the Russian army back towards the border has given Vilkhivka a reprieve from the shelling, and allowed a clean up to begin.

A Russian tank disabled on the edge of town was loaded onto a flatbed truck and taken away. Workers have been trying to reconnect the electrical lines.

But the population is less than a 10th of what it was before the war, Kurkina said. Locals rely on humanitarian aid to feed themselves. Nine out of 10 homes have been destroyed.

Gennadiy Novikova, left, lost his mother to Russian shelling of Vilkhivka, Ukraine.

Stewart Bell/Global News

Stefania Leskiv said she lost almost everything when a rocket demolished the house where she had lived for 39 years.

“Not even a spoon” was spared, she said.

The attack left her dependent on the charity of neighbours, who gave her shoes and a place to sleep. She has been trying to clear her property but she is 77 and the debris is heavy.

She said she had no family to care for her. Her son was a police officer in Chornobyl. She blames radiation poisoning for his death. She keeps his portrait in the shed, which survived the blast.

On Ukrainian Street, a missile destroyed every house — except one. Why it was spared, nobody is sure, but it’s still there, a survivor but also a cruel reminder of what Vilkhivka used to be.


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