"Kamikaze women" gardening despite everything – for fear of starving: six months of occupation in Balakliya
15 September, 2022
A resident of Verbivka village Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

The roads of Kharkiv Oblast are long and winding – among sunflower fields mixed with short forest strips and clean, well-groomed villages. It immediately becomes clear when we cross the border with the recently liberated territories. There are destroyed bridges and houses, a lot of destroyed and abandoned equipment on the roadside, broken roads and many soldiers. 

Tank operators sleep right on the tanks while there is time, infantrymen gather in groups near their vehicles, talk and eat. Now and then, we are overtaken by long columns of cars with white crosses. The defenders move around with what they can, aside from SUVs, there are a lot of ordinary city cars, even of domestic production, not adapted to war.

Руїни будинку в центрі Балаклії

Ruins of a house in the center of Balakliya
Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

Without pensions and with the occupiers: six long months

We enter Verbivka, which is a few kilometres from Balakliya. The village seems empty, only a few people wave happily to the military, but the center is unexpectedly crowded. This is because, according to rumors, they were supposed to bring humanitarian aid, but for some reason it did not happen. I approach the villagers with one question: how did you live these six months under occupation?

"Our lives were very hard. Everyone who was here worked under the bullets in the gardens. We were even told that we have 'kamikaze women': they are shot at, and they still do gardening. To have potatoes and not to die of hunger," 62-year-old Olha complains.

70-year-old Nadiya Vasylivna recalls that for six months the villagers did not receive pensions and the garden was often the only source of food: "For half a year we slept in basements without taking off our clothes, in sweaters and jackets, because of the strikes. It was not a life, but a torment".

72-річна Надія, жителька Вербівки

72-year-old Nadiya, a resident of Verbivka
Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

"Putin promised us a house and two slaves each"

I ask how the Russians treated the villagers. 72-year-old Nadiya speaks fragmentarily and often breaks into tears: "We came here, we asked them: 'What are you doing here?' And he goes: 'Putin promised us a house and two slaves each'. I wish his mother would drown him in the font, that Putin – something is wrong with his head."

70-year-old Natalia Vasylivna recalls that her acquaintance with the Russians began when they came to her house, being sure that two elderly people were hiding weapons somewhere.

"They stood guard at my house. You have to show your passport to get home, what kind of life is this?" the woman gets irritated.

Even rural conditions sometimes caused envy among Russians. 

"They asked us: 'Is this a city?' You come in, and we have water and toilet inside the house, like in cities," Natalia Vasylivna recalls. "They said 'we will bring our families here'."

67-year-old Vasyl, breaking down, tells how once they put a bag over his head and took him to an unknown place, accusing him of helping the Ukrainian military. They threatened to kill him if he did not confess.

"They are bastards, pure bastards," he shows a still visible scar from the rope that tied his hands. "They did not give me food, I had to pee in a bottle."

They held the man for a day and released him at night. When he returned home, he slept at his daughter's place for the first week, afraid that they would find him at home again and kill him. Finally, the man asks to send his newly taken photo to his relatives abroad, but he cannot remember where exactly they are now.

When the counteroffensive began, there were very active shootings, the Russians fled via the railway, and all the villagers were sitting in the basements and were afraid to come out, Olha recalls.

She says she cried all day when she finally saw Ukrainian soldiers in the village, "my heart almost stopped from joy".

Verbivka village, suburb of Balakliya
Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

"Humanitarian aid was brought once a month and they complained that we were eating too much"

Before the war, we knew about the city of Balakliya, the center of our trip, primarily because of the explosions and fire at the local ammunition depot in March 2017, which was widely discussed in the country. Then one woman died and four were injured, and the total damage was estimated at UAH 12 billion ($451 million). After Balakliya, there were similar, but not so large-scale fires in warehouses near Kalynivka in Vinnytsia Oblast and Ichnia in Chernihiv Oblast. The Ministry of Defense claims that all three fires were caused by sabotage and explosion of ammunition.

However, now, perhaps, Balakliya will be talked about as a settlement from which the complete liberation of Kharkiv Oblast began. The Ukrainian military took control of the city on September 8, the second day after the start of the counteroffensive.

It seems that these days the city belongs primarily to the military and hungry but non-aggressive dogs, who freely walk the empty streets between high-rise buildings, looking for food and human warmth.

In the center of the city, we again came across a large group of people waiting for humanitarian aid. They were informed about this in the morning and asked to join the line. In total, there were more than 300 residents. But when the truck with the necessities and goodies arrived, everyone forgot about the line numbers on their hands and the struggle for a place near the volunteer began. Packages to women with children were distributed out of turn, all the others seemed to be competing who had longer arms and more assertive personality. It could be said they were "as if on short rations", if that weren't actually the case. 

Everything was very expensive at the market in the city during the occupation, recalls 64-year-old Maryna Ivanivna. Pasta cost 40 UAH ($1.09), a dozen eggs - 50 ($1.37), sugar - 65 ($1.78), rice and buckwheat - 100 ($2.73), oil - up to 140 UAH ($3.83) per liter, meat - up to 200 ($5.47) per kilo. It seems that prices are not much higher than in Kyiv, but people have not received salaries or pensions for six months, except for some remittals from relatives.

The boxes with humanitarian aid contain oil, soap, pasta, pate, breakfast cereals and many other tasty things, many of them Polish-made. Russians also brought humanitarian aid, but only once a month.

"The last time they brought humanitarian aid a month ago, they gave one person a pack of spaghetti, a can of condensed milk, a can of mackerel and stew. And then they said that we eat too much," says 58-year-old Nadiya. The Russians seized her eldest son's Lada, just by coming into the yard with machine guns.

People waiting for humanitarian aid distribution in Balakliya
Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

"Buryats took everything they could from the houses"

Maryna Ivanivna breaks into tears once Russians come up: "We were afraid of them, because we are from western Ukraine and expected that anything could happen to us. Our friends' son was killed a month and a half ago. They said that he allegedly cooperated with Ukrainians, and he was just killed."

She says that the Russians behaved very piggishly, smashed all the shops, took everything from there, and Buryats took everything from the houses they lived in, leaving them uninhabitable. 

Maryna was later seconded by Nadiya: "They were angry, especially the Buryats, they entered the houses and took everything they could. They even pulled dirty underwear off one woman".

She says that the Russians organized a place for interrogation and a prison in the building of the local police department: "They electrocuted people there, and raped women. One woman was sent to Kharkiv pregnant".

Руїни школи у Вербівці, яку будували 20 років

The ruins of a school in Verbivka that took 20 years to build
Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

40 prisoners left to their fate

We enter the prison the woman told us about. It is a corridor about 10 meters long, which connects five or six rooms of up to 12 square meters each. One room is exclusively for women, the mattresses on the floor lie close to each other, the bathroom is also here, no partition is provided. But in some cells there were no toilets. 

Here they kept "fire adjusters", a teacher, anyone suspicious. Someone was held for 6 days, others — for a month. In total, about 40 people were held in the prison.

The policeman who leads us does not mention about the rape of women, but confirms that the prisoners were tortured with electric current, and shows the wiring above the cell doors — the detainees were not provided with even basic living conditions, but each cell was secretly monitored.

In one of the cells, another policeman is still conducting investigative actions, looking for fingerprints, and our attention is drawn to the broken glass above the door of the next cell. This is the hole through which people were released. When the Russians fled from the city, they left all the cell doors locked, the prisoners broke one window above the door, the smallest one crawled through the hole and opened the door for the others.

The district police department in Balakliya, where the prison used to be
Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

"I screamed so loud, I thought the sky would break"

Not far from the city center, there are two fresh graves on the lawn. They are the graves of two men who went to the city on September 7, but ran into perhaps the last Russians in Balakliya. Police are conducting investigative actions near the graves. 

"Don't film, please!" Valentyna cries, her 49-year-old son Petro is lying in one of the two bags. But then she tells about everything that happened. Her son went out in the evening on errands, said that he would be back before the curfew. The mother waited for him all night and in the morning decided to look for him herself, but another woman came to her and asked to come for identification.

"When I came and saw this terrible picture, I screamed at the whole Balakliya, I thought the sky would break. I want to ask Putin: why did he shoot my son? I do not walk these days, I am dying on my feet. But no one will return my son to me". 

Witnesses say that about 15 people with assault rifles came out and shot the car in which Valentyna's son and his friend were driving at close range. And the next day Ukrainians liberated the city.

Graves of two men who were shot by Russians on September 7
Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

"Our surgeon operated by candlelight"

Balakliya has been without electricity and water supply for 10 days. This is to some extent a familiar picture, such problems have constantly arisen in the city during these six months of occupation. When I enter the dark corridor of the local polyclinic, at first I do not even notice people lying on beds under the walls. They are not placed in rooms with windows for security reasons — the war is very close and can come at any time.

Two women walk among the patients with a lantern, checking if everything is okay. One of them, 55-year-old Larysa, agrees to talk to me, but answers my questions as briefly as possible — either irritated by my uninvited visit or plain tired. 

Despite the fact that they work in a polyclinic, the institution has also had to perform the functions of a hospital since April, receiving up to 12 wounded and seriously ill patients with heart attacks and strokes, poisoning, mental disorders. 

In the last days of the war, four wounded Russians were brought here. They were also accepted because they were armed. But their wounds were light, and the Hippocratic oath has not been canceled — a doctor must help everyone. Those soldiers were quickly taken away by their own.

"From February 24 till now we have not had a single day off. We worked around the clock, slept whenever we could. There was always something missing. Our surgeon operated by candlelight, sewed and treated wounds," Larysa admits at the end of the conversation. 

Now four people are hospitalized in the hospital. All the work inside is made possible by one small generator. Larysa points to a smiling bearded man. He is also a doctor, a narcologist, but now he is a patient, he was wounded on September 8.

The wounds are not serious – in the lower back and buttocks. Maybe that's why 75-year-old Oleksandr smiles recalling the events of that day: "The explosion was about 10 meters away from me, I sat down and was protected by tires from the flower garden, one of which fell right on me. All the tree branches above me were cut off by the debris flying above".

He says he is already recovering and has only one hole left in him. At my wish to "live to be 100 years old" he laughs and wishes to stay in this world even longer. Three other patients lie quietly and still, I can't even tell if they are sleeping.

Balakliya polyclinic left without electricity
Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

In the center of Balakliya, there are two Ukrainian flags on a very beautiful small monument to Taras Shevchenko. Nearby, a man and a woman with their children are walking separately. The boy goes up to the monument and gently touches the flag with his hand. The girl comes with her father to the flowerbed with the surviving flowers nearby, they stroke them, tear off a few petals and run somewhere one after another.

In the evening, the news comes that Balakliya and Hrakove have already started paying pensions for the previous five months. Because the occupation is over.

A child in the center of Balakliya near the monument to Taras Shevchenko
Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

/ By Oleksandr Khomenko