(Kramatorsk, special envoy). “I was Russian. Russian Russian My father was a Russian soldier. I was brought up in Russian culture. I have spoken Russian all my life. I loved music, painting, Russian literature. All. But since they started this war, I realized that all of this had the devil. I will never speak Russian again, now my every word will be spoken in Ukrainian.”
Olena has a very Russian furry black cap. He is 59 years old and has a firm voice. She talks a lot, looks like she’s been silenced for months. Much of the small population of Balaklia it was: the troops of Cheese fries They took the city in March 2022 and occupied it for seven months. They imprisoned citizens, offered passports and even started organizing elections. But the result was the exact opposite of what they were looking for.
“We lived as one prison, in a huge prison that no one could get out of. That’s what this town became while the Russians were there,” said another woman of the same age as Olena. They are both queuing to buy a liter of milk from a truck that distributes it once a day. People accumulate there and as soon as they discover that there are journalists, they start coming to talk.
“I live with my husband, but for people who live alone it was very difficult, really very difficult. No one could leave their house, there was no one to talk to, all subjects seemed off limits, everyone was suspicious… Links were broken for months,” says Irina, from the same group of women.
The days of occupation lasted until September 8, when Ukrainian troops recaptured the city. With only 26,000 inhabitants, Balakliya is twenty minutes south of Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine. To the east, only 150 kilometers separate it from the border with Russia. This is one of the reasons why the Russians expected to be welcomed with open arms. This did not happen, but neither was it the other way around: some locals were indeed pro-Russian and helped the invading troops. There are hardly any left, they went to Russia when their army was defeated. If before Balakliya was a divided city, today it is much more Ukrainian than a year ago.
It’s not a well-known city. It is not located next to any main access and did not occupy the pages of the newspapers too much, but fate wanted us to arrive. We started our journey from Kyiv to get as close as possible to the current epicenter of the conflict, in the Donbass. The roads, used for a year almost as much by tanks and armored vehicles as by cars, are not in the best conditions. Shrapnel from explosives is in almost every road and is dangerous for tires. After several hours on the road, we had to stop because of a puncture. We did it right next to a destroyed Russian tank. After unsuccessfully trying to resolve the situation, Iván’s car appeared. He gave us air with a compressor and told us to accompany him to his town, only 30 kilometers away, that he was a friend of the owner of a tire shop.
Without hesitation, we followed him. We continue on the main road until a crossroads where we turn right. The landscape became more wintry and desert-like, just bare trees, mud and snow. So, the sign: Balakliya. And on the right, a huge destroyed hangar. The war was there too.
When we arrived at the workshop, we asked Iván how his life was this year. His face changed, and a bitterness suddenly appeared that he hadn’t shown before. “The worst has been these seven months,” he said then. It was only then that we learned that we were in one of the towns that had suffered the occupation.
“They arrived on March 2 or 3. The first thing they did was to say that we were now Russian citizens and that they were planning to hold elections. The people were divided 50/50. Those of us who were pro-Ukraine kept quiet, those who were pro-Russia spoke, and if they knew someone was pro-Ukraine, they blamed them. Then the Russians would imprison them. That’s why when they were defeated, almost all the pro-Russians went with them,” he says. He is silent and takes a drag on his cigarette. He looks at us and says that the first days were the worse because he was one of those incarcerated.
-I was a policeman in the past, but not anymore. And they had a list with people’s names, with some information, and they were based on that.
– How was the detention by the Russians?
-The first three days, I was in a cell in the dark and they beat me a lot, all the time. After three days they took me to another room, they took the mask off my head, they released the chains from my wrists and they told me to make a video in which I said that I was an artillery corrector of the Ukrainian forces, and that we had killed Ukrainian civilians with our gunfire. And they told me that if I agreed to film it, they would give me a Russian passport and I could start a new life in Russia, that everything would be fine for me. But I refused, so they took me back to the prison for another three days.
Ivan is huge. He has a green jacket and when he salutes he tries not to push too hard so as not to hurt himself. He is 34 years old and before saying goodbye to us, he greets us with an affectionate shrug, as if uniting the bodies in a hands-free embrace. We ask his mechanic friend how much we owe him and he won’t let us pay. We insist, but he refuses to take the money. For them, they say, there is no better payment than to be able to be free to tell your story.
We walk for a while in the streets of Balakliya, then we get back on the road, heading again towards the Donbass. Since then, almost every town we pass through has been occupied and liberated, many destroyed along the way. Some refer to the path as “the way to liberation”. And the costs are not hidden: as we get closer to Kramatorskour destination, we started to see more and more destroyed tanks on the side of the road.
Izium It is another of the cities hard hit by the war. We cross it from end to end and we do not see a single block that does not have at least one building hit by artillery or missile fire. On a hill at the end of the city, there was a famous cafeteria which had a small hotel, a swimming pool and even a paintball field, where the locals played war with paintballs. Today only rubble remains. It is also a historical point: due to the panoramic view it offers, it was a base of operations during the Second World War, and there is a huge monument in memory of those who fell in these clashes. Not even the memorial was left intact: today it is a monument torn in two by the power of war, completely unaware of the irony that it was a tribute to those who destroyed it.
A few hours later, we reach the border that separates the Kharkiv region from the Donbass region. We deliver the identity papers and the passport to a checkpoint and the officer who checks it is surprised that there are journalists from Latin America. He thanks us for having come so far and asks us to take care of ourselves. He clenches his fist and beats his heart, then moves his arm indicating that we are moving forward. Its image becomes smaller in the rear view mirror. Ahead the debacle becomes huge.
The road goes down to a valley and from the top you can see a small town with absolutely all the roofs broken and painted black by the soot of the fire. It is -again- an image of the First World War, enhanced by the tanks abandoned in the middle of the field, also destroyed, and the blown up bridges and the overturned cars. On the road, we pass by private vehicles and many military transports. Entering the Donbass region is like entering a huge military base, everything is war, there is no longer that fear of oblivion that one can feel in Kyiv.
Once in Kramatorsk, the largest city in the region under Ukrainian rule, the curtain of artillery begins to sound. These are the sounds of war, ringing again in our ears. We try to contain the shocks, but it takes days to calm the state of alertness. Bakhmut it is only 50 kilometers away, today there is hell. Small towns along the way are also bombarded. Everything is heard everywhere, so that no one forgets.
On the streets of Kramatorsk, traffic consists of a few cars and many armored vehicles. A tank waits at a red light. The picture is laughable. Sitting on the edge of the open hatch, a soldier is smoking. They don’t have to stop at a red light, but I can imagine why: even if it’s for a while, even if it’s in a town that seems devoid of everyday life, when the soldiers leave the lines of forehead they look for any excuse to feel that they still exist. , distant and sacred, the ancient customs of times of peace.
Melissa Galbraith is the World News reporter for Globe Live Media. She covers all the major events happening around the World. From Europe to Americas, from Asia to Antarctica, Melissa covers it all. Never miss another Major World Event by bookmarking her author page right here.
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