After Russian forces pull back, a shattered town breathes

AP Photo / Efrem Lukatsky
Local residents pass at a damaged Russian tank in the town of Trostsyanets, some 400km (250 miles) east of capital Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, March 28, 2022. The monument to Second World War is seen in background. The more than month-old war has killed thousands and driven more than 10 million Ukrainians from their homes including almost 4 million from their country.

TROSTYANETS, Ukraine (AP) — The bodies of two Russian soldiers lie abandoned in the woods. Ukrainian forces piled atop a tank flash victory signs. Dazed people line up amid charred buildings to reach for aid. These are the sights in a Ukrainian town that has seized back control from Russian forces, at least for now.

Arriving in Trostyanets shortly after Ukrainian forces announced the northeastern town near the Russian border had been retaken following weeks of Russian occupation, The Associated Press on Monday saw a civilian landscape that has seen some of the worst of war.

The hospital was damaged, its windows jagged with broken glass. The train station had been shot up. Residents stepped carefully, wary of mines. They rode their bicycles past craters in the road and past the ruins of homes. It is not yet clear how many civilians have been killed.

Russian tanks lay burned, twisted, left behind like the soldiers in the woods. One of the soldiers had a red band around his leg. The other had an arm flung over his head as if napping on the leaves in the late afternoon light. A Ukrainian soldier nudged him with his toe.

A red “Z” marked a Russian truck, its windshield fractured, near stacked boxes of ammunition. Hundreds of the boxes, including ones with artillery shells, had been stacked around the town. Curious residents peered into an open box of shells.

It is not clear where the Russian forces went, under what circumstances they fled or whether the town will remain free of them in the days ahead. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in his overnight address emphasized that the situation remains tense in Ukraine’s northeast around Kharkiv, the nearest large city, and other areas.

But the returned presence of Ukrainian forces in Trostyanets is a relief to a country that hopes some Russian forces, under fierce resistance, are pulling back.

A senior U.S. defense official said Washington believes the Ukrainians have retaken Trostyanets. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. intelligence assessments, said Russian forces largely remained in defensive positions near the capital, Kyiv, and were making little forward progress elsewhere in the country.

Late last week, with its forces stalled in parts of the country, Russia seemed to scale back its war aims, saying its main goal was gaining control of the Donbas in the east.

In Trostyanets, after weeks of occupation and intense fighting, some residents appeared to have lost all sense of normal.

“Personally, I have not seen much,” said one resident, Vitali Butski. And yet three missiles struck his home. Many buildings beyond the railway station are damaged, he said.

Bundled up against the freezing wind, he and others ventured out to see what had been left behind.

Unexploded ordnance littered the square in front of the train station. Trenches and berms lined the square in a sign that Russian forces tried to defend their position. In a bunker under the station, with thick walls and door, rooms were full of army uniforms and boots.

On the walls were patriotic messages including drawings signed by children in Russian reading “Thanks for the peace, soldier.” Another room had been used as a clinic, with unused drips ready and desks turned into beds, although there was no sign of blood.

Packets of Russian food rations were seen amid the debris. But residents indicated that the soldiers were still hungry.

“In the evenings they came to us, to our houses and our basements, and stole our pickles, potatoes, lard and cucumbers,” said one resident who didn’t give her name.

She called the Russians “orcs,” or goblin-like creatures. Militias from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions were there as well, she said. The entire town had been occupied.

Now, for residents, there is some space to breathe. In line for aid, they waved to passing Ukrainian tanks.

“As you can see, there were battles here over the past month. Projectiles were flying over, and people were saying they were frightened,” said Evgeni Kosin with the emergency services. “They were left without food and water. There was a horrible humanitarian situation. Now that there are no flyovers or shelling in the last three days, perhaps it is getting better.”