ROHAN, Eastern Ukraine—The sound of thunder fills the sky as dozens of rockets rise above our heads. “Stay here!” Leila, a young Ukrainian officer, tells us the story as she points out a nearby farm to use as cover in case the Russians return fire. In front of the farm is a wrecked tank with the infamous “Z” lettering spray-painted in white on its turret and body. In the field behind lies the carcass of a Russian helicopter.
Eighty-five-year-old Mykola Devyakato was a child when the Nazis and Soviets fought brutal battles for Kharkiv. “I think this is worse than World War II,” she told The Daily Beast on Thursday as she sat on a wooden bench looking at the destruction her own nearby city, Rohan, had suffered under Russian occupation.
The Ukrainians liberated the city on March 26, but the area quickly became the scene of a massive artillery duel. Ukrainians now consider the town safe enough for residents to return, but it doesn’t sound that way with the constant sound of explosions in the background.
Lyubov Zlubina is a member of the local council and the owner of a cattle farm on the outskirts of the city. He remembered when the Russians came to town and came to his farm, demanding to park their tanks in their animal pens. “Over my dead body!” she said she told them. “That can be easily fixed,” a Russian reportedly replied as he pointed his gun at her. They eventually decided to let her live, but not before she used her car, her house and various household items for target practice, Zlubina said. According to her, they burned down half of her farm the day they left town, killing 140 of her cows in the process.
There seems to be no evidence yet of the horrific massacres staged in Rohan like those seen in Bucha. But a military official said that two villagers had been shot during the occupation and that a girl was raped. According to reports, the girl has been evacuated and transferred out of the country where she is receiving psychological counselling.
Unbeknownst to us, a Ukrainian GRAD rocket launcher had been parked in the tree line behind us during our visit to the front line on Thursday. A few minutes after the first rocket eruption, another barrage of rockets fell from a position at the end of the road. We heard that the incoming Russian fire returned, but they did not land near us. Western counter-artillery radars and drones have unexpectedly given Ukraine an advantage in the artillery duels that dominate eastern Ukraine battles.
A masked Ukrainian soldier stationed on the front line said that while the Russians had prepared a large amount of artillery for the assault on towns like Rohan in Kharkiv oblast, most of their equipment is completely dysfunctional. He predicted a quick Ukrainian victory that would drive the invaders out of the rest of the occupied territories in the region in the coming weeks.
The front lines are just a few minutes’ drive from the town of Rohan, which was one of the first settlements to be captured by the Russians in their first hit-and-run offensive in Kharkiv. They made it almost to the center of the city before being pushed back by fierce Ukrainian resistance on the outskirts of the city. Frustrated, they never tried to take the city again. Instead, they planted artillery in the surrounding towns and pummeled the city mercilessly, driving hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes and rendering the city almost uninhabitable.
But now it looks like two months of misery are finally coming to an end for Ukraine’s second largest city. A new counterattack by the Ukrainian army has driven Russian forces out of almost all the surrounding towns, culminating in the liberation of Tsurkuny, a few kilometers north of the city.
“The Russians shot me and anyone who tried to film them.”
Ironically, Putin’s planning had culminated this week, and on Monday’s Victory Day, in a major victory for Russian forces trying to “liberate” the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Instead, it is the Ukrainians who have been crushing the Russian forces. The Institute for the Study of War, a US think tank that monitors military gains and losses in Ukraine, says local forces are “taking back territory along a wide arc around Kharkiv…and potentially They threaten to make further advances towards the Russian border.”
There seem to be similar stories of Ukrainian success in all directions from Kharkiv. To the northwest is the town of Slatyne, which is about 15 km from the Russian border. Along the way are several Ukrainian checkpoints guarded by nervous soldiers armed with rocket launchers and heavy machine guns.
As we approach the center of the city, two camouflaged Ukrainian soldiers jump out at us and tell us that the city is off limits. One of them wears a Ghostbusters logo patch that reads “SEPARbusters,” referring to the separatist Russian delegates in Donetsk and Luhansk who have been fighting the Ukrainian government for eight years. He reluctantly says that they’ll look the other way if we hang out on the outskirts of town.
Andriy, a twenty-two-year-old native of Slatyne, woke up in the early morning of February 24 to the sound of gunshots and explosions. He showed me a video on his phone of Russian tanks rolling down the neighborhood streets. “Of course the Russians shot me and anyone who tried to film them,” he said with a smile.
He spent eight days in Slatyne as Ukrainian and Russian forces fought over the town then a front line before managing to flee with some friends. He now lives in Lviv and works as a hairdresser, but plans to return to Slatyne next week to pick up his car now that he is safe.
Although the Russian offensive has dealt one humiliating blow after another in recent weeks, the relentless bombardment has taken a heavy toll on the city and its residents. Slatyne originally had 7,000 inhabitants, with perhaps two or three hundred remaining after the invasion. “They shoot every hour. I was planting potatoes in my garden when it hit my neighbor’s house. Now, if I hear a crash, I run immediately,” Anya Donchenko, a 62-year-old cleaner and one of the few city residents who stayed, told The Daily Beast. She took us to her backyard and she proudly showed us how she had replanted the potatoes that the explosions had unearthed.
“I have a disabled sister and she wanted to live close to the land, because in Kharkiv she stayed in the flat all the time,” Donchenko said. “We wanted him to spend time outdoors, gardening. But she is now completely bedridden. She has coxarthrosis. I don’t know, we don’t expect anything. The main thing is to have peace. We want things to be better. We want peace.”