The village of Grakove in eastern Ukraine exhibits the marks of Ukraine’s acerbic counteroffensive, with electric pylons destroyed, cables strewn across the landscape, burnt homes and roadways littered with craters.
“It was frightening,” said 61-year-old Anatoli Vasiliev, recalling this week’s battle when Ukrainian troops recaptured Grakove from the Russians.
“There were bombings and explosions everywhere.”
In front of the nearby church, whose bell had been harmed by a projectile, Vasiliev stood.
Some of the Russian forces “removed phones, but I managed to preserve mine by hiding it so I could talk to my family,” the soldier claimed.
In the eastern Kharkiv region, Ukrainians have announced major territorial advances.
On Friday, President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that 30 towns and cities had been retaken.
Dogs and cats look for food leftovers among the rubble strewn throughout Grakove and in front of houses that are still occupied.
Out all the village’s 800 pre-war residents, about 30 or so are still alive.
The skeletons of cars destroyed in explosions or smashed by tanks litter the road leading to Grakove from the second-largest city in Ukraine and the center of the region, Kharkiv.
Mines that have been deactivated are dispersed along the side of the road and are ready for pickup. A captured Russian military vehicle being hauled away by a tow truck.
Two armored cars transporting soldiers to the front are moving in the opposite way. In the distance, artillery fire may be heard.
The bodies of two men in their thirties are exhumed in the village by a team from the Kharkiv region’s prosecutor’s office and the police.
The remains exhibit signs of torture and execution, leading the local authorities to infer a war crime.
Villager Sergiy Lutsay told AFP that Russian forces had held him at gunpoint and forced him to bury the remains.
“They came to my house. I was with my 70-year-old father,” he said.
“I was scared they would threaten him. They told me to come to dig a hole.”
He claimed that this took place quickly after the Russian invasion on February 24.
The bodies would be sent for a medical assessment to ascertain the cause of death, a prosecutor’s office representative said.
Sergiy Bolvinov, deputy chief of police for the Kharkiv region, said Lutsay had told them that the victims “had wounds on the back of the head and their ears had been cut off”.
To media, Lutsay declined to confirm the information.
In cities and villages outside of Kiev that its forces retook in March, Ukraine has accused Russian soldiers of a number of war crimes.
When Moscow withdrew its forces following a failed attempt to seize the capital at the beginning of the invasion, Ukraine took back control of the region.
“This is not the only evidence of atrocities committed by the Russians,” said Bolvinov.
“There are two other sites like this one in the village. We will be investigating them.”
Police issued a warning to reporters not to go off roads or look into abandoned houses while demining work was still being done.