The Daily Telegraph
As ground is regained, grim discoveries follow
The routed Russians have withdrawn, but as civilians emerge from basements stories of brutality are told
For six months, she lived in fear. First in a basement, where she and her three-month-old grandson sheltered for four weeks as Russian forces blasted their way into Balakliya early in the war; then, over summer, in their garden, trying to grow the food that had vanished from the shops.
“Rockets would fly constantly over our heads. The only thing we knew was that our guys would not shoot us. So it was calming to work in the garden,” said the grandmother, who declined to be named, her voice trembling between tears and laughter.
“And when our people freed us, the Russians started throwing rockets here and there and it was scary. Very scary.
It was impossible to describe how scary it was.” Her mixture of euphoria, relief, and deep shock was typical of the residents of Balakliya liberated by a surprise Ukrainian offensive last week.
This epic Ukrainian operation does not yet have a name, and the details of what happened are still shrouded in the fog of war.
However, it could be called the sixth battle of Kharkiv – following four in the Second World War and a fifth that unfolded around the regional capital between February and May.
Others have dubbed it the Battle of the Oskil river, after the waterway beyond which the Russians retreated, and which is likely to become the new front line.
Ukraine has barred reporters from the front lines and for security reasons offered only a few details about the progress and planning of their operation.
The visit to Balakliya on Tuesday, organised by Ukrainian authorities, was the first major trip for foreign press into the liberated zone.
The Russians seized Balakliya, a town of 26,000 on the banks of the Siversky Donetsk river, in early March. As the front line stabilised along the river, they dug in extensive trench systems. They seemed to be here to stay. But early last Wednesday, a small Ukrainian special forces battalion attacked heavily fortified Russian positions along the Siversky Donetsk river to the south of the town, a wounded Ukrainian officer told The Globe and Mail.
The assault turned out to be a diversion to draw Russian forces away from the northern edge of the town, which was then hit by the main attacking force.
Similar assaults occurred along a broad front extending north from the town. Fast moving spearheads streaked across the countryside into the Russian rear, and the outnumbered enemy crumpled.
Balakliya fell by Friday. On the weekend, the Ukrainians seized the crucial strategic junctions of Kupiansk and Izyum and the Russians announced a “regrouping” on the other side of the Oskil, effectively abandoning Kharkiv region entirely.
“It went according to plan, but instead of it being an A grade it got an A plus,” Serhei Gaidai, the governor of neighbouring Luhansk region, told The Dailytelegraph. “The Russians themselves added the plus. They simply ran – it is nonsense to call it a regrouping.”
By the time The Telegraph entered Balakliya yesterday, the front had moved so far east that the fighting was no longer audible. Oleh Synyehubov, the governor of Kharkiv region, told reporters in Balakliya, Ukraine would do everything it could to prevent Russia retaking the town but warned “we are at war. There is always a risk” of the enemy counter-attacking.
He added that investigations into possible war crimes committed during the occupation had already begun. “Unfortunately, I cannot give you a precise number. We have found some places of the burials of civilians and we are going on with the process of excavation. So far, we know of five people but, believe me, this is not the final statistic,” he said.
We saw some evidence of brutality and atrocities, reminiscent of Bucha and other towns outside Kyiv, though not on the same scale.
Forensic investigators inspected the decomposing bodies of two men who had been found in a ditch near a Russian checkpoint before they were bagged and removed to a morgue.
Serhii Bolvinov, the head of the investigations department of the national police in Kharkiv region, told us that witnesses had found the bodies on Sept 7. He said inquiries suggested they were both civilians who had been killed the previous day by Russian soldiers who opened fire as they attempted to drive past the checkpoint.
He also showed journalists a basement in the town’s police station that they said the Russians used as a torture chamber. Officials presented bloodstains and straps hanging from the ceiling as evidence. The Telegraph could not immediately verify the claim.
However, one local told us that he had been subjected to torture by electrocution at the police station by Russian investigators who suspected him of having links to the Ukrainian military.
“I was taken from the street because they searched my apartment and they found a picture of my brother and my brother is a soldier in the army so they decided I had something to do with the army too,” said Artem, who declined to give his surname.
He said his captors held him for 46 days without hurting him, but before he was released “decided to use torture against me with electricity”.
He said: “They asked me who his brother was, what he was doing – I couldn’t say anything because I didn’t know anything. I’d been here for so long. So they turned on the power even more and more.”
He was eventually released after his captors decided he had no information.
The consequences of the battle are still being debated. Hanna Malyar, the deputy defence minister, hailed a decisive Ukrainian victory.