Of the 800 pre-war villagers, only about 30 remain – Copyright AFP/File ISAAC LAWRENCE
Power towers have collapsed, cables are strewn across the ground; Gutted houses and roads littered with sinkholes, the village of Grakovo in eastern Ukraine bears the scars of a fierce Ukrainian counter-offensive.
“It was scary,” Anatoly Vasiliev, 61, said, recalling a battle this week in which Ukrainian troops recaptured Grakovo from the Russians.
“There were bombings and explosions everywhere.”
Vasiliev stood in front of the local church, the bell of which was damaged by a shell.
Some of the Russian soldiers “took away phones, but I managed to keep mine by hiding it so I could communicate with my family,” he said.
The Ukrainians announced significant territorial acquisitions in the east of Kharkiv region.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Friday that 30 settlements had been recaptured there.
Among the rubbish scattered around Grakow – and in front of the houses still inhabited – dogs and cats are looking for leftovers.
Of the 800 pre-war inhabitants of the village, only about 30 remained.
The road leading to Grakovo from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city and regional hub, is littered with car wrecks destroyed by explosions or crushed by tanks.
– ‘I was scared’ –
Disarmed mines are strewn along the sides of the road, waiting to be picked up. The tow truck takes away the captured Russian military vehicle.
Two armored cars are driving in the opposite direction, carrying troops to the front. Artillery fire echoes in the distance.
In the village, the police and the team of the prosecutor’s office of the Kharkiv region exhume the bodies of two men aged about thirty years.
Officials here suspect a war crime: the remains show signs of torture and execution.
Villager Sergei Lutsai told AFP that he was forced by Russian soldiers to bury the bodies at gunpoint.
“They came to my house. I was with my 70-year-old father,” he said.
“I was afraid that he would be threatened. I was told to come and dig a hole.”
This, he says, happened shortly after the start of the Russian invasion on 24 February.
A prosecutor’s office official said the bodies would be sent for a medical examination to determine the cause of death.
– “Evidence of atrocities” –
Sergei Bolvinov, deputy police chief of the Kharkiv region, said Lutsai told them that the victims “had wounds on the back of their heads and had their ears cut off.”
Lucay did not confirm the details to journalists.
Ukraine has accused Russian troops of a series of war crimes in towns and villages near Kyiv that its forces recaptured in March.
Ukraine re-occupied the territory when Moscow withdrew its troops after a failed attempt to capture the capital at the start of the invasion.
“This is not the only evidence of atrocities committed by the Russians,” Bolvinov said.
“There are two more similar objects in the village. We will investigate them.”
Police have warned journalists not to leave the roads or explore abandoned buildings as mine clearance work is still ongoing.