Signs of life and death in a liberated village in eastern Ukraine

Everywhere you look around Vilkhivka there are new signs of life and even more powerful and persistent signs of death following the savage struggle that unfolded this spring on the outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine.

Until just a few weeks ago, this rustic village in the war-torn east of the country was under the heel of the Russian army. It was one of the first communities near the country’s second-largest city to be liberated in a slow and painful counter-offensive that only gained momentum recently.

Russian troops are now giving ground northeast of Kharkiv, taking with them their massive artillery pieces and the death they rained down on unsuspecting civilians.

There was still the rumble of shellfire on Sunday as the Ukrainian army toured marshy fields and lightly wooded walkways that were littered with wreckage, including burnt-out Russian tanks, a downed attack helicopter and cremated, empty ammunition boxes and a body.

The blackened, bloated corpse of a Russian soldier lay on the grounds of a burnt-out school in the village, which had been used as a supply and ammunition center for the occupying forces.

It was reduced to rubble by Ukrainian artillery and that’s when locals believe the soldier was killed and abandoned by his fleeing comrades.

“Who’s going to bury him?”

The body is believed to have been there for over a month, much to the horror of some returning residents.

“Who’s going to bury him?” asked Nikolai Noskov, who lives nearby and returned on Sunday after more than a month in the city. The village is largely empty, but he is confident people can be rounded up to remove the body.

“Let the military give us instructions. Guys, there are guys here. There are healthy men here. We’re going to bury him,” Noskov said. He was quick to hint that he had little sympathy for the deceased Russian and was a patriot with the Ukrainian trident tattooed on his arm.

Nikolai Noskov, who lives near the school in Vilkhivka, Ukraine, where the body of a dead Russian soldier appears to have lain for a month, is asking the military for permission to bury the man. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

A few meters away, Klizub Artem, who taught karate at the school, was rummaging through the rubble of the gymnasium for plastic hoops and sticks and other training equipment that could be salvaged.

He looked at the corpse and said something had to be done. Otherwise, his own people would be seen as stooping to the type of barbarism that characterized the Russian invasion, he said.

“I think we have to take this body and try to send [it] in Russia for relatives and relatives who say it was a person,” said Artem, who described a harrowing life under the occupation with no electricity and little food in the -20C weather.

Just down the road, Maryna Vorobjova was cooking eggs in a heavy cast iron skillet over an open fire in the backyard of her partially damaged home on Sunday.

Her soon-to-be seven-year-old daughter was supposed to go to school, but now, as a family, they are struggling to survive without electricity.

She described how fighting swirled through their neighborhood with raging rockets, and how she and her husband hid in the basement, trying to protect the children.

Maryna Vorobjova, a resident of Vilkhivka on the outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine, tried to explain to her young daughter why there was war on their doorstep by saying that two evil uncles were fighting. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

“Two evil uncles were fighting,” says the mother

“We were all praying, ‘God, please save us,'” Vorobjova said. “We were hoping for someone to come save us.”

Explaining the war on their doorstep to his daughter was difficult. She told him that “two evil uncles were fighting” and didn’t say much more.

It was a shock when the Russians arrived at the end of February. Nikolai Marynchuk, who lives just up the street from the school in Vilkhivka, said they tried to continue with “average stuff, but very cautiously”.

The burned down school in Vilkhivka, Ukraine, on the outskirts of Kharkiv. Russian forces used it as a supply and ammunition center and warned residents not to reveal their location. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

They were warned by the Russians “not to approach the school” and ordered not to provide any information about their whereabouts.

Just over a month later, when Ukrainian troops retook the area, they came knocking on the door and searched for Russian soldiers before attempting to retake the school.

“Well, at the end of the day, I know I didn’t see it, but I heard screams the whole time, ‘Get out! Get out! Get out of the school! Drop out, we’ll keep you in.’ life’.” Marynchuk said.

In the evening, “the school was on fire” and there were “gunshots all night”.

The village was officially recaptured on March 26.

pray for the enemy

Standing on a large windswept field and gazing at the wreckage of a Russian Mi24 attack helicopter, Mykola Medynskyj, a chaplain in the Ukrainian army, said he was asked if he was praying for the enemy. It does, he said, but the prayer is that the Russians get back a hundred times what they did to Ukraine.

Medynskyj, tall, steely-eyed and wearing a bulletproof vest over his flowing dress, is part of a small team that included a social worker, who wandered around the village to talk to residents about their experiences under occupation. He also served the troops in the region.

Mykola Medynskyj, a chaplain in the Ukrainian army, said he was asked if he prayed for the enemy. He is doing it, he said, but the prayer is that the Russians will recover a hundredfold what they have inflicted on Ukraine. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

Before the invasion, he said, there had been some sympathy for the Russians, given the proximity to the border – a feeling that has now evaporated.

“When the Russians came, people felt the malice of looting, murder, violence, that is satanic, not human,” Medynskyj said.

“There is no longer the perception of Russia as a neighbor and [now] understanding that Russia is a terrorist state.”