A year ago, Ukraine liberated Russian-occupied Izjum. 11,000 people have returned. Many people don’t like to talk about the occupation. Some fear the Russians will return, some collaborated with them.
The town hall square in Izyum in eastern Ukraine, a popular Ukrainian song comes from the public loudspeaker. “I’m in heaven,” it sounds over the flowerbeds that 45-year-old Lyudmila is cultivating. She wears a simple blouse.
“These are student flowers,” she says. Her mother had already sown these flowers; they were a typical Ukrainian flower. “I’m taking out the withered flowers here so that the others can get more strength.”
The flowers are supposed to make the town hall square look pretty for as long as possible, because the houses around it can’t. The concrete facade of the town hall with its simple columns still stands, but the interior has burned out. In the house opposite, the roof structure and the top floor are in tatters.
“We still don’t have any windows”
Lyudmila lives in a single-family house on the outskirts of town. There, too, the war damage is far from being repaired: “We still don’t have any windows and the roof is broken,” she says. “No one will fix it for us, and we don’t have enough money ourselves.” They nailed the windows up with boards. “But if we don’t get proper windows, it will be cold again in winter.”
And that exactly one year after the liberation. Within a few days, the Ukrainian army drove the Russian occupiers out of large parts of the Kharkiv region – including Izyum.
Many people don’t like to talk about the occupation period
Of course it’s good that “our boys” freed them, says Lyudmila. Because the occupation was so bad? She evasively says that her family spent most of the time sitting in the basement because of the shooting.
Other people walking on the streets in Izjum also seem reluctant to talk about the period of occupation. He can imagine why, says Vyacheslav. Russia is attacking again in eastern Ukraine, a little further north in the Kupyansk region.
Fear of Russian return
The 32-year-old war invalid with a prosthetic leg sits by a fountain that is running at full speed. “This situation at Kupyansk – I asked in the shop today what everyone else thought about it. Everyone is hoping that the Russians won’t make it here anymore, that our defensive positions are now good enough. When they come back, they will do the same thing the first time – kill and rape.”
The fear is real, confirms Volodymyr Mazjukin, the city’s deputy mayor. 11,000 people returned after the liberation, and now 24,000 live here again. And they knew what a renewed occupation meant – renewed terror.
“A year ago we found 449 bodies of civilians in a mass grave,” says Mazjukin. But exhumations continue at other sites where individuals have been buried. Even people who accidentally saw something they shouldn’t, such as military technology in the forest, were simply shot. We will find many more bodies.”
Only 150 dead could be buried with dignity
Izjum was only able to bury around 150 corpses again, this time with dignity, says Mazjukin. The others are still being investigated by the public prosecutor. She assumes that most of them had actively shown themselves to be opponents of the occupation and therefore had to die.
Mazjukin sits in a makeshift town hall. He gives another reason why the occupation period is a taboo topic in the city: There were many collaborators.
Collaboration – “a difficult topic”
“This is a difficult topic,” explains Mazjukin. If someone commits treason, such as revealing military secrets, it is a criminal offense. But there was also everyday collaboration, which is much harder to assess.
The heads of district committees worked together with the occupiers. Some teachers also went to Russia for further training courses. “‘We wanted to save our school,’ they told me. But which school?” asks Mazjukin. “We have schools where there are no lessons based on the Ukrainian curriculum.”
In some places it is progressing
The deputy mayor explains that 80 percent of the multi-storey residential buildings have been completely or partially destroyed. The repair of the first twelve has just begun. After all, electricity and water flowed again in all inhabited houses. And for warmth in winter, the city bought containers with mobile pellet heaters. They are supposed to pump warm water into the houses.
At one point or another things are progressing again in Isjum. This is also reported by Jurij Kusnitsow, trauma doctor at the hospital. “We’re in some ways better off than we were before the war, regardless of how things are here,” he says. “We now use ultrasound during anesthesia to control the placement of the needle. We have had some equipment donated for this purpose. We received an apparatus from Germany with which we were able to remove a patient’s appendix in a minimally invasive manner today. She will be there tomorrow feel healthy again.”
A bit of normality
The 53-year-old Kuznitsov has his treatment room in the basement of the hospital because so many parts of the building have been destroyed, including the operating rooms. It shows the gloomy rooms in which doctors and patients crouched during the Russian air raids. Kusnitsow says that nothing can shake anyone who has survived that. Now there are at least plans for a new building for the hospital, then also with an air-raid shelter.
At least a little bit of normality is already returning to the city: “I laughed recently because I was happy that drunk people were chatting me up on the street again,” says Kusnetzow. The fact that there is a small traffic accident – these are “signs of a normal life”. But the accident doctor also adds: “God grant that the Russians don’t come back.”