NOVA BASAN, Ukraine — Frightened and starving, residents of Nova Basan, a town east of kyiv, emerged from their huts and cottages on Monday, describing how they lived through the terrifying ordeal of Russian occupation: arrests, threats and a strict curfew that confined them to their homes without communication with the outside world for more than a month.
Nova Basan, about 60 miles east of the Ukrainian capital, is one of the towns and villages recaptured from Russian control after battles during the last week of March, and now it’s coming back to life.
“It was terrible,” said Mykola Dyachenko, the official responsible for the administration of the city and surrounding towns. “People did not expect such things.” He said he was among some 20 men Russian troops held prisoner for 25 days during the occupation.
He looked exhausted, his face waxy and pale. He said he had been subjected to what he called a mock execution 15 times while being questioned about local Ukrainian territorial defense forces and ammunition stored in the area.
His interrogators fired an assault rifle at his head during questioning, he said. He was blindfolded with duct tape, but he heard and felt the shot over his head. “It was psychological pressure,” she said. “They were trying to get information out of me that I wasn’t sharing.”
Two other men also described being detained by Russian troops, saying soldiers beat them with rifle butts, punched and kicked them. One described being tied up with his arms suspended. Another, Oleksiy Bryzgalin, 38, a construction worker, said he was tied to a chair with a grenade between his legs for 30 hours and a gun was also fired at the side of his head during interrogation.
Detainees were moved and held in barns and cellars and fed just two potatoes a day, with only one bathroom break a day, Bryzgalin said.
The detainees said they escaped from their makeshift jail as Russian troops prepared to withdraw last Wednesday. Five days later, Mr. Bryzgalin said that his legs still hurt from overcrowding and that he had trouble sleeping.
Community administrator Mr. Dyachenko said he did not yet know the level of civilian casualties and said he was just beginning to organize search teams to check on residents. On Monday, he was on his way to investigate a report of a Feb. 28 execution of six people by Russian soldiers in a nearby town, he said. That was just after Russian troops arrived in the area, he said.
Mr Dyachecko said he also knew of a civilian killed in his car at a gas station when Russian troops first entered the city. And, he said, a wounded member of the territorial defense had been held prisoner with him, but was taken away and not seen since. The Kremlin has denied any Russian involvement in the atrocities.
Despite the fear and rough treatment of the civilian population, in the end the Russian troops may have suffered more casualties than the townspeople. The Russian pullout was part of a planned withdrawal announced by Moscow a week ago, but it ended in a chaotic and bloody retreat after a fierce tank battle last Thursday, soldiers and volunteers who took part, and city residents, said.
On Monday, Ukrainian soldiers were stacking the bodies of dead Russian soldiers on a trailer pulled by an army jeep. The soldiers were killed when a Ukrainian tank snuck up near the entrance to the town and opened fire on the Russian checkpoint guarding the main intersection, according to soldiers and volunteers who took part.
“It’s the first batch we’ve picked up,” the sergeant said. Andreiy Soroka, 38, the Ukrainian soldier in charge. “Nine and a half bodies,” he said matter-of-factly.
Four of the men had been killed in the armored vehicle that was blown up by a Ukrainian tank, he said. Others among the dead Russian soldiers included a captain found in a nearby building and an 18-year-old recruit in the garden of a house who had been shot, Sgt. Soroka said.
A destroyed tank and an armored vehicle on the road were remnants of the battle, when a Ukrainian tank opened fire on the Russian vehicles. They were the tail of the Russian presence, which had begun to pack up and leave the city a day earlier.
Russian troops suffered a heavy defeat days earlier in the town of Lukyanivka and failed to recapture that town, said the commander of a volunteer battalion, Oleksiy Serediuk, who took part in the fighting. “They were disappointed and started moving from various places,” he said of the Russian troops. That led the Ukrainian army command to pursue the retreating army, he said.
“The military command made a very smart decision, first to make their retreat a chaotic route and second to cut off their escape route.”
He said the battle at Nova Basan was chaotic as the Russians had to fight their way out and the Ukrainians tried to cut off their escape route. In the battle, a Russian armored vehicle crashed into a row of shops and another went off the road, he said.
“Most of the Ukrainians did not believe in this operation,” he said, adding that the Ukrainians were far fewer and the Russians outgunned them. “But it was a success. We created real chaos with just a few people and a few vehicles.”
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As he spoke, soldiers were dragging out the Russian armored vehicle that had crashed into the row of shops. A group of men, retired taxi drivers, surveyed the damage, while a line of women waited for the first sale of fresh meat in more than a month.
On Monday, four days had passed since Ukrainian troops regained control of the city, but many of the residents were just beginning to leave their homes. The relief on their faces was sincere.
“I’ve been sitting at home and shaking,” said Maria Rudenko, 82, who nervously glanced around the corner of her street before approaching a car delivering food aid. “I was so scared by the shooting that I’m scared to walk.”
During the occupation, Russian troops searched houses and seized cellphones and computers and ordered people to stay in their homes, residents said. With communications and public services down, and with people unable to go to stores, they began to feel hungry and afraid.
“Sometimes I would sit for three nights without a candle,” Ms. Rudenko said. Electricity was cut in most of the city, and gas was still out. “Everyone ran away here and I stayed. I only had potatoes and some cucumbers to eat.”
Further down the street toward the south end of town, three friends began to cry as they collected bags of food from a group of volunteers.
“Every day was difficult, but the most difficult day was when we were released,” said Olha Vdovichenko, 70. “Everyone would hide inside and pray. The shelling started at six in the morning and lasted until seven in the evening without a break”.
When everything calmed down, the Ukrainian soldiers were already in the city looking for the Russian soldiers left behind. A woman who identified herself as Tania said one of them asked her if there were any enemies near her. “I was shaking and I said, ‘Who are you?’” she recounted. “He said ‘Our’.” She ended up cooking borscht in two large pots for the entire Ukrainian unit.
Ukrainian soldiers also told Olha Maysak, 66, that the city was liberated. “At 6 in the afternoon the boys came to tell us,” he said.
But her neighbor, Mrs. Vdovichenko, did not realize that it was all over. She woke up at 7 the next morning and heard some men talking outside her.
“He said we are free, we are liberated,” he said. “That’s how I knew.”