Tom Mutch talks to the survivors of Russian occupation in recently-liberated Novopetrovsk and discovers a reign of looting and terror followed by an orderly withdrawal

It was just the day before we visited that the villagers had buried the bodies. “They were found drowned in the swamp; hands tied behind their backs” Viktor Ahafonov, a resident of the town of Novopetrovsk told us. The faces of the dead were blue, and it was clear to see they had been tortured. We had a funeral service for them yesterday.”

They were disfigured as to be unrecognisable, and as with bodies found in graves in other regions of Ukraine such as Bucha and Izium, Ukrainian authorities will now be hard at work to identify the latest victims of Russia’s invasion. 

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‘They Stole Everything’

Ukraine has finally emerged triumphant in the battle for Kherson, the only regional capital the Russians had captured during the war. The Ukrainian Army, after making clever uses of HIMARs to destroy Russian supply lines over the Dnipro River, had managed to make the Russian positions impossible to defend.

Rather than face an inevitable defeat, the Kremlin’s top battlefield commander, General Sergei Surovikin, ordered a withdrawal. But as in Bucha and Izium beforehand, Ukrainians are finding that the Russians have left a trail of horrors in their wake wherever they have been. 

For six months, local villagers explained, the Russians had their trenches in dugouts just 50 metres from the town, and as half the troops fought the slowly advancing Ukrainian army, the others terrorized the local population.

“Russians were in their positions with tanks and BMPs. Chechen troops were hanging around the village, robbing houses like local police. Once people leave the house and go away, they come, take everything from the house, rob, and drive away,” Viktor said as we shared a glass of homemade red wine in his backyard.

An empty road in former Russian-occupied Ukraine: Photo: Tom Mutch

“They stole everything – fridges, toilets, washing machines. Total lawlessness. They beat those who they didn’t like. They treated old people well, but young people were beaten severely. They were enjoying the process. That’s the Russian world. Thank God, we waited for our guys!” 

We had reached the village before even the Ukrainian army, it seemed. During the day we spent there, a series of armoured vehicles drove to the outskirts of the village and soldiers cautiously moved into the city, beginning to remove leftover Russian weaponry. Soon, Ukrainian investigators will be combing the areas for evidence of Russian war crimes- which they expect to find in great numbers. 


The Reality of Annexation

This village is a few kilometres from the city of Snihorivka, a strategic town in Mykolaiv oblast that the Ukrainian Army recaptured shortly before the Russians ordered their withdrawal. This was a piece of territory that Russia had allegedly annexed.

While the Russians hung posters in Kherson city that said, “Kherson and Russia, together forever,” the locals here were told the same thing. “They were screaming at me, it is a territory of Russia already, not Ukraine anymore.”

The occupying soldiers had attempted to force the villagers to vote in a sham referendum, but only 3-4 people had cast ballots. “They just claimed 90% anyway. Yesterday our troops entered Kherson and people are happy, running, screaming happily and they made 90% of the votes for Russia. Nobody wants Russia there. It was all fake why would we need Russia?” 

A lone Ukrainian soldier walks into the unknown. Photo: Tom Mutch

One theme that has run through much of the commentary on towns that have seen widespread Russian atrocities, such as Bucha, is the shock and anger of Russian soldiers on seeing the comfort and higher living standards of cities in Ukraine – a nation which is on paper much poorer per capita

He explained that the soldiers who occupied the village had come from the poorest parts of Siberia and couldn’t understand the comparatively high level of development of even the smallest and remotest towns of southern Ukraine. Even though the village had a big gas pipe running through it for heating, the soldiers couldn’t understand how to work it, and resorted to collecting wood for fires. “They even came here and saw a sign saying internet and asked in shock – you have internet here?” 

One female resident of the village reported worse threats.

Only wanting to be known as ‘Tatiana’, she told the story of how her son and his friends had been stopped and robbed by Russian soldiers on their way back from a supply run to another town. They forced the youths to take them back to their family house where they ransacked the dwellings looking for cash and valuables. As they had already been robbed by other soldiers, they had very little. The group of drunk soldiers threatened her with sexual abuse if she failed to find money to pay them – telling her she would have to ‘pay with her body.’ 

Russian trenches. Photo: Tom Mutch

A Grim Legacy

As we wandered the remains of the Russian positions, we looked at first like a corpse, dressed in a green and grey army uniform with its legs sprayed, arms akimbo and its head perched up against a tree. But a quick inspection proved it to be full of fabric – it was a mannequin planted by Russian troops as they withdrew from the surrounding areas. They had wished to trick Ukrainian troops into thinking they were still in their positions so they could slip out unnoticed. These deceptions have been seen in trenches before, often to trick Ukrainian drone operators into misidentifying the locations of Russian soldiers. 

A camouflaged tank left abandoned in the area. Photo: Tom Mutch

The trenches themselves were a mess, covered in abandoned food, clothing and ammunition. There was the wreck of an armoured vehicle just behind the trenches. It looked like it had taken a direct hit from an artillery piece, as the top and chassis had been completely vaporised- only the tracks were visible. A pile of anti-tank mines was on the side of the road next to one of the dugouts. 

The area is still very badly contaminated with mines and unexploded ordinance. As we drove back from the village, we heard a huge explosion in front of us and saw smoke rising from a village road. As we rounded the corner to investigate, we saw a Ukrainian tank had driven over an explosive device and been blown off the road. Its chassis was cracked, and its track had fallen off. The crew were shaken but unharmed. 

A pile of anti-tank mines left on the side of the road. Photo: Tom Mutch

However, unlike in the recently liberated Kharkiv oblast, there was little evidence of widespread abandonments of armoured vehicles or ammunition stores. Instead, all indications were that the Russian withdrawal from these areas was competently executed and began several weeks before the official announcement. The bridge leading to the entrance to the village had been completely blown, forcing us to clamber over its wreckage to reach the town. 

But Victor and his family are taking this occasion to celebrate. “They are the second army in the world” he exclaims, “but the 22nd largest is chasing them away like dogs!” 

A page ripped from a Russian version of the Alchemist by Paolo Coelho lying in the debris. Photo: Tom Mutch

Lying on the ground in one of the trenches were a few ripped pages from a Russian copy of Paolo Coelho’s novel The Alchemist. The chapter was one where the Alchemist tells the main character of the constant failures of those would-be magicians who try to force lead to turn into gold against the wishes of the elements themselves.

“Anyone who interferes with the destiny of another thing never will discover his own. The Alchemist said, as if as a curse” is one line from the text. 

It was an apt metaphor for the Russian war on Ukraine, where Putin has expended countless tonnes of lead, steel, and blood – but failed to turn any of it into gold for Russia. Instead, his army leaves in disgrace, while the Ukrainians face the long slog to rebuild their shattered lands.

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