Inside days, Russian troopers and separatist fighters from Russian-occupied Donetsk overran the village, which is swaddled in forest lower than 15 miles from the border north of Kharkiv. On the fringe of the village lie acres and acres of farmland tilled into wealthy black earth.
As days turned to weeks within the municipal constructing’s basement — and with most villagers both too frightened or too disgusted to talk with the Russian troopers exterior — a single particular person emerged as their middleman.
Nadiya Antonova, the council secretary of Vilkhivka, a barely bigger village close by, took cost, a number of villagers stated. She spoke with Russian troopers, relayed their directions and oversaw among the day-to-day affairs regarding everybody hunkered down within the basement of what had been a kindergarten and a medical clinic.
“We tried to do every little thing collectively. We tried to prepare dinner collectively, get firewood and water,” stated Yuri Lieus, 45, a automotive mechanic who helped repair the basement to make it extra inhabitable. “And every little thing else was determined by [Nadiya] Antonova.”
Regional authorities officers now say Antonova’s intercession had a darker aspect. The Kharkiv Regional Prosecutor’s Workplace, in an announcement posted on-line earlier this month, stated Antonova and one other regional official are suspected of committing treason.
A spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s workplace declined to remark additional whereas the case was below investigation. If convicted, Antonova might face 15 years to life in jail. Efforts to achieve her to find out whether or not she is represented by an legal professional weren’t profitable.
The villagers who lived by means of at the very least two months of terror within the municipal constructing’s basement provide a glimpse on the manner Ukrainians have usually come collectively to assist each other in a time of struggle. However their story additionally reveals how some could have been serving to Russian forces in a rustic the place areas — and generally households — have divided loyalties between Moscow and Kyiv.
Earlier than Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion on Feb. 24, fewer than 1,200 individuals lived within the village, which boasted an enormous farm that provides Kharkiv with milk and different dairy merchandise.
As Russian forces swarmed towards Kyiv, as many as 170 villagers, together with 40 youngsters as younger as 3 months previous, sheltered within the municipal constructing’s basement till the village was liberated on the finish of April, Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhniy, Ukraine’s commander in chief, stated in a Telegram submit.
At first, the basement was icy and damp, with nothing to take a seat on besides tiny chairs taken from the kindergarten’s classroom. Beds have been introduced down from the medical clinic to make individuals extra snug. An outhouse across the nook served as a communal privy.
Villagers put in a potbelly range to heat the room, although the wooden smoke needed to be vented by means of a gap knocked by means of the inspiration wall and the basement entrance main up the steps to the constructing’s entrance door.
Additionally they labored collectively to bolster a nook of the inspiration that had partially crumbled after a glancing blow from a Russian shell. They used metal rebar and bits of steel fencing to shore up the wall however nonetheless feared that the inspiration would possibly collapse.
As Ukrainian forces battled to take again the village, one other artillery spherical struck, this time on the municipal constructing’s roof, sending a shudder all through the construction.
“It’s not steady even now,” Lieus stated, viewing the injury with a flashlight.
In the meantime, the Russian occupation adopted a well-known sample. Troopers commandeered municipal buildings and other people’s properties, utilizing them as residing quarters or firing positions and infrequently trashing them earlier than departing. They rounded up villagers for head counts, warned them to close off their telephones and imposed a nighttime curfew from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. And so they ordered everybody to put on a white armband, like those worn by Russian navy forces.
“We tried to not discuss to them,” Lieus stated, holding his hand over his coronary heart. “We have been afraid.”
However the villagers have been in any other case free to come back and go at their very own threat, besides throughout curfew. Ryzhkova went backwards and forwards between the basement and her condo till somebody advised her, solely half joking, that if she went out once more risking her life, she may not be let again in.
“I solely went house to my 4 infants — my cats — to feed them,” she stated by means of an interpreter. “They waited for me on the window, and once they noticed me coming their ears pricked up.”
When Ukrainian forces battled their manner again in, Russian forces broke and ran. They shed uniforms and donned civilian garments, generally dropping ammunition magazines on the bottom of their haste to flee, Lieus stated. They left a number of civilian automobiles marked with “Z’s,” the letter that Russia has used to model its forces within the struggle, and so they left destruction.
One of many village’s longest streets, Faculty Road, winding previous properties and a small beer and kvass stand, was cratered from bombs and affected by shrapnel. Heaps of glass ringed the college itself. The spent casing of a rocket discovered close to the college carried a blunt message: “For Ogoltsa” — phrases of revenge and a reputation scrawled by the soldier who fired it on behalf of a fallen comrade. On the different finish of the village lay the physique of a Russian soldier, face down within the grass the place he fell.
“They left nothing however ruins round right here — ruins,” stated Nadezhda Boiko, 81, because the thump of outgoing Ukrainian artillery fireplace combined with the thunder of Russian artillery far off towards the border. “Each home has been flattened, shelled or burned to the bottom.”
Periodic shelling additionally threatened the street that runs previous the village from Kharkiv’s outskirts to Stary Saltiv, nearer to the entrance strains. Army autos, together with civilian autos crammed with troopers, sped alongside the tough two-lane stretch of street that was already affected by the charred and rusted wreckage of a column that was destroyed within the early days of the struggle. On Saturday, the world was shelled once more, Ukrainian navy officers reported.
By the third week of Might, Ukrainian forces had retaken 24 villages, together with Kutuzivka. But even with Ukrainian forces in management, at the very least a dozen villagers continued to shelter within the municipal constructing’s basement, with many questioning what would come subsequent — and whether or not the allegations of treachery towards Antonova have been true.
Oleh Synegubov, the Kharkiv area’s governor, stated Antonova collaborated with a commanding Russian officer, whose name signal was “Knight,” and helped establish Ukrainian navy veterans and legislation enforcement officers within the village. She additionally identified the properties with searching rifles or different firearms and carried out the Russians’ order for everybody to put on a white armband, Synegubov stated in a Telegram posting.
“None of those that volunteered to cooperate with the occupiers will escape punishment,” Synegubov wrote. “Neither the legislation nor the Ukrainian individuals will forgive traitors!”
Serhii Korolchuk contributed to this report.