‘Sitting at Home and Trembling.’ A Town Emerges After a Russian Retreat

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NOVA BASAN, Ukraine — Badly frightened and hungry, residents of Nova Basan, a town east of Kyiv, emerged from their cottages and farmhouses on Monday, and described living through the terrifying ordeal of the Russian occupation — detentions, threats and a strict curfew that confined them to their homes with no outside communication for more than a month.

Nova Basan, about 60 miles east of the Ukrainian capital, is one of a stretch of towns and villages retaken from Russian control after battles through the last week of March, and just now coming back to life.

“It was terrible,” said Mykola Dyachenko, the official responsible for the administration of the town and surrounding villages. “People were not expecting such things.” He said he was among some 20 men who were held prisoner by Russian troops for 25 days during the occupation.

He looked exhausted, his face waxy and pale. He said he had been put through 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 over his head during the questioning, he said. His eyes were bound with sticky tape but he heard and felt the gunshot above his head. “It was psychological pressure,” he said. “They were trying to kick out of me information that I was not sharing.”

Two other men also described being detained by Russian troops and told of soldiers beating them with rifle butts, and punching and kicking them. One described being tied up with his arms suspended. Another, Oleksiy Bryzgalin, 38, a construction worker, said he was strapped to a chair with a grenade between his legs for 30 hours and also had a gun fired beside the side of his head during interrogation.

The detainees were moved around and held in barns and cellars and fed only two potatoes a day, with only one toilet break daily, Mr. Bryzgalin said.

The detainees said they escaped from their makeshift jail as the Russian troops were preparing to withdraw last Wednesday. Five days later Mr. Bryzgalin said he still had pain in his legs from the cramped conditions and had trouble sleeping.

The community administrator, Mr. Dyachenko, said he did not know the level of civilian casualties yet and said he was only just starting to organize search teams to check on residents. On Monday, he was heading out to investigate the report of an execution on Feb. 28 of six people by Russian soldiers in a nearby village, he said. That was just after Russian troops had arrived in the area, he said.

Mr. Dyachencko said he also knew of a civilian killed in his car at a gas station when the Russian troops first entered the town. 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 atrocities.

Despite the fear and rough treatment of the civilian population, in the end Russian troops may have suffered more casualties than the townspeople. The Russian departure 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, said soldiers and volunteers who took part, and residents of the town.

On Monday Ukrainian soldiers were piling the bodies of dead Russian soldiers into a trailer pulled by an army jeep. The soldiers were killed when a Ukrainian tank sneaked close to the entrance of 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 lot we have picked up,” said Sr. Sgt. Andreiy Soroka, 38, the Ukrainian soldier in charge. “Nine and a half bodies,” he said matter-of-factly.

Four of the men had died in the armored personnel carrier blown up by a Ukrainian tank, he said. Others among the dead Russian soldiers were a captain found in a nearby building, and an 18-year-old conscript in the garden of a house who had been shot, Sergeant Soroka said.

A destroyed tank and armored vehicle on the road were leftovers of the battle, when a Ukrainian tank opened fire on the Russian vehicles. They were the tail end of the Russian presence, which had begun packing and leaving the town a day earlier.

Russian troops had suffered a major defeat days earlier in the town of Lukyanivka, and had failed to retake that town, said the commander of a volunteer battalion, Oleksiy Serediuk, who took part in the fighting. “They were disappointed and they started moving out of several 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 withdrawal a chaotic rout and second to cut their escape route.”

He said the battle in Nova Basan was chaotic as the Russians had to fight their way out and the Ukrainians tried to cut their escape route. In the battle, a Russian armored vehicle crashed into a line of shops and another tumbled off the road, he said.

“Most Ukrainians did not believe in this operation,” he said, adding that the Ukrainians were far fewer and outgunned by the Russians. “But it was successful. We created real chaos with just a few people and a few vehicles.”

As he spoke soldiers were dragging out the Russian armored vehicle that had crashed into the line of shops. A group of men, retired taxi drivers, examined the damage, while a line of women waited for the first sale of fresh meat in more than a month.

On Monday, it had been four days since the Ukrainian troops regained control of the town, but many of the residents were only just starting to venture out of their homes. The relief on their faces was heartfelt.

“I have been sitting at home and trembling,” said Maria Rudenko, 82, who peered nervously round the corner of her street before approaching a car handing out food assistance. “I was so frightened at the shooting that I am scared to walk around.”

During the occupation, Russian troops searched houses and confiscated cellphones and computers and ordered people to stay indoors, residents said. With communications and utilities down, and with people unable to go to the shops, they began to feel hungry and scared.

“Sometimes I sat three nights without a candle,” Ms. Rudenko said. The electricity was down in most of the town, and the gas was still out. “Everyone ran away here and I was left. I had only potatoes and some cucumbers to eat.”

Further down the street toward the southern edge of town, three women friends began to weep as they collected bags of food from a group of volunteers.

“Every day was hard but the hardest day was when we were being liberated,” said Olha Vdovichenko, 70. “Everyone was hiding inside and we were praying. The shelling started at six in the morning and went on until seven in the evening without pause.”

By the time everything fell quiet, Ukrainian soldiers were already in the town searching for Russians soldiers left behind. A woman who gave her name as Tania, said one of them asked her if there were any of the enemy around. “I was trembling and I said, ‘Who are you?’” she recounted. “He said ‘Ours.’” She end up cooking borscht in two big pots for the whole Ukrainian unit.

The Ukrainian soldiers also told Olha Maysak, 66, that the town was freed. “At 6 p.m. the lads came by to tell us,” she said.

But her neighbor, Ms. Vdovichenko did not realize it was over. She woke at 7 the next morning and heard some men talking outside.

“He said we are free, we are liberated,” she said. “That’s how I knew.”

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