Shevchenkov: Relief, but a little joy, in one of the Ukrainian cities liberated after the Russian occupation

Shevchenkov, Ukraine

Shevchenkov may have been liberated after more than six months of Russian occupation, but in the ramshackle streets of this small town in northeastern Ukraine, there are no sights of joy.

Its streets were practically deserted Tuesday, five days after Ukrainian forces invaded. Their trucks and heavy police presence were the only clues to the tragic events of the past few days, and a powerful reminder of who is responsible now.

Civilians were few and far between. A few, huddled anxiously outside the police station, waited to check their phones for any sign of cooperation with the occupier.

Kharkiv police refused to tell CNN what would happen to anyone accused.

Ukrainian officials have vowed that anyone who cooperates with the occupying forces will face criminal penalties.

Other civilians rushed into and out of their homes, heads down and eyes sad, to a food truck run by Ukrainian military personnel, where water bottles and plastic bags filled with food were distributed.

Few of them were willing to speak to the media and the Kharkiv police kept CNN cameras away from the police station every time a handcuffed and blindfolded person was taken into a police car.

Only two old women who walked in a nearby park agreed to speak–at first reluctantly and then with all the bottled feelings of those who had been silent for so long.

“We had no choice,” said Maria, who declined to give her last name for security reasons, crying. “They just came and occupied us.”

Her friend Larisa Kharkivska, 73, agreed to drive home with her disabled 35-year-old daughter, Svetlana. According to Kharkivska, they are the only ones who remain in the building where you are staying. She said all those who could pay $400 to leave via Russia did so.

She spoke of her guilt for having eaten the food the Russians offered and she showed two cardboard boxes carrying a few bags of sugar and some rice.

“We couldn’t buy anything in stores,” Kharkivska said. “And we couldn’t get the money because the banks were closed, so we had to stand there like beggars.”

Their apartment became a prison that they did not dare to leave.

“They (the Russians) were walking around with automatic weapons. We were afraid to go out,” said Kharkivska.

She added that almost every night from eight in the evening until six in the morning they had no electricity or water.

“We survived, thank God, we survived! But it was so scary. We just hope they never come back.”

Shevchenkov, located about 80 kilometers (50 miles) southeast of Kharkiv, was occupied as of February 25 – just a day after Russia launched its invasion – and largely unharmed despite bombing as Russian forces overran the town.

On Tuesday night, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke of “stabilization measures” now underway as Ukraine says 8,000 square kilometers (3,088 square miles) of land has been recovered from the Russians.

“The remnants of the occupiers are arrested, collaborators are detained, and security is fully restored,” Zelensky said. He added how important it is to return to “normal life” after the region’s liberation from occupation.

In Shevchenkov, there is little evidence of this yet, as the authorities are trying to determine where the cooperation ends, and survival begins.

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