KRYVYI RIH, Ukraine — Sixty-seven-year-old Valentina said she refused to obey the Russian soldier when he demanded that she wear a white armband as she walked outside the Ukrainian village of Kamyanka during the Russian occupation. As she walked out, a Russian soldier is said to have pointed his assault rifle at her, and Valentina feared the worst.
She was sure he would shoot her in the back, the same way she’d seen Nazi soldiers kill civilians in World War II movies she’d seen.
“But he looked and looked. He didn’t shoot,” Valentina told The Daily Beast.
Valentina was one of the few residents to reside in villages south of Kryvyi Rih, the largest city in central Ukraine, which came under occupation for about a month in March. The Ukrainian army regained control of the villages last month.
“It was terrible when they came. They shot so much. They broke windows; they broke my roof; they destroyed everything. I hid in the basement; otherwise I would have been dead,” said Valentina.
Although the Russians are gone and their hideouts in the village have been destroyed, Valentina remains traumatized by the terror she experienced during the occupation.
In one particularly horrific incident, she recalled a Russian soldier shooting a Ukrainian soldier from hiding near her shed. She said she found blood on her property and saw a neighbor drag the body to his basement. She feels guilty for not being able to help the Ukrainian soldier, she said – and although the body has since been removed, she is too afraid to go back to the shed.
“The Russians thought I was hiding Ukrainians in my house, so they often came and searched and searched the place. They came three times and searched everything, and I was so afraid they would shoot me,” said Valentina. “I told them to shoot my two cats and my dog too if they decided to shoot me. I didn’t want them to starve to death.”
“My mother always told me it was so terrible during the world war, but I didn’t know that war could be so terrible. I had no idea,” she added.
Kamyanka is one of several villages recently recaptured by Ukrainian troops. In recent months, the Ukrainian army has been able to push the Russians further back from the industrial center of Kryvyi Rih in southern Ukraine, now 70 kilometers from the front line.
The signs of a devastating war are visible around the newly liberated villages. Houses are being torn apart. Cars and armored vehicles are destroyed. Windows have been blown out. The movement of tanks on the village roads has left deep marks.
“Although the Russians have more men, we managed to stop them and push them back a little bit,” Oleksandr Vilkul, head of military administration in the city of Kryvyi Rih, told The Daily Beast. “But to go on the attack, we need more weapons.”
In the first few days of the war, Vilkul says the city blocked its roads to stop the Russian advance and buy time. They lost control of several villages, but managed to prevent the region from collapsing altogether. The situation is now more stable, but the battle is far from over. Even in Kryvyi Rih, aerial sirens can be heard several times a day as Russians try to force their way through southern villages like Kamyanka to reach Kryvyi Rih, a city essential to controlling central Ukraine.
Kryvyi Rih is a pivotal industrial point in Ukraine and has recently reopened its steel plant, one of the largest in Europe. The city also produces body armor and plates in hidden facilities to better equip the Ukrainian military.
“It’s a patriotic war for us. Everyone fights in the war one way or another,” Vilkul said.
Seventy-one-year-old Alexander vividly recalls when Russian troops entered his neighbor’s empty house. Many had fled the area when the Russian troops advanced, but Alexander did not want that. “Where would he go?” he thought. He just stayed and hoped for the best.
“I was surprised by how unprofessional they were,” said Alexander, explaining how soldiers from the Russian-backed Donetsk People’s Republic came to his house and set up camp in the houses around him. “They had no food and no real equipment. Just machine guns.”
According to Alexander, the soldiers begged for food from neighbors and walked around in large groups, ignoring the dangers of the Ukrainian drones flying above them. It’s no surprise that Russia loses so much equipment and men in the war, he mused.
“I told them they were bumps and that if I was younger and in the military I would have turned them into real soldiers. He showed they were real men,’ he said, the sound of Ukrainian artillery fire blaring from a distance.
Although normal life has yet to return in Kryvyi Rih, there is a daily influx of refugees into the city, with more than 800 arriving every day, according to Natalia Patrusheva, the leader of the main refugee center in Kryvyi Rih. Most come from the south of Ukraine and many are quickly sent to other regions of Ukraine. Patrusheva says most are from Russian-occupied Kherson on the Black Sea.
“They fear that Russia will hold a referendum and take Kherson into Russia. They fear that Russia will close its borders completely,” Patrusheva told The Daily Beast, referring to rumors that a rigged referendum will be held in that region soon. Russia had also held referendums in Russia-annexed Crimea and the Russian-backed separatist regions in 2014, the results of which were condemned by the West and accused of being faked in favor of pro-Russian puppet candidates.
“The referendum is one of the reasons for leaving now. It’s getting harder and harder to leave and harder and harder to live in Kherson. Everything Ukrainian is gone,” 18-year-old Maria, who arrived in Kamyanka from Kherson after trying to flee for months, told The Daily Beast. “Our stores have been closed, our flags removed and everything has been exchanged for Russian things.”
“Every night something explodes above us, and there is not even any money left to withdraw banks,” she added. “I’m just so happy to be here. It’s such a relief.”