KRYVYI RIH, Ukraine—Valentina, 67, said she did not obey Russian soldiers’ demands to wear white armbands when going out in the Ukrainian village of Kamyanka during the Russian occupation. As she walked out of her without it, a Russian soldier aimed at her with his assault rifle and Valentina feared her worst.
She was sure he would shoot her in the back the same way she saw a Nazi soldier killing a civilian in a World War II movie she had seen.
“But he just stared and looked. He didn’t shoot,” Valentina told Daily Beast.
Valentina, one of the few locals who stayed in the village south of Kryvyi Rih, the largest city in central Ukraine, was occupied for about a month in March. Ukrainian forces recaptured the village last month.
“It was terrible when they came. They shot too much. They broke the window. They break my roof; They broke everything. I hid in the basement. Otherwise, I would be dead,” Valentina said.
Although the Russians have vanished and the town’s hideout has been destroyed, Valentina is still traumatized by the horrors she witnessed during the occupation.
In a particularly horrific incident, she recalled witnessing a Russian soldier shooting a Ukrainian soldier hiding near her barn. She said she found her bloodstains on her own property and saw her neighbor dragging her body to her cellar. She felt guilty for not helping her Ukrainian soldier and her body was removed, but again she said she was too afraid to go near the barn.
“Russians often came to search and search because they thought I hid Ukrainians in their houses. They came three times and searched everything and I was afraid they would shoot me,” said Valentina. “I told them to shoot with me if two cats and a dog decided to shoot me. I did not want them to starve to death.”
“My mother always told me during World War II that war was so terrible, but I never knew war would be so terrible. I had no idea,” she added.
Kamyanka is one of several villages recently recaptured by Ukrainian forces. In the past few months, Ukrainian forces have been able to push the Russians further back from the industrial center of southern Ukraine, Kryvyi Rih, which is now 70 kilometers from the front line.
Traces of the horrendous war can be seen around the newly liberated village. The houses were torn. Cars and armored vehicles are destroyed. The window flew off. The movement of tanks running along the village road left a deep mark.
“The Russians have more troops, but we were able to stop them and push them back a bit,” Oleksandr Vilkul, head of the military administration of the city of Kryvyi Rih, told the Daily Beast. “But we need more weapons to continue our attack.”
In the first few days of the war, Vilkul says the city blocked the road to buy time and stop the Russian advance. They lost control of several villages, but were able to prevent the area from completely collapsing. Things are more stable now, but the fight isn’t over yet. Even in Kryvyi Rih, air sirens are heard several times a day as Russians try to reach Kryvyi Rih, the key city controlling central Ukraine through southern villages like Kamyanka.
Kryvyi Rih is an important industrial branch in Ukraine and has recently reopened one of the largest steel mills in Europe. The town is also producing bullet-proof vests and plates in a hidden facility to better equip the Ukrainian army.
“It is a Patriotic War for us. Everyone is fighting the war in one way or another,” said Vilkul.
Alexander, 71, vividly remembers when Russian troops moved into an empty house next door. Many left the area as Russian troops advanced, but Alexander did not want to do so. “Where did he go?” he thought He just stayed and wished for the best.
“I was amazed at how unprofessional they were,” Alexander said, explaining how Russian-backed soldiers of the People’s Republic of Donetsk came to his house and camped at his nearby house. “They had no food, no real equipment. Just a machine gun.”
According to Alexander, the soldiers were begging for food in a neighboring house and moving in large groups, ignoring the risk of Ukrainian drones flying over them. It is not surprising that Russia loses so much equipment and manpower in war, he pondered.
“I told them it was a bump and I would have made a real soldier if I had been younger and in the military. “I showed a real man,” he said.
According to Natalia Patrusheva, leader of Kryvyi Rih’s main refugee center, normal life has not yet returned to Kryvyi Rih, but more than 800 refugees enter the city every day. Most of them came from southern Ukraine, and many were quickly sent to other parts of Ukraine. Patrusheva says most came from Russian-controlled Kherson in the Black Sea.
“They fear that Russia will hold a referendum and include Kherson in Russia. They are afraid that Russia will close its borders completely,” Patrusheva told The Daily Beast, citing rumors that a rigged referendum would soon be held in the area. In 2014, Russia also held referendums in Crimea annexed to Russia and in Russia-backed separatist regions, which were criticized by the West and manipulated 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 it’s getting harder and harder to live in Kherson. Everything in Ukraine is gone,” 18-year-old Maria told The Daily Beast when she arrived in Kamiyanka after trying to escape for months in Kherson. “Our store closed, flags were lifted and everything turned into Russian stuff,” she said.
“Every night something is exploding above us and we don’t even have money to bank any more,” she added. “I am so happy here. It is such a comfort.”