Bodies, land mines and destruction: A Ukrainian region digs out after the Russian occupation
Russian troops fully withdrew from the Sumy region in northeastern Ukraine earlier this month — now locals are assessing the death and ruin they left behind.
“Tragically, we are finding civilian corpses every day. Bodies that show signs of being tortured, with tied up hands and feet, bodies that have been beaten and bruised, bodies with breaks and fractures. After all this, these people have usually been shot in the head,” Dmytro Zhyvytskyy, governor of Sumy Oblast, told POLITICO in a phone call.
Authorities have identified more than 120 civilians killed during the occupation.
Sumy was one of the first regions stormed when Russia launched its latest invasion of Ukraine on February 24. That attack stalled, and after weeks of heavy fighting Russian forces retreated to focus on the Donbas region to the south.
Last week, Zhyvytskyy announced that the “orcs were gone” — using the derogatory term Ukrainians have adopted for Russian soldiers. He’s advising people not to come home until the area has been cleared of mines and booby traps left behind by the invaders.
“When the Russians were being driven out of this area, they laid land mines everywhere. In Trostianets they even put mines in the cemetery, for some reason,” he said, referring to a town of 20,000 only 40 kilometers from the Russian border that was used as a base by the Russians.
“It’s not safe to go home. Every day, landmines and unexploded shells are still being neutralized on our streets,” said Yuliia Klymenko, a 26-year-old from Trostianets.
Zhyvytskyy described the horrors of the occupation in a war launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin with the ostensible aim of liberating Ukraine from Nazis.
“They would shoot people on the streets,” Zhyvytskyy said. “To begin with it could be for as little as having a mobile phone in your hand. Later they would shoot indiscriminately at anyone and everyone. People who wanted to bury bodies weren’t allowed to do so. Bodies would either remain lying on the streets, or neighbors would carry them into their courtyards and gardens and bury them there.”
The governor, appointed to the job in June, also said that Russian troops looted Ukrainian towns, stealing “everything they could,” before they left.
“Locals say that it was impossible to tell the difference between a tank and an APC [armored personnel carrier], because they were all strewn with things — refrigerators, chairs, and so on,” he said. “Pensioners, ladies in their 80s, had their blankets stolen, as well as ragged, worn-out carpets that were 30 years old. They stole animals — sheep, cattle and so on. They stole roofing sheets. They fixed these things onto their vehicles and left.”
Meanwhile, Russian forces abandoned the bodies of their own dead troops. “They couldn’t even take their own bodies back. Instead, they stole all kinds of junk. That tells you a lot about their character,” Zhyvytskyy said.
Although the Russians have pulled back across the border from Sumy, Zhyvytskyy worries they’ll be back if they manage to overcome the Ukrainian army in what’s seen as a pivotal battle in the Donbas region.
“This won’t just be a battle for Donbas. It will be a battle for the future of European civilization,” Zhyvytskyy said. “If we lose Ukraine, they won’t stop. They will keep going, threatening the rest of the world.”
The region needs “a new Mannerheim Line,” Zhyvytskyy said, referring to the fortifications and strongpoints used with great success by Finland when it was attacked by the Soviet Union in 1939.
“At the border we need points of defense, turrets, minefields and trenches. All this needs to be state of the art, reliable. We also need an anti-aircraft defense system,” Zhyvytskyy said.
For that to happen, Ukraine needs much more help from the West, Zhyvytskyy said, echoing calls from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other politicians.
“The entire world is not doing enough. They are not reacting in an adequate manner. With the sanctions, the decisions have come too slowly. This is so disappointing,” he said.