Balakliya, Ukraine – After months of living in fear, Olga Ivanova says she was shocked to see how hastily the Russian forces who occupied her village had withdrawn.
“We found 16 of them hiding in a cellar; they had nowhere to go,” said the elderly resident of Verbivka, in northeastern Ukraine. “The others stole cars to leave, they also took bicycles. That’s how the Russian retreat was.”
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That was on September 6, the day Ukraine launched a counteroffensive that took Russia by surprise. The lightning advance resulted in Ukrainian forces retaking some 8,000sq km (3,090sq miles) of territory and also dealing a major blow against the Russian military and its morale.
Nadia, another Verbivka resident, shared Ivanova’s relief and surprise over the Russian troops’ fleeing.
“They ran away. They didn’t leave – they ran away. The officers fled first and left the lower ranks behind,” she told Al Jazeera, standing in front of the wreckage of what used to be the village’s only school.
On September 7, two missiles hit the building, which acted as the base for the Russian forces, said Nadia, an accountant. She believes it was bombed to destroy evidence of their presence. Inside, uniforms and ammunition could be seen among the rubble.
A short distance to the south is the town of Balakliya, the Ukrainian forces’ first major win since the start of the counteroffensive. Here, the occupation hub was the local police station. In its windowless cells, there are markings on the wall counting the days. Forensic experts say forces from Luhansk – one of two self-proclaimed pro-Russian republics in eastern Ukraine – were also stationed in the town.
“Ukraine says it has reclaimed 300 communities – home to about 150,000 people – but Russia still holds large parts of the country,” said Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from Balakliya.
“The hasty retreat may signal Ukraine struck first where the Russian defences were weakest.”
Ukrainian prosecutors say they have found several bodies bearing traces of torture in recently recaptured villages.
But while the destruction in the area is reminiscent of the scenes witnessed in the towns near Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, following Russia’s withdrawal in March, there are no traces of mass killings as seen in places such as Bucha.
On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy paid a surprise visit to Izyum, another recaptured northeastern town and a key logistical hub. Following his arrival, officials raised the Ukrainian flag in front of the burned-out city hall building in the largely devastated town.
“The view is very shocking but it is not shocking for me … because we began to see the same pictures from Bucha, from the first deoccupied territories … so the same destroyed buildings, killed people,” Zelenskyy told reporters.