Ukraine Staryi Saltiv
Two convoys of civilian cars in a northeastern Ukrainian village speak of Russia’s withdrawal from the area and the brutality it left behind.
The first – three cars, laden with a priest, dogs and frowning concerned – drives hastily through the village of Staryi Saltiv from the north, fleeing the violence as Ukraine expels Russian troops from Rubizhne. “We don’t even know what’s going on,” said one driver. “We didn’t stick around to find out.”
Ukrainian officials this week said they would proceed to the Russian border and liberate small villages on the outskirts of Kharkov, the country’s second-largest city, before the invasion began. The Ukrainian advance threatens the symbolic embarrassment of pushing the Kremlin’s forces back to their own border, while posing the strategic threat of cutting off Russia’s supply lines to Ukraine and its forces further south in the Donbas region. Progress has been rapid in recent weeks.
The second convoy tells of what Ukraine has found in Russia’s wake: five vehicles riddled with bullets, two burned to ashes.
On May 4, Ukrainian officials said this convoy was trying to leave the city when it was shot down by Russian troops. The bullet holes focus on some of the driver’s doors. Children’s clothing and toys pollute the area around the vehicles. Ukrainian officials said four civilians, including a 13-year-old girl, were killed when Russian troops opened fire on this convoy.
CNN’s escorts from the Kharkov Territorial Defense Forces say a tank shell hit one of the cars, explaining how the front section is twisted beyond recognition.
Moscow says its troops are not targeting civilians, a claim contradicted by evidence of apparent atrocities witnessed by CNN here and elsewhere in Ukraine.
A short walk across the road, into the woods and hills nearby are the remains of a Russian convoy. In the trees lie the remains of an armored personnel carrier, the tracks of which have been torn off by a rocket-propelled grenade, our escorts say. Sleeping bags, prayer books, grenades and rations lie on the leaves where the Russian troops slept, just outside the village. Two Russian corpses were found there days earlier and have been buried ever since.
At the top of the hill lies another, rarer piece of wreckage – the remains of a Russian T90M tank destroyed days earlier, apparently by a Swedish-supplied Carl Gustav recoilless rifle. Ukraine’s defense ministry has released a video filmed by a drone of the tank destroyed during the apparent attack, showing the vulnerability of Russia’s latest armor to NATO’s hand-held weapons. The turret of the tank has come loose and ball bearings from the shells lie in the shaft.
The Ukrainian counterattack to disrupt Russian supply lines is underway. Ukraine’s general staff said on Friday that Russian forces “have not conducted any offensive operations toward Kharkov. The main efforts were aimed at preventing the advance of our troops in the area of the settlement of Vesele”, another village less than an hour’s drive from Staryi Saltiv in normal times. The Ukrainians have repossessed a number of villages in this area east of Kharkov.
As Russian forces continue to withdraw, three bridges in the Kharkiv region have been broken down, according to satellite images obtained by CNN on Friday. It seems likely that Russian units destroyed the bridges in an effort to protect their supply lines from further Ukrainian advance.
Elsewhere in the Kharkov region, the Russians seem to use artillery sporadically, but with deadly effect. Shelling in the city of Derhachi on Thursday killed two people and destroyed the humanitarian center and medical facilities, according to the local government.
In a village near Staryi Saltiv, locals seem less aware of the details of their occupation and liberation. A man, Viktor, is filling tin buckets at a well because there has been no electricity or water in his street for weeks. Only three of its neighbors remain.
“What rest? My heart is about to burst out of my chest,” he said. “Everything around explodes. There is a hole in the yard from a shell impact. The roof was pierced by a shell, the fence is gone. It’s really hard. We sleep with our clothes on. They land nearby. There’s nowhere to hide.”