The Ukrainian military escort claims that the Russians were expelled from the village of Mala Rohan at the end of last month.
But then Tatiana, the military public affairs officer, who only uses her first name because of Ukrainian military policy, points to the middle of a field, the wreckage of a tank and a helicopter. Both are labeled with the letter “Z”, which the Russians used to represent their military offensive in Ukraine.
The vehicle and plane, she says, were shot down just days ago. In the distance, the sound of artillery echoes through farmland. A plume of smoke rises. The battle for this city, just east of Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, and less than an hour’s drive from the Russian border, has been intense.
Tatiana won’t reveal exact numbers, but she says “many” Ukrainian civilians and soldiers died. Some of the dead Russian fighters, she said, were buried in a mass grave on the hillside.
Mala Rohan’s scenes are emblematic of the kind of fighting that has raged in Ukraine since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February. According to residents and soldiers interviewed by NPR, the Russian and Ukrainian military engaged in some direct firefights. Instead, they say, the Russians are launching shells, mortars and unguided missiles in the general direction of the Ukrainian positions.
Second Lieutenant Dmitrii says this war has become an artillery battle.
“The Russians are not very good at fighting,” he said. “They’re good at bombing and sending rockets, but when they’re close they take a lot of casualties.”
The fighting destroyed the village. Most of his people fled. But Natalia Blizniuk, 67, is sitting on a wall near the main road. His house is in tatters – the roof is blown off; the windows are broken; she has no heat or water, but she says she has nowhere to go. She says she can’t make sense of this war.
“I don’t understand who is right and whose fault is it,” she said. “We need peace. It’s the only thing we need.”
On the other side of the village, Ukrainian soldiers enter a bombed-out warehouse. The Russian soldiers had transformed it into temporary barracks. A A Ukrainian rocket crashed through the walls and into the basement, leaving everything covered in black soot.
Captain Daniil examined the loot. The Ukrainian army intervened quickly and the The Russians fled in haste, leaving behind medicine, food and rubber boots. Daniil stops in front of a table full of unused balls. He uses his cellphone’s flashlight to inspect each one.
“The irony of fate,” he said, methodically picking up the balls and putting them back in his bag. “Now,” he said, “these bullets will kill the people who brought them here.”
Hanna Palamarenko contributed reporting for this story.