Ukrainians in one of the most war-torn towns face grave realities but avoid despairing


In March 2022, the Russian forces dropped an air bomb to an apartment block with several dozens of people hiding in a basement. 47 bodies were recovered from under the rubble when the Ukrainian forces retook the town and some more are believed still remaining unrecovered. Photo by Yulia Abibok, August 2023, used with permission.

For about six months in 2022, the Russian forces occupying the town of Izyum in the eastern Kharkiv region of Ukraine jammed all internet and mobile connections, so the locals couldn't transfer intelligence to the Ukrainian armed forces or security bodies. Those who remained in Izyum spent half a year in partial or complete uncertainty about the fates of their loved ones and the state of their country. Their relatives and friends elsewhere were also panicking while unable to connect with them. Several evacuation attempts failed because the Ukrainian authorities had no way to alert the people hiding in the basements about the evacuation buses waiting for them. In one part of town, the primary bridge connecting it to the other was blown up, making it virtually unreachable. 


A footbridge in Izyum was damaged by shelling but not destroyed. After th elibaration of the town, Hamlet, an artist from Kharkiv, put a grafiti on one of its pillars reading “Fractured but unbroken.” Photo by Yulia Abibok, August 2023, used with permission.

Ukrainian forces pushed the Russian troops from the Kharkiv region in September 2022. The Ukrainian soldiers and returning administration exhumed mass graves in the nearby forest and recovered dozens of dead in the basements of the collapsed houses. They cleared the debris, restored the electricity and water supplies, and demined the area. However, almost a year after the liberation, the numerous gates and apartment blocks in Izyum still bear the signs “People are living here,” a constant reminder of the recent assault and occupation and a signal that the town remains largely empty. Not a single child went to school in Izyum on September 1, 2023 — the first day of the new school year in Ukraine — because not a single town school building remained undamaged. 


A damaged sculpture in front of a destroyed school at the town center, August 2023. Photo by Yulia Abibok, used with permission.

Russia's primary goals

When on February 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Ukraine's northeastern Kharkiv region bordering Russia became one of the key targets. While the Russian troops proceeded from the northern regions to capture Kyiv, the capital, and from the south to establish the land corridor from Russia to the Russian-occupied Crimean peninsula, the primary goal of the assault in the Kharkiv region was to seize Izyum, a tiny town close to administrative border of the Donetsk region.


No buildings remained undamaged at the Izyum town center. Photo by Yulia Abibok, August 2023, used with permission.

The reason why the Russian forces wanted this town so badly was that it contains the highest point in the area, access to which offers control of the critical road to Sloviansk and Kramatorsk in the Donetsk region. It also has railway infrastructure that connects it to the neighboring town of Kupyansk, a railway hub near the border with Russia, which could ensure the flow of military supplies. 


A damaged TV tower and WWII memorial in the mount Kremianets in Izyum. Photo by Yulia Abibok, August 2023, fair use.

While Mariupol was everywhere in the news, mostly thanks to the fierce Ukrainian defense — and a group of prominent journalists who continued to work in the city — the siege of Izyum went almost unnoticed even as the town suffered heavy bombing. The Russian forces took it relatively quickly in about a month; when they occupied the entire town on April 1, 2022, about 80 percent of it was either destroyed or damaged. 


A destroyed building at the center of Izyum, August 2023. Photo by Yulia Abibok, used with permission.

Means of survival

Dmytro Pavel's apartment block in Izyum was hit soon after the start of the invasion. Dmytro moved to his mother's place in another block. Soon, a blast nearby shattered all the windows in that house and blew off plastic siding from the balconies. Dmytro collected the debris to cover his mother's and their neighbors’ windows — some of them still have these makeshift covers instead of glass. There are also still makeshift stoves in front of some apartment blocks, constructed and used by locals for the long months when they had neither gas nor electricity. In the area littered with unexploded ordnance, Dmytro had to collect firewood for the stove. Some of it is still stored at the entrance of their house.


A makeshift stove. Photo by Yulia Abibok, August 2023, used with permission.

No matter the state of affairs in Izyum, people do not seem fatalistic and apparently don't believe the Russians will make a comeback, despite their new bloody advance towards Kupyansk. The town has not experienced air attacks since it was liberated in early September 2022, a new sense of normalcy has been restored there with shops, restaurants, and caffés reopened, and Dmytro says that no matter what happens next, it will never be as difficult as it was in early 2022 when the war and occupation caught the entire nation unprepared. 

It was the local farmers who saved the lives of those who remained hidden under the occupation: right when the food the residents managed to store before the invasion had been running low, the farmers and owners of small private houses with gardens started to arrive to the local market with greens and vegetables. There was almost no humanitarian aid for anyone in Izyum, and the Russian administration only restored the production and supply of bread to the locals after weeks of occupation. Tetiana Volodymyrivna, Dmytro's mother, recalled the moment when they got their first loaf of bread after months of near-hunger. She said it smelled and tasted like the best food they had ever tried.


Almost idyllic Izyum, August 2023. Photo by Yulia Abibok, used with permission.

In the months without running water, gas, heating, and electricity, the absence of the latter was the most challenging, Dmytro said. It took time to restore the electricity network even after the liberation of the town. Still, some power towers or transmission lines around Izyum remain destroyed. Even today, there remains an issue with potentially unexploded mines. In August, a woman stepped on a landmine near her apartment block. Dmytro said that he walked through that exact place a day before. Some locals guessed that these types of explosives, small and shiny, littered throughout the frontline, could be picked and dropped elsewhere by birds. In many respects, no matter when and how Russia's invasion of Ukraine ends, there will be no immediate happy ending for villages, towns, and cities like Izyum.

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