'Tears in our eyes': Ukrainians rejoice in liberated Izium

A Ukrainian serviceman standing atop an abandoned Russian tank near the village of Izium in Ukraine's Kharkiv region on Sept 11, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

IZIUM, UKRAINE - In the Ukrainian city of Izium, the country's blue and yellow flag has just been raised again over the charred city hall, months after Russian tanks barrelled in.

Gleeful residents rush to a hill near a mobile phone tower, the only place in town with a signal, to call relatives to share their good news: the Russians are out.

Ukrainian soldiers liberated the eastern city over the weekend as the army reclaimed swathes of territory, part of its lightning counter-offensive to beat back Russian soldiers who invaded Feb 24.

For some Izium residents, the sight of Ukrainian soldiers sparked waves of emotion.

"We welcomed them with tears in our eyes. We had been waiting for them for months...we are very happy," 61-year-old Nadiya Nesolena told AFP.

Izium, in the northeast Kharkiv region with a pre-war population of 50,000, had been fully occupied by Russian troops since April and had become a key logistics base for Moscow.

Life in the city was "very difficult" under the Russians, Ms Nesolena said, recalling constant shelling, cold and hunger.

But she said she was one of the fortunate few, "lucky enough to have a house with a basement and some food".

Signs of Russia's occupation abound in Izium.

Plumes of white smoke rose over the roofs of the city, from ongoing fire at the ammunition depot that exploded on Saturday as Russian troops fled.

Izium's city hall, now adorned triumphantly with the Ukrainian flag, is battle scarred like so many buildings in the city: houses, apartment blocks, shops, two bridges, a school and a religious building, all destroyed.

Still dotting the city are huge signboards with Russian flags saying "We are Russia, one united nation".

A couple walking next to a damaged building in Izium, Ukraine, on Sept 11, 2022. The city had been fully occupied by Russian troops since April. PHOTO: AFP

The Ukrainian soldiers, busy securing the area, still have not had time to take them down.

Back on the hill near the mobile phone tower, Mr Yuriy Kurotshka, 64, is stunned with joy that his city is back in Ukrainian hands.

"All bad things eventually come to an end," Mr Kurotshka said. He was trying to reach his family who left for Kyiv in March, when Russian troops first entered the city.

Mr Kurotshka has a message for the Ukrainian army: "Please never leave, don't hand us over to those Russians!"

Mr Grygoriy Pyvovar, 61, who wanders through the quasi-empty city with his 16-year-old son Kyrylo, recounts how he met soldiers arriving in Izium on Sunday.

"We had tears in our eyes. We were so happy to see that our guys had come here!" Mr Pyvovar told AFP. "We didn't expect it would happen so quickly."

Said a retired English teacher who wanted to be known only as Zoya: "People are crying, people are joyful, of course. How could they not be joyful!"

The 76-year-old wept as she described the months she had spent sheltering in the cellar. She is in the now-quiet village of Zolochiv, north of Kharkiv and 18km from the Russian frontier.

Meanwhile, a woman who wanted to be known as Nastya said she fled the village in April but returned last week after news of Ukrainian advances.

"I think everyone's in a great (mood). It's all over now. At least we hope it's all over," said the 28-year-old, queuing for groceries with two small children.

People using their cell phones on a hill near the Izium on Sept 11, 2022. Residents rushed to the hill near a mobile phone tower, the only place in town with a signal, to call relatives to share their good news of the city's liberation. PHOTO: AFP

But the Ukrainian troops were not welcome back by everyone.

Many residents said their pro-Russian neighbours took the road towards the Moscow-controlled east even before Russian troops evacuated.

Moscow said several thousand people have crossed over to Russia from the Kharkiv region.

Around Izium, abandoned Russian armoured vehicles were being towed by Ukrainian military trucks on Monday.

Ukrainian army convoys roamed the area, as foot soldiers march by or set up camp in the city's periphery.

Several dozen broken-down Russian vehicles - branded "Z", the symbol of the invasion - were lying on the side of the road.

Alongside them, burnt trees, craters, shrapnel and unexploded munitions completed the picture.

In a small newly-liberated town near Izium, soldiers have piled up ammunition left behind by the Russians.

Service members of the State Security Service of Ukraine inspect ammo and shells left by Russian soldiers in the recently liberated city of Izium. PHOTO: REUTERS/PRESS SERVICE OF THE STATE SECURITY SERVICE OF UKRAINE

"We're certainly planning on 'sending' all this ammunition back to them as a gift by air," laughed a soldier nicknamed "Tank" who was busy securing bombs that were left behind.

There was also Russian food, but Tank joked that his group "won't eat that, it's not good". Tank and his colleagues arrived early on Sunday to carry out demining operations and to disarm the traps they say that Russian soldiers left behind.

Another group of soldiers passed by, saying they would have to come back later: they found a T-72 Russian tank near the exit of the village, but it was out of battery.


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