‘It’s a kilometre to run through unexploded shells to get to the well. . . ’

Vitalii Smazhev spent 100 days with his mother in occupied Izium (a town in Kharkiv Region). He had to dig graves for old people who were dying of cold.
Taras Viichuk16 February 2024UA DE EN RU

My name is Vitalii Smazhev. I lived in Izium (Kharkiv Region). I worked in different jobs in Ukraine and Poland.

What was the situation in your town in 2014?

About a month ago I was thinking about the past. I saw an old video — the protests in 2014. People were demanding that the Ukrainian troops not come to Izium and not defend Sloviansk (a town in Donetsk Region). There were about three hundred angry people. I didn’t know that at the time. It was overwhelming news for me. Many people gave everything they had for the Ukrainian military, and others, on the contrary, were going to protests and shouting something against Ukraine. These were old people who were nostalgic for the Soviet Union.

Almost none of my friends supported Russia. For us it was just a neighbouring country, nothing more. Just like Poland or Germany. They had their own lives there, we had ours. It was old people who were nostalgic for the Soviet Union. When the Russians came to our town in 2022, those people said: “That’s it, we will live in Russia, that’s the way it should be”.

How did the occupation of Izium in 2022 begin?

They (the Russian troops) first surrounded Kharkiv, then they came towards us. They passed through Balakliia (a town in Kharkiv Region), reached Izium and stopped there. Nothing happened for a few days. Then their warplanes came. They destroyed all the infrastructure in the town: electricity, heating, etc. We began to hide in basements.

Did the Russians destroy only military facilities in your town?

No, the situation was different. We didn’t see our military. They were somewhere by the river and on Kremenets mountain. This is the highest point in our town. When the Russian troops on tanks approached the town, our military blew up the bridges, so that they could not cross the river. When they (the Russian troops) saw that they couldn’t get through, they just started bombing our town with “Grads” (multiple rocket launchers). They put up pontoon bridges, but our military destroyed them. So, there was no way for them to cross the river.

Where did you hide during the shelling?

We hid in the basements. We equipped them immediately, brought shovels down there so that we could somehow dig out if the house was bombed. There were a lot of people there: me, my mother, my sister, all our neighbours. At first, we were in one basement. Then we moved to another one because there wasn’t enough room for everyone.

When there was Internet, we went outside, got some text messages and checked where the bomb had hit: online we saw the devastation and read about the dead. It was terrible.

Our town was small, we could hear the ground shaking from the explosions. We lived about a kilometre from the centre of town, near the river. There was a lot of destruction. There were houses in the town centre that were burnt to the ground. There was nothing left of them. They looked like burnt out five-storey boxes.

Центр Ізюма, 17 квітня 2022 року, фото: Обрії Ізюмщини Stadtzentrum von Isjum, 17. April 2022, Foto: Horizonty Izyumshchyny Center of Izium, 17 April 2022, photo: Horizons of Izium Region Центр Изюма, 17 апреля 2022, фото: Горизонты Изюмщины

Center of Izium, 17 April 2022, photo: Horizons of Izium Region

Are you aware of any civilian casualties caused by shellings?

I had friends. On 9 May 2022 one of my friends decided to celebrate (in Ukraine, the end of the Second World War is sometimes celebrated on 9 May) and went to see his friend. They were both in the courtyard. But a rocket landed there, and a piece of shrapnel hit my friend in the head. It was an instant death. So, the guy he went to party with lost his wife and his best friend. When we lived in the basement, old people died of cold. We took the bodies to the flats first and then buried them behind the house. We chopped up the ground with axes because it was frozen. When the Russians came, they began to hide the dead: they dug them out of the graves and took them away.

How did you manage to get food?

We were in the basement. Once, a man came running and said there was an explosion near “ATB” (a Ukrainian grocery store). Everyone ran there. We were hungry, we were being bombed all the time and we had no food. So, we ran there and saw that our “ATB” was on fire. People started breaking windows and climbing into the store. When we got inside, we saw that there was a lot of food. We loaded the carts with food and took them to the basement.

First they (the Russian troops) bombed “ATB”. Then they bombed “Posad” (a Ukrainian grocery store). Everyone ran there like ants — children, their parents, everyone. That’s how we got food.

Because there was no other way to get food. It was the same with the pharmacies. There were people who just broke windows, climbed in and took what they needed. Everything in the town was closed, but people still needed to get food and medicine.

Were you able to evacuate the town?

We packed all the documents and necessary things. But there were only two evacuations. We missed the first evacuation because there was no electricity or Internet. We didn’t know where and when the evacuation would take place. We endured 100 days of occupation and then we left. A friend of my mother’s drove us out. She wasn’t well. It was very cold in the basement, she walked heavily. I was with her all the time.

Then the Russians came (to the town) and started giving out food. Our hospital started to work again, but only partially. Two of our hospitals were bombed, but there was a basement where the doctors could work. So, I took my mother to that hospital. They couldn’t admit my mother to the hospital because it was only for people with open wounds. So, my mother was just given injections. The doctors kept her alive by giving her glucose and drips. There was an effect, but it was negligible.

Then my mother’s friend came and took us to the (other) occupied part of Ukraine — to Antratsyt (a town in Luhansk Region). The doctors started to treat my mother, but then they gave up and said: “We are treating her, but there is no effect”. Two weeks later my mother died. It was very hard.

Зруйнована лікарня в Ізюмі, 9 квітня 2022 року, фото: t.me/truexanewsua Zerstörtes Krankenhaus in Isjum, 9. April 2022, Foto: t.me/truexanewsua Destroyed hospital in Izium, 9 April 2022, photo: t.me/truexanewsua Разрушенная больница в Изюме, 9 апреля 2022 года, фото: t.me/truexanewsua

Destroyed hospital in Izium, 9 April 2022, photo: t.me/truexanewsua

Could you tell us more about occupied Antratsyt?

It’s a weird town. The people there told us straight away: if Russia has come, it has come forever. Neither my mother nor I understood that. We knew it was not forever, that Ukraine would win. There were old people there, and they all supported Putin. For them he was an idol. I had never seen anything like that. I felt very uncomfortable there. Not far from the town there was a small mine where the miners worked. The police came and took them all away. Then a pipe burst in one of the courtyards. Eight workers came and started to repair the pipe. The police saw them and took them all away.

It was scary to walk around the town. Because you could get arrested and no one would find you.

I remember that I was sitting on a bench, talking to elderly women, and a man came up to us out of nowhere and said: “I’m a soldier of the “LPR” (the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic)”. He said that they (the troops) had just occupied a nearby village, that they were taking a two-week break and then they were going back to war. And I said to the ladies on the bench: “These guys are going to war. How can that be normal? It’s a horror!” And they replied that somebody has to fight for something.

There was a nurse in the hospital. She said her husband had gone to fight and if anything happened, she would go too. I don’t know what will happen to these occupied regions. If in Ukraine (maybe) 15% of the population supports Russia, then in the regions that have been occupied since 2014, it’s probably all 90% of the population that supports Russia. That scares me because they haven’t seen the horrors of war, they don’t know what it’s like when there’s no time to live because rockets are flying above your head day and night.

What made you leave Antratsyt?

The people I spoke to offered me to stay. There was a lot of work for men in the town. Because there were practically no men there. When I walked through the streets, I didn’t see any men, only women, and quite a lot of them. I discussed it with my sister. She said it wasn’t an option. Because sooner or later the war would come there. I decided to go through Russia to any EU country.

How did you manage to get to Europe through Russia?

I bought a ticket to Rostov (a city in Russia). There were no other young people on the bus, only older people. The so-called “LPR” border guards detained me at the border for about 40 minutes, checking who I was, where I was from and where I was going. I had not served in the military, and they tried to find out why I had not. They checked all my documents, made me undress and searched my phone. Before I left, I deleted all pro-Ukrainian information from my mobile phone. When we crossed the Russian border, the Russian border guards conducted the same interrogation.

I told them: “The “LPR” border guards were checking me, now you”. They asked many questions. I arrived in Rostov. A 23-year-old woman met me there. She took me to a man; his name was Andrii. In Antratsyt and Rostov there were many “Z” signs: shops with “Z” signs, posters with Russian military men, etc. Andrey said that at first, he wanted to leave Russia too, but then he decided to stay and become a volunteer to help people like me.

The volunteers said: “We are waiting for Ukraine´s victory”. It was a shock for me, because before I went to Russia, my sister had told me: “Forget the Ukrainian language there, speak only in Russian”.

Then the volunteers put me on a bus to St. Petersburg. Another volunteer met me there. When I left the occupied territory, I was told: “Well, what kind of volunteers can there be in Russia? Maybe there are some somewhere in Europe. But there are none in Russia”. But there are, and there are a lot of them in Russia. They don’t speak Ukrainian, but they are very nice people.

The volunteer from St. Petersburg asked me, how did we live under shelling? What was it like in general? I said that for the first two months you sort of hold on. And then you see that there’s no end in sight and you just give up. You don’t even want to get out of bed in the morning. I realised that it’s a kilometre to run through unexploded shells to get to the well. There were unexploded shells lying there. So, you had to avoid them. We made plans for two hours at the most — to survive. If we survived, we´d make plans for the next two hours.

My sister is a cynologist and she used to work with dogs. I saw people abandoning their dogs. People left our town and left their dogs just in the streets. I saw so many dogs of all kinds! Of course, we gave them some food. But they were still starving to death. The Russian military killed the dogs. I don’t know why. When I decided to leave, I looked for some-one to adopt my dogs. Later they were taken to Kharkiv. And I went to Finland. At the border they (the Russian border guards) undressed me again and checked all my belongings. They found out almost everything they could about me: where I worked, when, in which city, where I travelled, what I did there. They checked absolutely everything.

Did the Russian troops carry out repression?

The Russian troops had lists of those who supported Ukraine and our army. They couldn’t take the town across the river, but they found some locals who had shown them how to enter the town from the other side. So, they just went around the river and entered our town. When they entered, the Ukrainian army withdrew. The Russians had all the names and details of those who had enlisted in the Territorial Defence Forces. Someone of the locals had given all the data to the Russian troops: phone numbers, addresses, etc.

They (the Russian troops) had data on Ukrainians who had been in the war. They just went around the flats looking for these people. Several APCs would arrive, completely surround the house and then look for the person in the house.

I remember once leaving my flat to fetch water. I saw a soldier standing in the house. I did not pay much attention to him. I went downstairs and there was another one standing on the ground floor. And he said to me: “Stop, the passage is forbidden”.

So, they looked for the people who were in the Territorial Defence Forces. There was a big Russian headquarters in the town. There were armoured brigades and a lot of Russians. First there was the military, then they set up a military command and a city administration. They recruited people who agreed to work with them. So-called military battalions of the “Luhansk People’s Republic” and “Donetsk People’s Republic” patrolled the town. The Russian troops were very professionally equipped: they had body armour, machine guns, hats, etc. But the “LPR” and “DPR” soldiers had only some kind of camouflages and assault rifles. That’s all they had.

How do you see future relations with Russia?

There were people in my town who always said they would never go to Russia. It’s a matter of principle. It is better to die in Izium than to go to Russia. I never had any illusions about the Russians. But when I met people (the volunteers) who really support us and our coun-try, who agree to come here, learn the language and even live here, it was a revelation for me. They said that Russia will definitely surrender and pay all reparations 100%. They want to live in peace with us. I hope that other Russians will eventually find out what they did to my country. Because even the Germans remember Hitler and that part of their history with horror. I think it will be the same with Russia.

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