Tears of relief as frontline Ukrainian families reunite
Troitske (Ukraine) (AFP) – Olga Valkova had often cried since invading Russian forces seized the Ukrainian village of Troitske, cutting her off from her family and her country home.
When she returned, the 64-year-old cried again, but now she was choking back sobs of joy as she handed out food to Ukrainian soldiers who had liberated her neighborhood.
And she could not hold back her tears once again when she finally fell into the arms of her brother Leonid Kandaurov, 60, and his wife, his sister-in-law Lydia.
The reunion took place six months and eleven days after their lives were turned upside down.
Troitske is a couple of rows of bungalows with vegetable gardens, ducks and a fishing lake, nestled among the vast sunflower fields of northeast Ukraine.
Before the war, Olga and her husband, a retired truck driver, Alex Vashchenko, 65, visited their white-walled dacha several times a month to tend to their vegetables.
Its three rooms revolve around a brick oven, above a root cellar to store crops, like the meager onions that failed this year, untended during the occupation.
On February 25, the second day of the invasion, the sudden Russian thrust on Kharkiv quickly enveloped Troitske.
Olga wasn’t there, but her friend Anna Kryvonosova, 65, picked up the story.
“For three days in a row, starting on February 25, Russian armored vehicles passed through this street,” she told AFP.
“It was terrifying. Soldiers were on top of armored vehicles with guns pointed at us in our home. It was a real occupation.
“They entered our homes, checked our papers, searched everywhere…closets, basements. Everywhere, they searched everywhere.”
The day of their release was hardly less daunting.
Sounds of explosions erupted from the nearby town of Shevchenkove and mysterious tanks appeared, swinging their gun turrets to point towards Troitske.
But the villagers were relieved when the infantry unit that marched under cover from the tanks was the Ukrainian army’s 92nd Brigade.
Anna’s husband, Nikolai Kryvonosov, is now free to greet visiting journalists with a toast from his moonshine stash.
“To victory, so that Putin dies. Fuck him,” the mustached 67-year-old said – in Russian – fending off a blow from the crazy, volatile mind.
Russian forces used Troitske as a supply route and patrolled the area, but did not establish a base in the small village.
Instead, they fortified a tractor workshop down the road, which is now bombed and being repaired to become a Ukrainian checkpoint.
Locals proudly tell how they called relatives in Kharkiv who reported the Russian position to the Ukrainian SBU security service.
Some of Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin’s supporters defend his invasion by saying it was necessary to protect “Russians” in eastern Ukraine from persecution.
The Kharkiv region is largely Russian-speaking, but the city itself resisted the Russian advance and the villagers of Troitske did not welcome Putin’s invasion.
Many families who spoke to AFP have sons who serve in the Ukrainian armed forces, and some have kept Ukrainian flags at home. They were scared but defiant.
Anya Ratiy is only 17 years old and tried to continue her education online. She managed to get out of the village in August, and returned after her release.
Today, she can play football in the afternoon sun, proudly sporting her blue and yellow jersey, the national colors of Ukraine.
Did she wear it when the Russians were there?
“Yes!” she declared proudly, before adding with a laugh: “But when they came, we would run and hide.”
Kids playing soccer brag about seeing rockets flying overhead just two days ago, but their days of running and hiding are over for now.
On September 7, Ukraine’s surprise counter-offensive pushes Russian troops east and allows Olga and Alex to return from Kharkiv to their family village.
Their bungalow was intact. Olga threw herself face down on her pillow, moaning, “This is my house. This is my bed.”
Olga’s brother Leonid and sister-in-law Lydia remained during the occupation, tending to their vegetable garden and orchard. A party was soon prepared to celebrate.
Leonid is a retired forest ranger and an avid hunter, but Russian troops seized his hunting rifles.
His over-excited hunting dogs are eager to return to the forest, but for now the table is grumbling with cheeses, sausages and vegetables.
Toast after toast is called with various varieties of home-distilled samogon spirit.
Then Olga and Lydia start singing, first the national anthem “Ukraine is not dead yet”, then a catchy patriotic folk song.
Tears flow again as the women hug and share video messages from their long-missing sons on the front line, fighting Russian forces on other fronts.
© 2022 AFP