A handful of elderly residents — some prepared with gloves, sturdy woven bags and hand tools — came by Monday to rescue firewood from the rubble. It will take months, if not longer, for electricity, gas and running water to be restored of significance and a shiver to start.
This city in the far east of Ukraine was one of the first to be taken by Russian troops after the war started on February 24, and it became a command center for them. In early March, Izium was isolated – no cell phones, no heating, no power. Residents did not know what was going on in the war, whether their relatives were still alive, whether there was still a Ukraine.
They were liberated in a swift counter-offensive on September 10 that passed through the Kharkov region and continued south, near Kherson. But the residents are still emerging from the confusion and trauma of their occupation, the brutality of which received worldwide attention last week after the discovery of one of the largest mass graves of the war.
“We have nothing. We take wood to heat water for tea and to make porridge. Look at my hands! I am 75 years old and this woman is even older than me. We are afraid of winter,” said Oleksandra Lysenko, standing in a pile of stones “My grandchildren went to this school and I am looting it.”
A man nearby loaded the battered hood of a car onto his bicycle. He planned to use the part, which was spray painted with the letter Z, which symbolizes the Russian army, to cover an open window frame.
When the war started almost seven months ago, about half of Izium’s approximately 40,000 inhabitants fled, some of them to Russia itself. The rest squatted in cellars or behind the thickest walls they could find. Russian soldiers handed out some food, but rarely enough.
Those with battery-powered radios found that the only signal was a Russian propaganda station, feeding them lies about which Ukrainian cities had fallen, how their government had abandoned them, and how they would be tried as collaborators if the Ukrainian army ever returned.
The counter-offensive was so swift that the Russians abandoned their ammunition and their armored vehicles, sometimes resorting to stealing residents’ clothing and cars to escape undetected. It was Russia’s worst military defeat since the withdrawal of its troops from areas near Kiev more than five months ago.
Ukrainian soldiers have started collecting brass buttons hastily ripped from an officer’s uniform, or patches bearing the Russian flag. They also collect Russian ammunition, which fit nicely into Ukrainian weapons, and repurpose the abandoned vehicles that have not rusted to useless.
The Russian occupiers have scattered countless mines, which Ukrainian soldiers painstakingly detonated piece by piece. Every few minutes on Monday, until sunset, their massive controlled explosions shook Izium, which is about a two-hour drive from Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkov, on straight rural highways.
It might as well have been another world.
“Is Kharkiv still Ukraine?” a woman asked a visitor hesitantly in the first few days after Izium was released.
There is now a weak mobile signal – just enough to text or call, for those who have a way to charge their phone.
But on Monday morning, expectations were high for a more basic form of communication. By the time the mail truck pulled into the parking lot of a closed market, more than a hundred people were walking around, waiting for the first mail delivery since February.
“I’m glad the email is working. It means life gets better. We will live and hope for the best,” said 69-year-old Volodymyr Olyzarenko. He already knew what his adult children’s box contained: warm clothes for his brother.
But there will be difficult days.
A site containing more than 440 graves, according to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was discovered last week in a forest on the northern outskirts of the city, and researchers are exhuming the bodies to begin the grim task of identification. Russian officials have waived responsibility for the site.
On the southern fringe, where the fiercest fighting has raged, the entire village of Kamyanka is at risk from explosives. Of the 1,200 that lived there, only 10 people are left.
Almost every yard is littered with bombs and bullets. A Russian rocket launcher rusts away in someone’s driveway, the weather is just starting to take its toll on the white Z. And when the sun goes down, the only sound is the barking of dogs abandoned by their owners.
Natalya Zdorovets, the matriarch of a family of five that makes up half of the village’s population, said they stayed because it was home. On March 5, they lost their connection to the outside world.
“We were in a vacuum. We were cut off from the whole world. We didn’t know what was happening. We didn’t even know what was happening on the adjacent street, because we only lived here,’ she said, gesturing to a yard full of ducks, chickens, cats and dogs.
About 2,000 Russian soldiers settled in the houses abandoned by terrified residents. Then, a little over a week ago, the village suddenly fell silent. The family had no idea why until the Ukrainian soldiers arrived.
“We cried and laughed at the same time,” Zdorovets said. ‘We weren’t prepared to see them. We hadn’t heard the news.”