Kamianka lies in a charming valley of bright flowers and lush trees. It used to be portrayed as a model village for a contented life in rural idyll. It was also a place of archaeological and geological lure, with its rare bronze age and Scythian sites and Jurassic limestone cliffs attracting visitors from afar.
The settlement, set in a sleepy hollow, was established in the 18th century by a count from the Tsar of Russia’s court who had returned from Britain with new methods of farming and an English bride. Keen to put his new knowledge into practice, he allocated land, built a mill, constructed roads and funded a church and a school.
But Kamianka, in eastern Ukraine, also has a dark history of violence. Its strategic position on the banks of the Siversky Donets River made it a battleground for armies over the ages. One of the bloodiest encounters was fought during the Second World War between Soviet and German forces, leaving thousands dead. The Waffen SS set up a prison camp nearby woods in which captured partisan fighters and local civic leaders were tortured and executed.
Kamianka, however, recovered from the ravages of that war and began to slowly prosper. A lucrative agricultural plant, a modern health centre, a lyceum with scientific facilities, a sports stadium and a community centre attracted people from neighbouring cities and towns. The village’s original church, dismantled during Soviet times, with its stones used to build an airfield was replaced with a wooden one which was praised for its cupola which became a destination for pilgrimage.
The tranquil life was shattered with Vladimir Putin’s invasion in February 2022. In early March Ukrainian forces became engaged in prolonged and fierce combat with the Russian troops who were attempting a pincer movement into Kharkiv, the country’s second city. For months the village, and surrounding areas, experienced airstrikes, artillery duels and firefights on its narrow streets and through the houses.
Russian forces captured Kamianka after weeks of bloody fighting. They stayed there until driven out six months later when Ukrainian troops swept out of Kharkiv in an offensive which reclaimed a wide swathe of territory in a major change in the tide of the war putting the invaders on the defensive.
What was left of Kamianka was in ruins. The church, lyceum and agricultural plant had been destroyed as were almost all of the houses: not one building escaped damage. Some of the inhabitants had been killed. Some arrested and disappeared. The rest had fled to places of greater safety.
The fate of Kamianka is in many ways what has befallen Ukraine in microcosm, reflecting the bitterness, sorrow and pity of this war. There were murders and mass graves; treachery and torture. Prosecutors gathered evidence of human rights abuse ; exhumed bodies piled up in morgues in Kharkiv. Families continue desperate searches for those missing, seeking their graves as hopes of finding them alive fade away.
A handful of residents who returned to the village after the Russians left found a lethal legacy of fighting and occupation — unexploded ordnance, concealed booby traps and mines. Soon these began to maim and kill as had been the enemy’s intention.
Serhei and Iryna Olynik’s house had been used, like many others in the village, to quarter Russian troops. They found a parting message left on a mirror in a bedroom written with Irnyna’s lipstick: “Thanks for everything; whatever happens for now, we’ll win at the end”.
They also found what they call “gifts” left behind by the Russians, explosive devices hidden inside the rooms and out in the garden. In the first week, 28 of them were found and disposed by Serhei and his son Maxim . The 29th, planted at the base of a tree, exploded, spraying shrapnel into Serhei’s face and blinding him in one eye.
“At first we asked the army and the police to help clear the bombs, but they were too busy. So I started collecting them myself and putting them in a hole. The security people would come when they were in this area and blow them up,” says Serhei.
“There was a cherry tree which needed to be cut back. I was doing that with my axe one afternoon and this bomb just blew up. All I remember was burning hot sharp metal on my face. The pain was intense, blood was coming out of my eyes, and then everything became dark.”
Maxim drove Serhei to a hospital in Kharkiv. One of his eyes was saved, but the sight was lost in the other. The initial emergency operation was free, but further surgery is needed at a cost of between $800 and $1,000 (£640 and £800). The family are not sure where they are going to get the money from for that to be carried out.
The Olyniks, friendly and hospitable despite their travails, present watermelons from their garden and honey from Serhei’s beehives. They have packed a fridge with fruit and vegetables from their demined allotment and are giving food to neighbours and to charities.
Two large freezers in the corner of a storeroom was padlocked. Iryna opens one of slightly to reveal the reason why. The stench coming from it was pungent, heavy, and sickly sweet – the smell of the rotting dead.
“We called the police to come and deal with this, and they said ‘you’re 20,000th in the queue for something like that”, says Iryna. “We thought about just taking the freezers and burying them in the woods. But there could be human bodies in them. We were told later that the investigators are coming, but we don’t know when that’s going to happen.”
Many bodies have already been found buried in the woods nearby, in shallow graves. Volodymyr Komischen came across a dozen of them in a ditch near his farmhouse, the topsoil washed away by days of heavy rain.
“There were around 20 bodies, most of them Ukrainian soldiers in uniforms. But there were also some people in ordinary clothes. All were men. They look like they had been shot in the head,” Volodymyr recalls. “The army and police came with forensics people and took away the bodies. They told me there were other bodies in these hills.”
A few weeks later, clearing a field of unexploded device – he had already found more than 50 – Volodymyr found another grave, this time of dismembered body parts.
“That was very strange. We were asking ourselves ‘how did they get there, what happened to these people?’” he says. “The police came and took these away as well. I don’t know whether they had managed to match identities. There are people we know who have been killed, but the bodies have not been found, these parts could have been of them.”
One of those feared to be dead is Volodymyr’s friend and neighbour, Volodymyr Lokotash, who was urged to flee for safety after the Russians took over the area. But he remained and paid the price.
“I was leaving with my family and told him Volodya he should do the same”, says Volodymyr. “But there was a problem. Volodya had a drink problem in the past. He had been dry for ten years. But with the war and the Russian attack and everything he had started to drink again. He said he wanted to spend the night sobering up before driving. He was offered lifts, but didn’t want to leave his car because he thought It’d be stolen.
“He didn’t get the chance to leave. The roads became closed and he went off to hide in the village. Soldiers from the Russian-backed separatist Donetsk Peoples Republic (DNR) said later they had found two young men hiding in a basement and they had thrown grenades in. We think Volodya was one of the two killed. The bodies were taken out, but we don’t know what happened to them, we don’t know about a lot of the terrible things that happened at the time.”
Aleksandr Lutai thinks he does know what happened to the 20 soldiers found in the ditch. He is hesitant to talk about it because of fear that the Russians may yet come back and did not want some of what he described published.
Aleksandr was arrested after the village was occupied by DNR troops. They accused him of helping Ukrainian forces. He was repeatedly beaten while being questioned, but told he was being freed after two days of captivity.
“Before they let me go, they said ‘we want you to see something’. They took me up to some high ground, on the field below there were some Ukrainian soldiers who had been taken prisoner. They all had their hands tied behind their back, I could see most of them were very young”, he says.
“Some were already dead: they started shooting the others. I saw it all, I could hear their cries. I am pretty sure that the bodies found were of these soldiers. I felt very sorry for those poor guys. I was also very scared: I feel scared even now whenever I think about it. That is all I want to say about this, that is all”.
Others experienced the agony of seeing their family members killed. Volodymyr Brezkrovnyz was at home when street fighting erupted in the village. There was an explosion. Shrapnel came flying through the window and hit him on the back of the head.
“He pitched forward and fell on the table, the rest of us in the room had to dive to the floor. When we got up we saw that the back of Volodymyr’s skull had gone. He was still alive though,” says Stepan Mikhailovich, his stepfather.
“There was shooting all around. I tried to step out to get help, but immediately got shot at. So all we could do was put Volodya in a bed and pray that he would stay alive until we could take him to a hospital.”
Volodymyr, 36 years old, died two days later. “We kept on saying to him that he’ll be alight, he was mostly unconscious, but would sometimes open his eyes. We feared that he wouldn’t survive. When the fighting had got a bit quieter, we wrapped Volodya in a sheet and set off for the cemetery”, says Stepan.
“But then the firing started again. People told us that the dead and wounded should be left outside the school, ambulances would go there later. So that’s what we did, we left him there with the others. There was nothing else we could do. We found Volodymyr’s body a week later, the Russians had kicked it on to the fields behind the school.”
Some of the dead did get buried during the fighting, in gardens. But not necessarily their own. Serhyi Sportak was killed in crossfire when he ventured outside. The burial, however, was at the back of his neighbour Galyna Bondarenko’s home.
“We all met and it was decided the grave should be under the trees behind my house. It was safer, I had a goat which had eaten the grass and it was easier to see if any mines were hidden there, another neighbour Valeryi Hrusko dug the grave,” 55-year-old Galyna, a tiny woman, explains.
The burial fortunately took place without any incident. The goat itself was not so lucky, however. “A few days later it stepped on a mine and got blown up. The Russians ate it. They offered ne some of the meat, but I couldn’t eat her, I’ve had her since she was a baby,” Galyna says in a sad voice.
Galyna herself had a lucky escape. “The Russians made a group of us run down the road in front of them while fighting with the Ukrainians. There were shots all around us, I didn’t think we were going to live. But God protected us and so I can be here today”, she says, crossing herself.
Valeryi Hrusko, who had dug the grave for Serhyi Sportak, was himself injured by a boobytrap ten days later. Abandoned ammunition boxes had become a useful source of firewood with no fuel available, and he had gone to a nearby field to salvage a batch. “The device must have been underneath the boxes; movement triggered it and I lost a foot, I didn’t know how bad it was until I was taken to hospital,” he says.
Doctors in Kharkiv operated on his injury, but the amputation was, he has been told, carried out at the “wrong place” in the leg. Fitting the right prosthetics has been difficult as a result. “I can’t drive my tractor any longer and have difficulty moving around”, says Valeryi. “But I cannot complain, I’m alive, people face problems at a time of war.”
There was one problem that he and his family had not foreseen. Rumours began to circulate that they were colluding with the occupiers. The Hrusko’s sons, Nicolai and Volodymyr, had left the village and had defected, it was claimed, to Russia, where they had been given apartments for services rendered.
“All this is nonsense, it caused a lot of trouble and we don’t know why this started”, says Valeryi’s wife, Ludmilla Sergeyeva, her hitherto serene demeanour became agitated as she describes what happened. “Nicolai and his family were in Izyum where a lot of fighting began. The only safe route was to Belgorod, which as you know, is just across the [Russian] border, and that’s where they went. They were only there for a short time and then they came back, that is all, no once changed sides.”
Ludmilla wants to point out that she and her family had looked after Ukrainian soldiers who had become trapped in the village when Russian forces came in.
“Our sons heard the soldiers were hiding in the basement and we started taking them food and water. Then they asked us to stop, they said we could be followed and then both they and us would be in danger”, she said.
“That was the last time we saw them. They tried to get away soon after that. They had to, the Russians were throwing grenades into houses, into the basements. Two of the Ukrainian boys were killed when they made a run for it, two got away, and two were arrested. We don’t know what happened to them afterwards, they may have been shot.”
There are accusations that collaborators were responsible for others who had gone missing. They include 53-year-old Andriy Osadchy, who had been looking after his ill mother, aged 85, when he disappeared.
I first heard about Andriy when I met his brother Aleksandr Osadchy in March last year in Kharkiv with the city fighting off Russian forces. Between rounds of missiles, he told me that his mother had been killed in shelling at her home in Kamianka. His brother had buried her in the village and then gone off to join his old army unit in the Donbas city of Slovyansk.
It was the Autumn before 60-year-old Aleksandr found out what had really happened to his brother. He told me: “Communications were very hard at the time, places were changing hands fast. I was told about my mother’s death by some people and accepted what I was told. I had been in regular phone contact with my brother and then that suddenly stopped; the number became dead. Now I know that was when he was captured and probably killed.
“A little later I tried again, and the phone number was back on. A voice speaking Russian with a Chechen accent answered. He became threatening, saying he was going to find and kill me. I realised that the Russians had Andriy’s phone, but knew nothing more. I thought he may have dropped it on the frontline. But now I think I was speaking to my brother’s killer.”
Aleksandr went to Kamianka to bury his mother, who had died with no one to look after her after Andriy was taken away. He was told by local people that a family in the village, the Zdozovets, had sold out Andriy to the Russians.
I had, by coincidence, met the Zdozovets when I went to Kamianka last October. Other residents had pointed them out as collaborators.
The family complained that the allegation was totally unfair. “People saw Russian soldiers come in here, but what could we do? The soldiers had guns, they wanted milk, they wanted potatoes. Sometimes they gave a little food in return,” the matriarch of the family Natalya Zdozovets, had told me.
“Just because we hadn’t been killed or injured they thought we were on the Russian side. But we did not side with them, God protected us. Now people are saying we are informers, we have been questioned by the police and SBU [Ukrainian intelligence services] and we have got a bad name.”
Alesksandr Osadchy decided to speak to the Zdozovets in Kamianka and asked me to go along with him when he heard that I had met them already. Against the pleas of his wife he took his sidearm, a Glock pistol along too. My Ukrainian colleague, Demian, and pressed on him the need to stay calm: he assured us he would not do anything rash.
The encounter with Natalya and her son Yuri Zdozovets was tense, poignant and extraordinary. “My brother Andryi was kidnapped, tortured and murdered here, did you play a part in this? Do you know what they did with the body, where they buried him?” Aleksandr asked Zdozovets.
Quietly, he spoke of how his 85-year-old mother, Maria, died of starvation: ill, frightened and alone after his brother Aleksandr was taken away by Russian troops. And how her emaciated body, curled up in an effort to stay warm, was found six months later.
The Zdozovets told me when I met them that there have been summary killings by the Russians, including a former soldier shot dead near the village school whose description seems to march Andriy. However, they failed to mention this to Aleksandr.
Standing outside their house, with dogs barking, the Zdozovets repeatedly denied they had anything to do with Andriy’s death. Aleksandr waited. There appeared to be an impasse between the accused and the accuser as they stood in the bitter cold and whipping wind, the road a churn of ice and mud. Both parties lapsed into silence.
Yuri wrung his hands, his eyes darted sideways, he licked his cracked lips. His mother’s look flicks between him and the major and the gun in the major’s holster.
Yuri suddenly blurted out: “I only know what the DNR soldiers told me. They went to your mother’s house, she was in the basement. They found your brother, and interrogated him because he was in the Ukrainian military, and then, and then he was executed, that’s all I know, I swear…. There are a few people who may know what happened to Andriy, I’ll tell you who they are.” Aleksandr nodded. “Let’s start, I’m listening…” he said. Yuri gave three names.
“They had been telling people they knew nothing about my brother, but know a lot more. If they tell me where I can find Andriy’s body it would be a huge step. I will bury him next to my mother”, Aleksandr said. “He looked after her every day, every hour. She must have been so scared at the end with neither of us there. We were a close family.”
The search for the lost ones of Kamianka continues. The Zdozovets and other alleged collaborators remain under investigation. Accusations and recriminations continue among the residents and those who left to stay elsewhere.
A few more families have returned to the village. But repairing the damage remains a difficult and costly affair, with no significant state financial support likely to come in the near future. Some who had returned are planning to go away again with a harsh winter ahead.
The owner of an agricultural plant, Valeryi Vertsun, pointed out that It was once the main employer for the surrounding area. Getting the business going again will attract people back and bolster Kamianka and its hinterland.
“I put seven million dollars into the plant and now that’s gone. I’m trying to find a million to get going again, speaking to some organisations abroad. Starting again will provide jobs and generate income.
“I think we can pay back the loan. This is a region of wheat and corn, and there’s plenty of demand with the exports going through again. The Russians wrecked a lot of the machinery and looted bits. But they couldn’t take the heavy stuff and I am getting spare parts for them from Canada. I really think we can get going again.”
But the shadow of war is never far away. As Ukrainian forces struggle for a breakthrough on their offensives in the south and east, the Russians are launching their own counterattacks, focusing on the city of Kupiansk, three hours tank drive from Kharkiv.
“I know, we keep on hearing about the Russians trying to get back this way again, that’s worrying,” says Valeryi. “But we all think our forces will drive them back with all the help we are getting from our Western friends.
“We have to move on as a people surely, we need to start rebuilding out country, place by place, get our communities back together,” he adds. “Kamianka was once such a wonderful place to live, we can’t just let go of what we had. It’s going to be tough, but we’ll get there, Kamianka will get there, I’m sure.”