The occupiers are gone now, but people are still afraid – for various reasons. / Yampil: “The silence is scarier than the bang”
Dog barking and detonations on the horizon – the dominant sounds in Yampil in the Donetsk region. The village in eastern Ukraine has been under the control of the Ukrainian army again for a few weeks. Many houses have been destroyed, most people have fled – leaving the dogs behind.
Many villagers were killed in the war, says an old man. You could only collect pieces. Nothing was left of the people. He survived – in his basement for months.
Yampil: Little contact with Russians
Yampil is one of dozens of villages that the Ukrainians were able to recapture. As in the spring in Kyiv, there are now reports of crimes by the Russian armed forces against the civilian population in eastern Ukraine. But here in Yampil, many villagers say there was little contact with the Russian soldiers.
“Our village is about nine kilometers long, they were on the outskirts of the village, but not here in the center,” says the old man. The Russians only checked IDs, he insists. Many people report something like this or something similar – also in other recaptured settlements in eastern Ukraine.
Afraid of saying the wrong thing?
Wiktor, a Ukrainian press officer, disagrees – his unit was involved in the capture of the village: “The Russians fired from the houses. So we know that they were there. Maybe the people are just scared. We know that the Russians from asked the locals for groceries, so you came straight to them.”
Fear – that is the prevailing feeling in the recaptured areas of eastern Ukraine. Afraid of saying the wrong thing and being punished should the occupiers come back. At least that’s what the press officer of the Ukrainian army believes.
“There was a bang in the night”
Natalja lives with her children on a small farm a few streets away. The seven-year-old daughter Slata also knows the feeling of fear: “It was all very difficult. There was a bang in the night. It hit the back and then it burned, right Mama?”
Mother Natalia nods. Like many others, the family survived in the basement for months. A wet hole without light, heating and electricity. To this day, none of this exists in Yampil in the Donetsk region. Fighting is now raging elsewhere, but rebuilding settlements in the region is likely to take years.
And mother Natalya finds it difficult to get used to the new reality: “The worst thing is the silence. We can’t sleep at night anymore. Because the silence is more frightening than the bang, because we’ve gotten used to it. To the constant boom boom boom . And suddenly silence. The sleep is gone. I don’t know why.”
Russian soldiers in the woods
The Russian soldiers quickly withdrew from Yampil, leaving much of the region behind. But not only armored vehicles and weapons, but also their own soldiers, says press officer Wiktor: “When we came here, there were no longer any regular Russian soldiers. There were only those who had been mobilized from the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic. This shows that the Russians knew that we attack and they left the mobilized to retreat under cover themselves.”
Days later, scattered fighters from the so-called Luhansk People’s Militia were found in the forests of the region. Some apparently tried to camouflage themselves. They tried to go into hiding in civilian clothes. This is reported by the army and the Ukrainian media. The Ukrainians now have to fight for the trust of the traumatized population.
Fear of Chechen fighters
Wiktor reports: “The first to bring food here were Ukrainian soldiers. We distributed our own food here. Maybe people were afraid of us, but I saw how they welcomed us with tears in their eyes because we were the first to bring them fresh bread in months.”
Natalja and her family survived because they are self-sufficient. The mother is happy that the Ukrainians now have power in the village again. But she too is afraid of the future and of the fighters of Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov.
“I’m very scared,” says Natalya. “Especially when you hear that the Kadyrovtsy are to be sent here to fight us again. But we believe in our armed forces.”