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Their town now freed from Russian occupation, Ukrainians feel shock and joy

Local residents gather on Tuesday to receive humanitarian aid in Balakliia, a town recently liberated by the Ukrainian military as part of its counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region.
Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy
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NurPhoto via Reuters
Local residents gather on Tuesday to receive humanitarian aid in Balakliia, a town recently liberated by the Ukrainian military as part of its counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region.

Updated September 14, 2022 at 2:22 PM ET

BALAKLIIA, Ukraine — Lyudmyla Vorona says her hometown of Balakliia, in northeastern Ukraine's Kharkiv region, was not prepared when the Russians took control in early March.

"We didn't have extra food and toiletries," the 60-year-old Vorona says. "And the children were scared from all the shelling. We were very cold and hungry."

So, when Ukrainian troops took back Balakliia late last week — the first of a string of towns they swiftly liberated as part of their recently launched counteroffensive in the east — residents were thrilled.

"We were very happy," Vorona's friend, Valentryn Dacenko, 60, recalls excitedly. "We cried, we kissed each other, we kissed our warriors, we hugged them. ... It's hard to describe with words."

Retaking the area happened surprisingly fast; so quickly that Russian forces retreated in such a hurry they left behind a lot of military equipment and vehicles, and didn't release people they had detained — and reportedly tortured — in the Balakliia jail.

Drone footage shows destroyed buildings and damaged vehicles in Balakliia in this screengrab obtained from a social media video released Sept 8.
/ Suspilne Kharkiv/Yevhen Kozhyrnov/Handout via Reuters
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Suspilne Kharkiv/Yevhen Kozhyrnov/Handout via Reuters
Drone footage shows destroyed buildings and damaged vehicles in Balakliia in this screengrab obtained from a social media video released Sept 8.

They spoke to NPR on Tuesday while standing in line for humanitarian aid in Balakliia's heavily damaged town center. They're two of many of the residents who NPR spoke with while on the first press tour of the newly liberated area. Many still seemed genuinely shocked that their town had been liberated.

"The only thing we are afraid of now is that Russians could come back. It's really hard to believe that this is for good," Dacenko says.

Cleanup begins

A number of buildings were damaged or destroyed in Balakliia, which came under Russian occupation early in the full-scale invasion.
Ashley Westerman / NPR
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NPR
A number of buildings were damaged or destroyed in Balakliia, which came under Russian occupation early in the full-scale invasion.

While the physical damage to Balakliia and surrounding areas isn't nearly as bad as the destruction left behind in the Kyiv suburbs of Bucha and Irpin, the town still has a lot of cleanup to do.

Utilities that have been out for months, such as water, electricity, the internet and cell service, need to be restored. Residents need food and other supplies, Russian soldiers stole food from people's houses, cleared store shelves and killed off farm animals. Several buildings also need to be rebuilt, homes repaired and abandoned and bombed-out vehicles removed.

A destroyed Russian military vehicle by the side of the road in Balakliia on Tuesday.
Ashley Westerman / NPR
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NPR
A destroyed Russian military vehicle by the side of the road in Balakliia on Tuesday.

There's also the task of assessing the extent of the death toll during the area's six months of occupation. Officials say they've found the bodies of five Ukrainian civilians in Balakliia, but they suspect there are more. At least two of those are of men who are thought to have been shot by Russian soldiers while driving through a checkpoint. Their bodies were buried in makeshift graves near the center of town and have now been exhumed for further investigation.

"We'll try to do whatever is possible to register all of the war crimes committed by Russian forces," Oleg Synegubov, head of the Kharkiv Regional Military Administration, told reporters.

This could be a turning point

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stands with soldiers after attending a national flag-raising ceremony in Izium, Ukraine, on Wednesday. Zelenskyy thanked soldiers for their efforts in retaking the area, as the Ukrainian flag was raised in front of the burned-out city hall building.
Leo Correa / AP
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AP
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stands with soldiers after attending a national flag-raising ceremony in Izium, Ukraine, on Wednesday. Zelenskyy thanked soldiers for their efforts in retaking the area, as the Ukrainian flag was raised in front of the burned-out city hall building.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Tuesday that Ukraine has recaptured over 1,500 square miles of territory so far this month. Zelenskyy paid a visit to the region Wednesday.

The Institute for the Study of War, a think tank in Washington, D.C., says Ukraine has retaken more territory in its latest counteroffensive in less than a week than Russia has managed to capture in all of its operations since April.

The Kremlin has acknowledged it had to withdraw its troops in the Kharkiv region, and several members of the Russian State Duma have expressed concern about the situation on the front line, according to the institute. Meanwhile, officials in some Russian-controlled areas in eastern Ukraine have urged residents to evacuate.

Seth Jones, the senior vice president and director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says Ukraine's recent success has been a culmination of things — including getting the Russians to move many of their troops to the south.

A destroyed car in Balakliia seen on Tuesday.
Ashley Westerman / NPR
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NPR
A destroyed car in Balakliia seen on Tuesday.

"The Ukrainian forces had essentially feinted that the priority was going to be in the south, in areas like Kherson," he says. "The Russians moved some military forces from the north and the east down to the south, and it provided an opportunity for [Ukrainians to] push into areas of the north and the east."

Analysts say the counteroffensive has damaged Russian troops administratively and that morale is low. Russia would have to move more of its troops around to take back territory it's lost — something it really can't afford to do right now because it would leave them vulnerable on other fronts, Jones says.

Officials say some 15% of the Kharkiv region is still Russian-occupied, which means the fighting may not be totally over for places like Balakliia.

"I think it is likely to be a turning point, probably not the turning point," he says.

Polina Lytvynova contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.