Russian troops suddenly started screaming wildly and running around, before rushing into their tanks and fleeing the small village in eastern Ukraine, a resident said.
The chaotic scenes in Zaliznychne took place the day before the appearance of a small group of Ukrainian soldiers.
“They asked me where the Russians had lived and where they hid their armored vehicles,” said Dmytro Hrushchenko, 43, standing in a dusty street with a neighbor, looking tired.
“I came out and showed them: there, there and on the street there,” he said, pointing to the right, left and ahead of him.
The testimony offered a rare insight into what unfolded, largely out of sight, in dozens of towns, villages and even towns across the Kharkiv region, as the audacious Ukrainian military offensive retakes swathes of territory of Russian control in a meteoric advance.
In Zaliznychne, a poor rural village surrounded by fields and a railway line, the residents seemed stunned.
The significance of what had just happened just three days earlier was still sinking in.
six months of hell
Speaking on Sunday, Vasyl, 83, said he lived through World War II and then more than six months of hell under the Russians.
“It was like hard work,” he said, leaning on a rusty bicycle, which vibrated as it moved due to a set of colored beads in the spokes.
“I used to be healthy but now I have heart problems. My wife is disabled, she has diabetes. We didn’t have any medicine…I still can’t believe they are gone and we are out of this period of death.”
The Russian retreat allowed Ukrainian police teams to travel to newly liberated areas to investigate a large number of alleged war crimes committed by Russian troops.
Officers have recalled scenes of murder, torture and rape uncovered after Russian forces were pushed back from the town of Bucha outside Kyiv in March. This was after only a month of occupation. Large parts of the Kharkiv region were under Russian control for six times as long.
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“According to our information, in almost every village we have war crimes,” Kharkiv regional police chief Serhii Bolvinov told Sky News outside a house in Zaliznychne that has become a crime scene.
“We are checking where they have been reported and will investigate each one.”
A woman forced to bury her neighbors
His team carved a safe path through an overgrown patch of grass to the front door of the ruined property, wary of the possibility of mines or Russian booby traps.
Treading carefully, investigators and two gravediggers entered a walled garden around the semi-detached house.
A woman who still lives there gestured to a disturbed patch of land where the bodies of two men, one of whom is her next door neighbour, are buried.
Maria Hryhohora, 63, had found them shot dead in the house in the early days of the Russian invasion, but police could not reach her then because Russian troops had already cordoned off the village.
Officers advised him to bury the bodies instead, but they kept a record of the alleged war crime to investigate as soon as it became possible.
This day has finally arrived.
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As the police team began digging up the bodies, Maria recounted how she found the two men, her neighbor Ilham Mehteev and a friend of hers called Konstiantyn Pohorelov who had come.
They had been shot and were lying in the house in a large pool of blood.
“It was scary, very, very scary,” she said, her hair covered in a bright red scarf. She did not know why the men had been targeted.
live in the dark
Maria described how life during the occupation made an already difficult existence even more difficult.
She showed Sky News her half of the shared property, a small one-story house, its windows rolled up to protect the glass that has already been broken.
Shrapnel from an explosion pierced the front door. There was also blast damage inside, with a ripped piece of the wooden cover for a mirror in the cramped hallway.
Maria lives in darkness because there has been no electricity in the village since April. She said she was worried about the coming winter and the possibility of the Russians returning.
After about an hour or so, police completed their work in the garden, loading the two bodies into white body bags in the back of a van for forensic examination.
Their convoy of official cars then drove to an industrial site on the outskirts of the village where they were told of another corpse.
Bodies left to rot
The victim, believed to be a security guard, was also killed in the early days of the war, around February 26 or 27, as Russian forces advanced, a police officer said.
His body was left to rot, on the upper platform of a tall, yellow-colored metal structure, erected beside large mounds of asphalt.
Police said they did not know why he was killed. They climbed several flights of rickety stairs to reach the corpse, an official vomiting at the smell.
As carefully as possible, they put the body in a body bag and lowered it, depositing it in the van as well.
A final stop was at a nearby house.
In the back garden was another makeshift grave.
Outside in the street, a couple approached the police. The man, Vasyl Boronov, 55, was the victim’s brother. He said his name was Serhii.
He too said he had no idea why his brother had been killed, breaking down in tears as police began their work.