A melee of desperation swept around the Ukrainian relief truck in a town liberated from Russian control days earlier.

“Please give me a help package, son, I have a walking stick,” said a small old woman, crushed against the back of the vehicle as others tried to grab her by above the head.

Residents of Balakliya applauded the sudden banishment of Russian soldiers from their streets. But they said life is still difficult as the town is without electricity, many buildings have been destroyed and landmines litter the ground in the surrounding fields.

A man with a drawn face said a farm that raised cows had been badly damaged by shelling in the last seven months of war. “The cows were able to move away, but they are killed because they step on the mines,” he said.

Balakliya was the first key town to be recaptured by the Ukrainians in a blistering advance through the eastern region of Kharkiv, launched without much fanfare on September 6.

Hanna Maliar, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister, said the counteroffensive had already reclaimed land equivalent to more than twice the size of Greater London.

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She says Ukraine reclaim the entire region.

“This is absolutely a turning point in this war,” the minister told Sky News on Tuesday, standing in the city center next to a newly raised Ukrainian flag.

“This shows the motivation of the Ukrainian army, despite Russia still having a greater number of weapons.”

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Hanna Maliar, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister, in Balakliya

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With Russian forces gone, Ukrainian investigators move in to collect evidence of alleged war crimes that took place during the occupation.

One such incident reportedly took place on the day the Ukrainian counter-offensive began.

Sergii Bolvinov, chief investigator in Kharkiv, said two civilian men were shot dead in their vehicle by Russian soldiers at a checkpoint in Balakliya.

Bullet holes in bodies

“On the morning of September 7, residents found the bodies and buried them here,” he said, pointing to a hole in a patch of dirt.

The bodies have since been dug up, placed in body bags and will be taken for forensic examination.

“We recorded bullet holes in both bodies,” said the chief investigator.

So far, the remains of a total of five people have been recovered as part of war crimes investigations, a second official said, speaking separately.

“But believe me, this is not the end, unfortunately. This is not the final data,” he told a large group of reporters as part of a media installation organized by Ukrainian authorities. from Balakliya and a nearby village.

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Evidence of the war's impact on Balakliya is everywhere
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Evidence of the war’s impact on Balakliya is everywhere

Access to the front line has been heavily restricted since the start of the counter-offensive, making it very difficult – independently – to get an idea of ​​what happened.

One of the alleged crime scenes is the Balaklyia police station.

Investigators said it was used to torture people. A man was even beaten to death, according to the chief investigator.

Windowless and unlit cells

He said up to 300 people in total were detained in appalling conditions by Russian troops at the police station.

Five closet-like cells, unlit and windowless, lined a short, dingy hallway.

Prisoners were crammed into rooms, some without access to toilets, the chief investigator said. He showed where inmates had drawn lines in the wall to mark the number of days they had been in custody.

One totaled 70 days, another 32 days and another 26.

The prisoners of the Russians had engraved the passage of time on the walls of their cells
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The prisoners of the Russians had engraved the passage of time on the walls of their cells

In another part of the station was a room which, according to the investigator, had been used to torture prisoners with electric cables.

Police also found a larger room, with a row of dirty chairs against one wall. They said it was an interrogation place.

The chief investigator said officers had heard testimony from inmates beaten here.

Release

Ukrainian forces launched their assault to liberate Balakliya early in the morning of September 6.

Residents of the nearby village of Verbivka said they saw Russian troops fleeing the local school, which they had used as a military headquarters during the occupation.

Later that day, a Russian missile returned to the building, destroying it.

The Russians destroyed their own headquarters, an old school, with a missile strike after fleeing
Image:
The Russians destroyed their own headquarters, an old school, with a missile strike after fleeing

A crowd of local residents gathered near the ruins on Tuesday as Ukrainian officials escorted a large group of journalists to the village and Balakliya.

“And our grandchildren?” moaned a woman. “We don’t have a school.”

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