Stary Saltiv, Ukraine
Two convoys of civilian cars in a village in northeastern Ukraine speak of Russia’s withdrawal from the region and the brutality it left behind.
The first – three cars, loaded with a priest, dogs and troubled frowns – rushes through the village of Staryi Saltiv from the north, fleeing violence as Ukraine pushes Russian forces out of Rubizhne . “We don’t even know what’s going on,” said one driver. “We didn’t stay to find out.”
Ukrainian officials said this week they were continuing to push toward the Russian border, liberating tiny villages on the outskirts of Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city before the invasion began. The Ukrainian advances threaten the symbolic embarrassment of expelling Kremlin forces to their own border and while posing the strategic threat of cutting off Russia’s supply lines to Ukraine and its forces further south in the Donbass. Progress has been rapid over the past few weeks.
The second convoy talks about what Ukraine found in Russia’s wake – five bullet-riddled vehicles, two burned to ashes.
On May 4, Ukrainian officials said, this convoy was trying to leave the city when it was shot down by Russian troops. The bullet holes concentrate on some of the driver’s doors. Children’s clothes and toys are strewn around the vehicles. Ukrainian officials said four civilians, including a 13-year-old girl, were killed when Russian troops opened fire on the convoy.
CNN escorts from Kharkiv city’s territorial defense force said a tank shell hit one of the cars, explaining how its front end was bent beyond recognition.
Moscow says its forces are not targeting civilians, a claim contradicted by evidence of apparent atrocities CNN has witnessed here and elsewhere in Ukraine.
A few steps from the road, in the nearby forest and hills, are the remains of a Russian convoy. In the trees are the remains of an armored personnel carrier, its tracks torn off by a rocket-propelled grenade, our escorts say. Sleeping bags, prayer books, grenades and rations litter the foliage where Russian troops slept just outside the village. Two Russian corpses were found there a few days earlier and have since been buried.
At the top of the hill is another rarer wreckage – the remains of a Russian T90M tank destroyed a few days earlier, apparently by a Swedish-supplied Carl Gustav recoilless rifle. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry has released drone video of the tank destroyed in the apparent strike, showing the vulnerability of Russia’s newest armor to NATO handheld weapons. The tank’s turret has been dislodged and the ball bearings of its shells lie in the ashes.
The Ukrainian counterattack aimed at disrupting Russian supply lines continues. The Ukrainian General Staff said on Friday that Russian forces “did not carry out offensive operations in the direction of Kharkiv. The main efforts were aimed at preventing the advance of our troops in the area of the settlement of Vesele”, another village located less than an hour’s drive from Staryi Saltiv in normal times. The Ukrainians have taken over a number of villages in this area east of Kharkiv.
As Russian forces continue to retreat, three bridges in the Kharkiv region have been demolished, according to satellite images obtained by CNN on Friday. It seems likely that the Russian units destroyed the bridges in an effort to protect their supply lines against further Ukrainian advances.
Elsewhere in the Kharkiv region, the Russians appear to use artillery sporadically but with lethal effect. Thursday, the bombardment of the city of Derhachi killed two people, according to the local administration and destroyed the humanitarian center and medical facilities.
In a nearby village of Staryi Saltiv, residents seem less aware of the details of their occupation and liberation. A man, Viktor, is near a well, filling tin buckets because there has been no electricity or water on his street for weeks. Only three of its neighbors remain.
“What calm? My heart is about to pop out of my chest,” he said. “Everything around is exploding. There’s a hole in the garden from a shell impact. The roof was pierced by a shell, the fence disappeared. It’s really difficult. We sleep with our clothes on. They land nearby. There’s nowhere to hide.”