The sounds of the Ukrainian counteroffensive echo in a ruined village near the Russian border

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VILKHIVKA, Ukraine, May 11 (Reuters) – Near-constant shellfire pounded this battered hamlet on Wednesday, witnessing fierce fighting beyond its windswept fields between Ukrainian troops pressing a counteroffensive and Russian forces that once occupied the area.

As Ukrainian troops drove their enemies out of Vilkhivka in early April, the narrow lanes remain marred by shrapnel, shell craters and downed wire, and lined with houses pulverized into splinters of wood and pieces of brick.

Three Russian portable rocket launchers stood at the intersection of Ukrainian and Moladzhna streets. Decaying animal carcasses littered shoulders, yards and an agricultural enterprise and a damaged Ukrainian tank sat near the carcasses of two Russian armored vehicles dragged through a makeshift checkpoint.

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The bloated corpse of a Russian soldier, his mouth frozen in a deadly grimace, his swollen chest sticking out of a gray tunic, still lay molding outside the fire-blackened carapace of the local school that his unit had requisitioned it as a base.

“I grew up here and went to this school,” said Andrii Korkin, 48, a contractor who came from nearby Kharkiv to inspect his parents’ home. “I am Russian-speaking. Russian is my mother tongue. I don’t want to have anything to do with the world of the Russian Federation anymore.”

As the lanky father-of-two spoke, distant bursts of artillery fire and gunfire from multiple rocket launchers echoed through fields that would normally be sown with corn and wheat.

Vilkhivka is less than 30 km (20 miles) south of the Russian border, near which fighting is raging between Ukrainian troops during a counter-offensive launched this month and Russian forces who have not failed to invade Kharkiv during the February 24 invasion of Moscow.

Ukraine’s military reported new gains on Wednesday that signaled a possible change in the tide of the war, with troops advancing a few miles from the border, according to a Ukrainian military source. Read more

Moscow invaded in what the Kremlin calls a “special military operation” to demilitarize a neighbor who was threatening Russia’s security. Ukraine and its allies call it a lie, accusing Russia of an unprovoked aggression that has killed thousands, uprooted millions and destroyed towns and cities.

Villagers have only just begun returning to Vilkhivka to salvage furniture and clothing from properties that have escaped serious damage or to scavenge the rubble of those who have not, salvaging what they can despite the risk of unexploded ordnance.

Although Ukrainian soldiers bore the brunt of the fighting that drove the Russians out, Nikolay Riyanko, a 67-year-old grizzled pensioner, said he and other locals had lent a hand.

The first night the invaders occupied Vilkhivka, he said, the villagers stole a Russian tanker loaded with diesel and another loaded with ammunition. He stole a box of six rocket-propelled grenades which he eventually gave to Ukrainian troops.

“They burned Russian equipment and soldiers with these shells,” he said, telling his story before returning to shuttle between his shell-torn home and an old car parked in front of a missile crater. Russian. He stays nearby.

Before fighting broke out, he said, Russian troops were hiding in houses.

“They were hiding behind the locals,” Riyanko said. “They rounded up about 30 people and kept us near one of their positions. There they had a machine gun, a tank, an infantry fighting vehicle.

“They kept us from 6 a.m. until 5 p.m. so that the Ukrainian army wouldn’t shoot,” he continued. Eventually the Russians liberated the group and the Battle of Vilkhivka began.

“Can we really call them real soldiers after that?” he spat. “They’re motherfuckers, not soldiers!”

“I sent my wife to my friend’s basement, but I didn’t have time to hide. We lived in the basements for eight days,” Riyanko recalls. “When the shell hit my house, the debris crushed my head. I have a concussion. I didn’t hear anything for three days.

Civilian volunteers from Kharkiv eventually arrived to evacuate Riyanko, his wife and other villagers.

“Today is my first time back,” he said. “While I sort through the rubble and debris in my house, I will stay with my neighbors for a while. Their house survived.

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Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Angus MacSwan

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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