Boxes of ammunition abandoned by Russian forces during their retreat a year ago still lie near the house of Oleksandr Kokovitch, a symbol of the past occupation of his isolated village in northeastern Ukraine.
The Russian army abandoned most of the Kharkiv region in September 2022 in the face of a lightning counter-offensive by Ukrainian troops, leaving behind demolished houses, mined farms and, according to locals, evidence of crimes of war committed during the occupation.
The departure of the occupiers, however, brought little relief to the residents, like Mr. Kokovitch, who fled his village of Mala Komychouvakha in March 2022.
When this 58-year-old veterinarian returned to the village in September of the same year, he found his house in ruins.
A year later, he is still waiting for building materials from the Ukrainian state to repair his destroyed roof, and will likely have to do without them for the second winter in a row.
Their room being littered with rubble, Oleksandr and his wife Galina are forced to live in their garage, and are still waiting for basic services to be restored.
Without electricity or telephone network, villagers have to walk several kilometers on foot to make a call. Without a refrigerator, they have to store their food in the basement.
“We thought that everything would be restored quickly. This was not the case,” says Mr. Kokovitch, cigarette in hand, while explosions are heard in the distance, due to mine clearance.
Because the village remains riddled with traps and mines left by Russian troops.
At a time when Ukraine has been leading a difficult counter-offensive in the South and East since June, the reconstruction of the liberated areas remains an unresolved question.
In Izioum, a town of 45,000 inhabitants before the war, liberated in September 2022 like Mala Komychouvakha, signs of destruction are still visible everywhere: broken electricity poles, destroyed bridges, charred public buildings.
The city's mayor, Valery Marchenko admits that it will take "decades" to rebuild Izioum. As for Oleksandre's nearby village, Mala Komychouvakha, priority should go to the most populated areas, he explains.
"It's a complex problem. We need to establish priorities," explains Mr. Marchenko.
Only 15 residents out of 120 before the war returned to Mala Komychouvakha, some of whom suffered under Russian occupation.
Oleksandr Kokovitch points to his neighborhood to describe his isolation: the neighbor is dead, the one in the next house too.
When he returned, he found his dog still alive in his basement, but also grenades and anti-tank shells in his garden, which he said he handed over to the Ukrainian army.
He used the ammunition boxes to fill a collapsed wall of his house and others are piled up around his vegetable garden as if to protect it from the blast of the explosions.
Bullet casings litter the ground and tank tracks lead to a huge crater, obviously used to position the armored vehicle.
Mala Komychouvakha, however, was spared the worst abuses reported in Izioum during the Russian occupation.
According to the NGO Human Rights Watch, Russian troops "regularly tortured" people they detained in this city and Ukrainian authorities reported a collective burial site in a forest with nearly 440 bodies.
Helped by their local collaborators in Izioum, Russian forces kept a “black list” of people to be eliminated or imprisoned, Czech criminologist Petr Pojman told AFP, citing interviews with survivors.
Tamara Michchenko, a 54-year-old resident, said the soldiers who occupied Mala Komychuvakha said they wanted to drive out Ukrainian nationalists, described as “Nazis.”
This woman remained in the village, unable to bring herself to abandon dozens of farm animals.
However, the lack of reconstruction means that conditions today are "worse", says Tamara, to the point that she wonders about the sacrifice of a member of her family who went to the front.
“What is he fighting for? For this waste?”, she castigates.
Oleksandre Kokovitch is determined to rebuild, swearing never to leave, even if the village was occupied again.
"Even if they start shooting again, we won't leave. This is our land," he said.
09/13/2023 19:09:55 - Mala Komychouvakha (Ukraine) (AFP) - © 2023 AFP