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In the Ukrainian city that said no to the occupation

#Ukrainian #city #occupation

A motorist yells at a cyclist, churchgoers avoid a street vendor, a pensioner in armored suit stuffs pampushki, a Ukrainian bread, in her face, the falling breadcrumbs cause a pigeon to snap twice.

Ignore the rubble everywhere and it could be a happy midday vignette in any city in Europe. But Okhtyrka is not like other places – at least not in the north-east of Ukraine.

When rural towns and villages fell like skittles to the ruthless and swift Russian invasion on February 24, this town of 48,000 on the Vorskla River said “no”.

Civilians died throughout the Sumy region in the first weeks of the war, with more than 50 people killed in fighting for the much smaller neighboring town of Trostyanets.

But Okhtyrka’s Mayor Pavlo Kuzmenko says he’s managed to keep its citizens free and relatively safe by keeping a cool head.

“Only 18 civilians died. I don’t want to praise myself, but it was because of the city government, because of volunteers, because people stayed in shelters,” he said.

“The biggest challenge at the beginning of the war was not to cause panic among the citizens. Panic could ruin the city’s defenses.”

On the first day of the invasion, February 24, a column of Russian tanks rolled into Okhtyrka to take it and advance to the capital, Kyiv.

“They thought they would get through very quickly,” Kuzmenko told AFP. “Like most cities, they set up a checkpoint at the entrances and exits and really didn’t let anyone in the city.”

– ‘stomach turning’ –

The mayor – suddenly placed at the top of the command structure, with senior officials in the regional government either undecided or unavailable – decided the incursion would not last.

He performed an instant pushback, with Ukrainian troops forcing a hasty retreat from their Russian opponents, leaving tanks and other hardware behind.

A month-long siege ensued, during which the Russians bombarded the city almost daily with BM-27 Uragan missiles, as well as Smerch and Grad missiles.

They destroyed the town hall, a shopping center, the water supply and sewage system, an oil depot and the local heating plant.

They also killed at least 70 Ukrainian soldiers at a military base with a powerful thermobaric bomb, according to the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States.

Amnesty International blamed cluster bombs for a “gut-wrenching” attack on a preschool on the second day of the siege, which reportedly killed three people, including a child.

But Okhtyrka persevered and refused to live under Russian occupation.

Among the destroyed buildings was the 108-year-old local cultural center, which was hit in a late-night bombing raid on March 8.

The center’s director, Tetyana Barchenko, 59, fought back tears as she relived the rocket attack that robbed the community of its beating heart.

But like many locals AFP spoke to, she brimmed with righteous defiance and gratitude for the soldiers who had kept the would-be occupiers at bay.

“This city was never taken and it was thanks to the army, thanks to the Territorial Defense Forces and because of the patriotism of the local citizens,” she said.

“I would never imagine living under Russian occupation.”

The Russian invaders had encircled Okhtyrka for a month but fell further back on March 26, under fire from Bayraktar combat drones and with a plan to disrupt Kyiv.

– ‘Hero City’ –

Two days earlier, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi named Okhtyrka a “Hero City of Ukraine,” an honorary title bestowed only on another northeastern city, Kharkiv.

The population dropped to 20,000 at the height of the fighting — as the city helped about 1,000 people flee each day — but it’s now somewhere near the original number again.

At a council block that had absorbed so much artillery fire and whose facade resembled paper targets at shooting ranges, pensioner Nina Kolot explained the simple symbiosis that had developed between the courtyards dug into her homes by the troops and the civilians they were protecting.

“They were here, fighting for the city and we helped them – we cooked food to bring them,” the 70-year-old told AFP.

“So it’s thanks to the soldiers — they were everywhere, on the rooftops, everywhere — that we were safe.”

A recent uptick in shelling has locals worried the Russians may return soon, but Mayor Kuzmenko remains defiant.

“No one can be even one percent sure that the enemy will not attack the Sumy region again. The possibility is and still is high,” he told AFP.

“Every day the Sumy region is hit by rockets, rockets, but the enemy cannot capture the cities. They can hold some small places, some small villages, but they need resources and they have less every day.”

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#Ukrainian #city #occupation

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