By Jonathan Landay
LYMAN, Ukraine (Reuters) – The bodies of two Russian soldiers lay bloating in trees on opposite sides of the road, close to the blasted hulks of the cars and the van in which Ukrainian army officers said the dead men’s unit was retreating into the eastern town of Lyman.
Unaware that their forces already had withdrawn from the key rail junction, the Russians last weekend drove into an ambush by Ukrainian special forces, their flight and lives ended by a storm of gunfire, the officers said.
The bodies, the ruined vehicles and carpets of bullets, torn uniforms and metal shards testified on Wednesday to Moscow’s loss of Lyman to a Ukrainian counteroffensive that has reclaimed parts of Donestk province overrun by Russian forces earlier this year.
Armored vehicles, trucks and cars bearing Ukrainian troops or ladened with supplies churned past the ambush site toward frontlines, their occupants craning their necks to view the scene.
Occasional crumps echoed from distant fighting between retreating Russians and Ukrainian troops advancing toward a highway leading north to the Russian border and south to the city of Sievierodonetsk from which Kyiv’s forces withdrew in June.
Lyman’s police chief, Igor Ugnivenko, told journalists in Lyman’s shattered center that about 7,000 people – out of a pre-war population of some 22,000 – remained in the town to which his officers began returning on Saturday.
“We have to clean the place of all the (Russian) weapons left inside the homes,” he said.
Police have evidence, Ugnivenko said, that the Russians beat and abused civilians while they occupied Lyman. He declined to provide further details, saying that an investigation was ongoing.
“We know that there has been torture. We still have our work to do,” he said, standing outside a police station storeroom crammed with furniture that he charged the Russians had looted and eventually planned to take to Russia with them.
Reuters could not confirm his charges. Russia denies torture or other forms of maltreatment of POWs. Moscow says its forces in Ukraine are engaged in a “special military operation” to disarm the country.
His allegations contrasted with comments by several residents standing in lines behind two vans, waiting for humanitarian aid handouts outside the municipal building.
“The Russians did not touch us. They did not touch us even with a finger,” asserted Nina, 73, who like several residents declined to give her last name.
She insisted that violence came to Lyman only with the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
“The first time that Ukraine came, everything flew in the air, even the houses and the people. A lot of people were killed right away,” she said.
The bodies of 15 Russians still lay in her street, said Nina.
“The Russian guys are lying dead, 15 of them, on Odesskaya Street. Nobody touches them,” she groused. Nobody removes them. It’s the fifth day they are lying there. And we have the smell. Is that right?”
“They came as a team and their guys just left them,” interjected Viktor Trofimenko, 78, who stood next to her.
“THERE IS NOTHING LEFT”
Volodymyr Yurevych, 26, wheeled his bicycle into the square outside the municipal building, the first time he said he had left his home in six weeks. He had nothing kind to say about the town’s Russian former occupiers.
“I have ridden around, and I have seen so many things that I just can’t describe. I had no contact with them,” he said. “I didn’t even take their humanitarian aid. It was enough for me to see they were acting like animals on the first day. And that made me reject them immediately.”
Countless homes lining the town’s rutted roads were destroyed or damaged from the recent fighting.
Nina fretted about the future.
“We have nothing. There is nothing left. Everything is wrecked. I worked for 41 years. Is it for me to be in this queue, jostling with other people,” she said. There is no bread. Nobody gives us any money. How can this situation be?”
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Alistair Bell)