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Ukrainians in a recently liberated area talk about their life under Russian control

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The retreat of Russian forces from parts of Ukraine makes it possible for residents to speak of their experiences. And some talked with NPR's Ashley Westerman.

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: As we approach the area about 60 miles south of Kharkiv, a hasty Russian exit that Ukrainians have reported was evident - truckloads of Russian tanks and military vehicles being hauled out, humanitarian aid being brought in.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE WHIRRING)

WESTERMAN: Our first stop was the village of Verbivka, where we were greeted by dozens of locals who couldn't wait to talk about their experiences under six months of occupation.

(CROSSTALK)

WESTERMAN: Sixty-eight-year-old Volodymyr Lymanskyi (ph) says he's so happy and relieved.

VOLODYMYR LYMANSKYI: (Non-English language spoken).

WESTERMAN: We felt a bit wild, he says, living with no electricity, mobile service, pensions. Olga Panchenko (ph) says she's excited just to be able to leave her home. She was always afraid to go out when the Russians were there.

OLGA PANCHENKO: (Through interpreter) When I went outside, I said, Lord, if you exist, let me not be killed.

WESTERMAN: Just down the road in Balaklia, the first town to be liberated by Ukrainian forces in their latest counteroffensive, the shelling endured by the area was evident, particularly in the center - blocks of destruction, broken storefront windows, burned balconies, fallen bricks. Victoria Kobzar's apartment was one of those hit.

VICTORIA KOBZAR: (Non-English language spoken).

WESTERMAN: But it's OK, she says. Windows can be replaced. The most important thing is that Victoria, her husband and their cat survived. Officials say, so far, they've only found five bodies of Ukrainian civilians since Balaklia was liberated on September 8. But they know there's likely more. Serhiy Bolvinov is the head of Kharkiv region's police investigations department. He's not only investigating deaths, but also alleged torture and abuse of Ukrainians by Russian soldiers that reportedly took place here in the Balaklia police station. Bolvinov says at least 40 people were held here in these small, concrete cells during the occupation. And the Russians left so fast, he says, they left the prisoners locked inside without food and water.

SERHIY BOLVINOV: (Through interpreter) The smallest civilian broke out of the window to his cell and released everyone else.

WESTERMAN: Thirty-five-year-old Vitaly Alferyuk was one of them. We met him randomly on the street opposite the station. The Balaklia native says he was detained because he is a former Ukrainian soldier.

VITALY ALFERYUK: (Through interpreter) We were tortured with batons and electric shocks.

WESTERMAN: He says he was kept there for two months before he was finally freed.

ALFERYUK: (Through interpreter) I want peace all over the country and all over the world. Russians have fought with Ukrainians enough. Let Russians go to their land and fight there.

WESTERMAN: With the Russians gone, what this town and area need right now are basics - food, water and electricity. And while they're happy to have been liberated, they want assurances, too, that the Russians are gone for good.

Ashley Westerman, NPR News, Balaklia, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.