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Some Ukrainian towns are now liberated, but Russian forces left them in shambles

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Apartments and houses are in ruins in the towns that Ukrainian forces have liberated from their short Russian occupation. Gas and electrical lines are in tatters. Grocery stores are empty. And while many people fled if they could, there are also Ukrainian civilians who remained behind, and they are now describing what they saw. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from the Kharkiv region of eastern Ukraine.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: The town of Kozacha Lopan used to be the last railway stop in Ukraine before trains from Kharkiv crossed into Russia. Passengers could exchange hryvnia for rubles, grab a cup of coffee, stretch their legs. Now, the Ukrainian customs post is blown apart. The high-ceilinged train station is pockmarked with bullet holes. The steel tracks in front of the platform are twisted from explosions. Ukrainian police claim they found a torture chamber in the basement of the station, where Russians interrogated local residents.

LUDA TORYANYK: (Non-English language spoken).

BEAUBIEN: Resident Luda Toryanyk says one local man was held for several days simply for trying to cross into Ukrainian-controlled territory to visit his hospitalized mother. And she says she saw him when he was released.

TORYANYK: (Through interpreter) He lifted up his shirt, and his back was black and blue with bruises. He was beaten there for nothing.

BEAUBIEN: The 58-year-old Toryanyk says, one day, she saw her own son being marched to the train station by three soldiers with guns.

TORYANYK: (Through interpreter) It was very cold. It was April. It was windy. It was raining. And I sat waiting on the train platform in just light clothes.

BEAUBIEN: She says she waited, shivering, for two hours outside the station before they let her son go. At first, he told her that he was just questioned about some looting. He said they made him sit on a chair with his hands tied with tape and a hood on his head.

TORYANYK: (Through interpreter) Later at night, when he screamed because of the nightmares, then I realized that he didn't want to upset me, and he didn't tell me that he was beaten.

BEAUBIEN: Kozacha Lopan was one of the first places Russian forces invaded when they launched their offensive against Ukraine in February. Moscow held the border town until Ukrainian troops retook it on September 11. Many of the 4,000 residents fled either to Ukrainian-held territory or to Russia. Toryanyk says she stayed in part because she'd agreed to look after her neighbors' cats, dogs, flocks of chickens and geese. She says she couldn't abandon them. Toryanyk also planted flowers to make it clear that she had no intention of leaving.

The fighting left the main street in ruins - buildings burnt, the post office with its doors and windows blown out and the grocery stores destroyed. Residents lived off food from their gardens and food packets handed out by the Russians.

(CROSSTALK)

BEAUBIEN: We meet Kiril Krasnikov, a Ukrainian volunteer who's passing out bread, water and bags of pasta from the back of a small hatchback. He says the needs here are huge.

KIRIL KRASNIKOV: Medical supplies, water and gas.

BEAUBIEN: By gas, he means they need piped gas for heating and cooking. He adds they also need generators or some other way to get electricity.

KRASNIKOV: Because now, in this village, they don't have electricity at all, so it's very big problem.

BEAUBIEN: Residents still have very limited access to information as the Russian-aligned forces shut down the Ukrainian cell phone and internet connections. And the conditions in many other parts of Ukraine that were under Russian control are similar. Further south, in the city of Izium, where investigators are exhuming hundreds of bodies from a burial site in a forest, people are living in high-rise apartment buildings without any windows. All the glass was blown out by explosions. Residents are cooking over open wood fires. Some people say they're concerned about facing the oncoming winter without gas heat, but the determined Luda Toryanyk back in Kozacha Lopan isn't worried. She can get by this year, she says defiantly to me and my interpreter, without gas or electricity.

TORYANYK: (Through interpreter) We will live with candles, but we will live in our land with our authorities, with the Ukrainian. And we will rebuild everything. It's not a big problem. We will rebuild, restore everything, but we will stay here.

BEAUBIEN: Carrying two bags of groceries that she just got from the volunteers, Toryanyk heads back across the railway tracks to her house, her flowers and all of her neighbors' animals. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kozacha Lopan, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.