TSENTRALNE – Relatives hugged each other in the middle of the street. They shook hands and held back tears. Others sobbed in front of their houses. Everyone had longed for this very moment – to be reunited with their loved ones after the Russian troops had withdrawn from their villages in southern Ukraine.
Families were torn apart when Russia has invaded in February, when some fled and others huddled. Now many are seeing each other again for the first time in months Moscow’s last retreat amid a Ukrainian counteroffensive that has recaptured a pocket of territory between the regional capitals of Kherson and Mykolaiv and the Black Sea.
The most significant retreat was from the city of Kherson itself, but in recent days troops from nearby villages were also withdrawing. The Associated Press visited four such villages this week and watched as people were reunited with relatives.
“It’s just an explosion,” said Andriy Mazuryk. The 53-year-old left his mother in her village of Tsentralne in April and fled about 30 kilometers away.
His mother didn’t want to go, but Mazuryk has a son in the Ukrainian army and fears the Russians will kill him. Although occupation forces confiscated people’s phones, Mazuryk managed to speak to his mother and other relatives almost every day because they were making secret calls, he said.
“Thank God we were in touch every day … Relatives were taking risks,” he said.
According to local authorities, more than half a million people have fled the Mykolayiv and Kherson regions since February, although exact figures are difficult to calculate. It is unclear how many have returned.
While some people, like Mazuryk, only had to travel a short distance to return home, others traveled from across the country when they learned the Russians had left. Igor, a soldier, was released from fighting in the hard-hit Donbass region to see his family.
Igor jumped out of a van in the village of Vavylove and shot up while hugging his mother, who was waiting for him in the middle of the street. “I knew it would happen that we would win and our whole country would be liberated,” said Igor, who, for security reasons, spoke on condition that only his first name be used, as is typical for Ukrainian soldiers.
Some villagers said they were surprised at how quickly the Russians left. To Russia announced a partial mobilization Of about 300,000 reservists in September, locals said thousands more soldiers poured into the area and heavily mined it.
Several people said that Russian soldiers had been storing equipment and digging trenches in the weeks leading up to the retreat, so it appeared they were staying.
While most said the Russians kept to themselves, living conditions among their crew were appalling: electricity, water, and telephones were cut off. Bridges were blown up, making it difficult to move between villages to buy and sell food. And mines lurked everywhere.
The Russians are gone – but these problems remain.
There have been at least a dozen accidents involving mines in recent days, said Oleh Pylypenko, the head of the administration covering the villages visited by AP.
Speaking to residents in each city on Sunday as local volunteers distributed food aid, Pylypenko warned people not to let their children play in abandoned ditches and promised he would restore electricity, water and communications as soon as possible.
With winter fast approaching, aid groups warned that resuming such services quickly was vital. “We must act quickly to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe during the winter months,” said Saviano Abreu, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Ukraine.
Despite this, most people in the villages said they were not overly worried about the future. They were just glad the Russians were gone.
“This is the first night I can sleep,” said Galina Voinova, a resident of the village of Znamianka. Since February she has been falling asleep to the sound of grenades, she said.
But the agony of the occupation is not yet over for everyone.
Tatiyana Pukivska’s husband was detained by the Russians because they were told he was giving the Ukrainian army the coordinates of their positions, she said. The 41-year-old Tsentralne resident said she hasn’t seen him since as she wiped tears from her cheeks.
Her mother-in-law stood nearby and wiped her eyes.
“Oh my god, it’s awful,” Lesia Pukivska said, holding up a photo of her son’s ID card. “I have a feeling that he is alive and that he will return home. If only someone could help us, we are powerless.”
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https://www.local10.com/news/world/2022/11/15/families-reunited-following-russian-retreat-in-ukraine/ Families reunited after Russian retreat in Ukraine