'Humiliated' and 'harassed': Ukrainians recount life under occupation
Vysokopillya was home to 4,000 residents before the war, but most fled after Russia's invasion Genya SAVILOV AFP

Surrounded by kittens unmoved by the far-off sounds of war, 72-year-old Maria Syzhuk recalled the terror she lived through during Russia's six-month occupation of her village in southern Ukraine.

"They robbed and humiliated us," she told AFP journalists on a Ukrainian army tour of the settlement recaptured earlier this month.

The empty streets of Vysokopillya in the Kherson region echo with the dull thuds of artillery from both sides -- mostly in the distance, but sometimes a little too close.

Syzhuk was one among a handful of the village's 4,000 residents who stayed throughout Russia's hold on the area after it invaded Ukraine in late February.

Now the Ukrainian army has retaken control of her village, she is brimming with anger at its former occupiers.

In one incident, she claimed, Russian forces killed civilians -- a couple -- who refused to give them their car.

"The husband didn't want to hand it over to them. They killed him along with his wife," she said, in a story recounted to her by three other residents.

'We heard the shots'

Five hastily dug graves have appeared in the village since the start of the invasion.

In one, two people have been buried together. Fresh pink roses lie on top of their graves, a wooden cross inscribed with the day they lost their lives: April 20, 2022.

"A family -- a man and a woman -- were killed," said Nina Zayats, a 65-year-old resident.

"We were at home when we heard the shots."

She didn't dare stray beyond her street for a whole six months, he said.

"We didn't cry," she said. "We just waited for our guys to come back and retake the village."

The Ukrainian army retook Vysokopillya and three other villages on September 12, during a major counter-offensive on the southern front.

Kyiv says it had seized back 500 square kilometers (190 square miles) from the Russians.

But there has since been little information on any Ukrainian military progress on the southern front -- in contrast to regular updates from Kyiv's lightning offensive in the country's northeastern region of Kharkiv.

Military spokeswoman Nataliya Gumenyuk told AFP the battle in the south was "a bit different", given the region's topography.

Unlike in Kharkiv, the Kherson region has "few forests" and the army needed to "cover long distances in the open" -- potentially exposing itself to heavy losses.

But, she added, Kyiv's operations were not being "stopped or slowed."

"We keep working but we don't talk about it as openly," she said.

'Will rebuild'

It took around a week to take back control of Vysokopillya, a member of the military accompanying AFP said.

Today, it lies in ruins.

Two dilapidated Russian armored vehicles sit on the village outskirts and strikes have damaged the facade of its hospital.

Most homes have holes in their roofs or missing walls.

Car carcasses tagged with the letter Z -- the symbol of the Russian army fighting in Ukraine -- dot the village.

Valentyna Zgonyk-Safonova, a 50-year-old teacher, described daily life under Russian control.

Some Russian soldiers "harassed" young women, she said, while others drank too much and "yelled" or "walked around with a gun in their hand, aiming at people."

"We didn't know where to go, what to do or where to hide," she said.

She managed to flee the village in early June, she says, even after they stole her car.

She returned to find her home ravaged, its walls streaked with black soot.

Only her green bathtub, which was moved out into the courtyard, seemed to have survived. In it floated the remains of putrid meat.

"I'm not someone who likes big changes," Safonova said, as explosions rang out in the distance.

But "I will rebuild my house," she said.

© 2022 AFP