Ukrainian troops are liberating new settlements every day the residents of which can return to peaceful life. This was the case also in Balakliia, Kharkiv Oblast that was occupied for over half a year.
Balakliia is a small regional center in Kharkiv Oblast the recapture of which is nevertheless the symbol of Ukraine's ongoing counter-offensive.
The first thing ERR correspondent Anton Aleksejev and cameraman Kristjan Svirgsden saw in Balakliia were Kyiv volunteers performing an improv concert in the central square.
"We know the meaning of occupation. A lot of us are from Mariupol. We know what it means to live under occupation. You have to scavenge for food with shells flying overhead. We came to help," said Mikhail who was taking food, medicines and hygiene products to people.
Balakliia has neither electricity nor water. Many residential buildings have been severely damaged.
"I had an apartment in the suburbs but it took a hit. I went to live with my relatives. They gave me a set of keys but that building was also hit. Now, I am homeless and without a place to stay. Complete strangers took me in," Valentina said.
Balakliia was occupied for over six months. Anatoli said that Russian soldiers behaved themselves and provided humanitarian aid. "The Red Cross came too. We were given pasta, tins and drugs for free," he added.
"We only lived with them for half a year. Everyone was scared at first but then started getting used to it. What else was there to do? We had to live somehow. Our forces arrived now, and, thank God, things are quieter here. I hope life can continue," said Denis.
The locals proved very tolerant even when asked who is to blame for the war.
"I believe that since Russia attacked us, they are to blame. Ukraine did not attack Russia. But really, we should live like we used to, as brothers. We should be friends," said Larissa.
Not everyone managed to be friendly with Russian soldiers. "They treated us very poorly. They hurt a lot of people, civilians I mean. They terrorized and beat people. All of them were terrible, the Buryats, Russians and mercenaries from Luhansk," Vladimir said.
He was not beaten, while Roman was less lucky.
"The soldiers used the butt of a gun to smash my teeth in. The Buryats put a bag over my son's head and threatened to shoot him. They accused us of drawing fire to their positions," Roman said.
It took Ukrainian troops three days to liberate Balakliia.
"The fighting did not last long. Only a small group of Russians stayed to fight. Most of them ran right away," Denis revealed.
The true countenance of the war is revealed once you head out of town. The roadsides are littered with destroyed Russian machinery, the woods and fields have been mined. Most bridges have either been mined or blown up already. Ukrainian soldiers have installed pontoon bridges in some places. Signs of the Russian soldiers' presence can be seen everywhere.
"Russian soldiers even had some creature comforts in Kharkiv Oblast. For example, they had a library here. One of the books there is Aleksandra Marinina's "Death for the Sake of Death," Anton Aleksejev said.
By Sunday, the front line was already 50 kilometers from Balakliia.
Editor: Marcus Turovski