By Jonathan Landay
LYMAN, Ukraine (Reuters) – The bodies of two Russian soldiers lay bloated in trees on opposite sides of the road, near the blown-up wreckage of the cars and van in which Ukrainian army officers said the unit of the dead was retreating east back town of Lymann.
Unaware that their forces had already retreated from the key railroad junction, the Russians drove into an ambush by Ukrainian special forces last weekend, their escape and their lives ended in a storm of gunfire, officers said.
The bodies, wrecked vehicles and carpets of bullets, torn uniforms and shards of metal bore witness to Moscow’s loss of Lyman on Wednesday to a Ukrainian counteroffensive that has recaptured parts of Donestk province that were overrun by Russian forces earlier this year.
Armored vehicles, trucks and cars with Ukrainian troops or loaded with supplies sped past the scene of the ambush toward the front, their occupants craning their necks to see the scene.
Occasionally it echoed with distant fighting between retreating Russians and Ukrainian troops advancing on a highway leading north to the Russian border and south to the town of Sievierodonetsk, from which Kiev’s forces withdrew in June.
Lyman Police Chief Igor Ugnivenko told journalists in the devastated Lyman center that about 7,000 people – out of a pre-war population of about 22,000 – remained in the city, to which his officers returned on Saturday.
“We have to clean the place from all (Russian) weapons left in the houses,” he said.
Police have evidence, Ugnivenko said, that the Russians beat and abused civilians while occupying Lyman. He wanted more information on the grounds that the investigation was not yet complete, he did not want to give.
“We know there was torture. We still have work to do,” he said, standing in front of a police station storeroom crammed with furniture he thought the Russians had looted and which he eventually wanted to take back to Russia.
Reuters could not confirm his allegations. Russia denies torture or other forms of ill-treatment of prisoners of war. Moscow says its forces in Ukraine are involved in a “military special operation” to disarm the country.
His allegations contrasted with comments from several local residents who queued behind two vans waiting outside the community building for humanitarian aid to be distributed.
“The Russians didn’t touch us. They didn’t even touch us with a finger,” said Nina, 73, who, like several residents, refused to give her last name.
She insisted that force was bestowed on Lyman only with the Ukrainian counter-offensive.
“When Ukraine first came, everything blew up, even the houses and the people. Many people were killed instantly,” she said.
The bodies of 15 Russians are still lying on her street, Nina said.
“The Russians are dead, 15 in number, on Odesskaya Street. Nobody touches her,” she scolded. Nobody removes them. It’s the fifth day they’ve been lying there. And we have the smell. Is that right?”
“They came as a team and their guys just left them,” interjected Viktor Trofimenko, 78, standing next to her.
“NOTHING IS LEFT”
Volodymyr Yurevych, 26, wheeled his bike into the square in front of the municipal building, the first time he said he had left home in six weeks. He had nothing good to say about the city’s former Russian occupiers.
“I’ve been driving around and seen so many things I just can’t describe. I had no contact with them,” he said. “I didn’t even accept their humanitarian aid. It was enough for me to see that they behaved like animals on the first day. And that made me reject her immediately.”
Countless homes lining the city’s worn streets have been destroyed or damaged in recent fighting.
Nina worried about the future.
“We have nothing. Nothing is left. Everything is broken. I’ve worked 41 years. Is it for me to stand in line and jostle with other people?” she said. There is no bread. No one gives us Money. How can this situation be?”
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Alistair Bell)