In Izyum, happy family reunions after the liberation ended the Russian occupation

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After fleeing his home with his family, Viktor Havrashenko reunites with his elderly parents who have lived under Russian occupation for months. (Video: Whitney Shefte, Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

SAVYNTSI, Ukraine — As his silver SUV rolled along the winding dirt roads, Viktor looked at me through his rearview mirror and smiled.

“This is the village where I grew up,” he said. “Where I went to school and where I spent my childhood.”

Several months ago, as Viktor drove me across Ukraine in this same car – me in the front seat, his teenage daughter in the back – his voice cracked as he described his life before the war. There’s a bit of a language barrier between us, but with the help of Google Translate, I discovered his house in the small northeast town of Izyum. He told me about his successful poultry business and visits to his elderly parents who lived in a nearby village.

The war had taken all that away from him.

Viktor Havrashenko, 41, decided shortly after the February 24 Russian invasion to flee Izyum with his wife and daughter. They settled in a part of the Kharkiv region still under Ukrainian control. It was clear from the start that the Russian forces intended to illegally annex the territory and declare it part of Russia.

Viktor’s parents, like many seniors across the country, refused to evacuate – preferring to stay home come what may. In March, after weeks of heavy fighting, Russian forces took control of Izyum and many surrounding villages, including their own.

For months there was virtually no phone connection. But from what little Viktor learned, he knew the situation was dire. The shelling had destroyed many apartment buildings and houses, including the house directly opposite his. Food was scarce. He wasn’t sure what had happened to his many chickens. He missed his pet cat. He feared his parents would get the medicine they needed to survive.

As a driver working for the Washington Post, Viktor testified to the dangers civilians faced in towns near the front lines of war. The summer passed with little hope that her situation would change anytime soon.

Torture, murders, kidnappings: the Russian retreat from Izyum reveals horrors

Then, within just a few days in September, a swift and unexpected Ukrainian counter-offensive forced unsuspecting Russian forces and their collaborators to withdraw from the Kharkiv area, abandoning many of their assets, including tanks and weapons. Ukrainian forces were invigorated by their gains. Military analysts hailed the advances as a potential turning point in the war. And many civilians who survived months of Russian occupation embraced the arrival of the blue and yellow flag that restored their place in Ukraine.

Among them were Viktor’s parents, locked away for months in the modest house where he had grown up in Savyntsi, a village about 40 minutes from Izyum. With cell service still off, Viktor was unable to contact them to tell them he would be able to reach them by road soon.

He first visited Izyum, taking Post reporters with him. Viktor wept as he saw what his once peaceful town had become. “I don’t recognize my hometown,” he said. “Everything is on fire.”

Apartments were destroyed, war debris lay everywhere and abandoned Russian vehicles – the signature Z painted on the side – littered the streets. When he arrived home, he knelt by his bed, put his head on his pillow and cried again. Tears streamed down his face as he held his purring cat, kept alive by his neighbors.

Viktor’s best friend, our other driver Viacheslav Polovyi, 36, had just days before reunited with his parents in Izyum for the first time since the start of the war – knocking on their door and wrapping his father in a bear hug when he opened the door. Amid all the horrors of this war and the personal tragedies we covered, Viacheslav’s emotional reunion with his parents offered a boost of hope and happiness to our team.

Now it was Viktor’s turn.

As we drove along the road, it suddenly swerved and parked on a patch of grass. An older man walked slowly ahead of us, hunched over in a heavy checkered coat. Viktor didn’t need to say a word. We knew from the tears in his eyes that it had to be his father, Volodymyr. Both cried while standing outside the house where Viktor grew up.

We walked through their gate. Viktor’s mother, Natalia, who is 72, was at a neighbor’s house. We walked through their garden, Viktor in the lead. He threw his arms around his mother, crying once more.

“Don’t cry, we’re fine. It’s alright, son,” she said as they hugged. “We are strong, we have resisted everything. … We waited for the Ukrainian flag.

Propaganda newspapers show how Russia promoted annexation in Kharkiv

We spent the afternoon at their house, a time that allowed us and Viktor to ask the kinds of questions his parents couldn’t safely answer when the Russian army was still around.

The few calls her mother made when she left for service, she said, were watched by armed soldiers. “And what could you say? “Everything is fine, we are healthy and well.” Absolutely nothing else,” she said.

We asked why she decided to stay. She described how Viktor called her and told her that if he had to flee, she and her father should come with them. But she was afraid of leaving – and never being able to come back. “’If we have to die, then we will die in our village,’” she told him. “’You can bury us here, in the cemetery where our whole family is buried.’ ”

She talked about how her grandfather served in World War I and her father in World War II. He was seriously injured and died two months before he was born.

“I never thought that our generation would suffer from such [a thing],” she says.

She recalled how the tanks drove through their village in March, how they felt “cut off on all sides”.

Some townspeople were taken to basements and disappeared, she said. They struggled to find medicine. All shops closed. They survived thanks to what they grew in their garden and homemade bread that some locals sold. Viktor managed to send medicine through acquaintances, which helped them stay healthy.

“The scariest thing is that they could have died unaided,” Viktor said. “There was no pharmacy there, no hospital.”

Children from Kharkiv went to summer camp in Russia. They never came back.

We brought more medicine and groceries with us – sandwiches, cold cuts and cheese. They served us house wine. “When was the last time you ate meat?” I asked Natalia. “We even forgot the smell of it,” she replied.

When she had to venture outside to scavenge for supplies, she took routes that she hoped would save her even from seeing a Russian soldier. “If I saw a man with a gun, I was very scared,” she said. Their uniforms, bulletproof vests and weapons unsettled her. “It was very unpleasant,” she said. “And I thought, why did they come here?”

When the Ukrainian tanks finally passed, she said, the civilians knelt in thanks. “It was so touching,” she said. “You couldn’t watch this without crying.”

“That day, the neighbors came out saying, ‘Glory to Ukraine!’ to each other,” she recalls. “’We are Ukraine now, there are no more Russians. Come with wine, let’s have a drink,” they said.

It was the beginning of the end of what Viktor described as feeling like he was living in “a dead end”.

“The situation is such that you might be ready to take off your last shirt and give it away,” he said. “But you can’t do that.”

With each passing day, he knew he was missing precious time with his parents. Her 73-year-old father suffers from serious health problems. “To say I’m furious would be an understatement,” Viktor said. “At my parents’ age, every day they live is a great accomplishment – I don’t know what else to call it.”

For his mother, not being able to reach her son was also the hardest part of the job. The pain they each felt at their separation was something they struggled to put into words.

Then, a few days after their release, Natalia’s neighbor told her to look up. When she did, she saw Viktor crossing the field, his arms open wide, ready to hug her.

Whitney Shefte and Sergii Mukaieliants contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: what you need to know

The last: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday signed decrees to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following referendums held that have been widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The answer: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions against Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and their family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said on Friday that Ukraine was seeking an “accelerated ascent” into NATO, in apparent response to annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on September 21 to call up up to 300,000 reservists in a dramatic attempt to reverse the setbacks of his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of over 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and further protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine launched a successful counter-offensive that forced a large Russian retreat into the northeast Kharkiv region in early September as troops fled towns and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large quantities of military equipment.

Pictures: Washington Post photographers have been in the field since the start of the war. Here are some of their most powerful works.

How you can help: Here’s how those in the United States can support the people of Ukraine as well as what people around the world have donated.

Read our full coverage of the Russia–Ukraine War. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.

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