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Life in Kharkiv still precarious despite Ukraine’s recent victories

Air sirens sounded throughout the day in Kharhiv. At least four Russian missiles hit the north-eastern city in two attacks on Monday, killing at least one person, injuring others and causing further disruption to the city’s electricity and water supply.

While the liberation of Russian-occupied parts of the Kharkiv region has been celebrated by Ukrainians across the country, the situation in the city – which was half surrounded by Russian forces until just a week ago – has in some ways become more precarious.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian authorities have reported finding the bodies of civilians with apparent signs of torture, as prosecutors gathered more evidence of potential war crimes.

Unlike the liberation of Kyiv and other northern regions in late March, when the invaders were forced into a chaotic retreat, Russia has almost immediately launched a counterattack and is showing no sign of walking away from this corner of the country.

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On Sunday, for the first time since the war began, Russian cruise missile strikes on a Kharkiv power station led to a blackout across the region. Engineers managed to restore power after four hours, while a fire raged at the plant.

“The Russians want to leave us without light, water and heat,” said Kyrylo Tymoshenko, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office.

There were also initial reports of blackouts in the neighbouring regions of Sumy and Poltava as well as in Dnipropetrovsk, potentially affecting millions of civilians.

Russia appears to be using missiles with increasing frequency, with at least seven strikes in the last 24 hours. After being pushed back almost to the border, Russians can no longer use cheaper artillery rounds to pound Ukrainian positions and frighten the city’s populations.

The combination of missile attacks and blackouts marks a new phase of the war for the city’s weary population.

After Monday’s strikes, the electricity and water in the Kharkiv city were cut again in most districts. In some, water had not been restored since Sunday night.

Kharkiv’s authorities say the strikes targeted civilians areas, indicating that the aim may be to inflict psychological pressure on the population.

“[It was] primarily a hit on a densely populated residential area. There is no military infrastructure nearby. Information about victims and destruction is being clarified,” wrote Ihor Terekhov, the mayor of Kharkiv, on Telegram.

Ukraine’s general staff said on Monday they had reclaimed more than 20 settlements in the last 24 hours. Videos posted on social media showed troops greeted by cheering residents as blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags fluttered overhead.

But while the Ukrainians continue their counteroffensive, the focus in the newly liberated territories is turning to the experience of locals who were forced to live under Russian occupation, amid growing signs that atrocities were committed similar to those uncovered in northern regions earlier this year.

Ukrainian forces have found bodies of civilians who appear to have been tortured, said Inna Sovsun, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, echoing the grim discoveriesafter Ukrainian forces retook Bucha.

Three people in darkened bunker
Kharkiv residents sheltering in a bunker. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

The regional prosecutor’s office said the liberating troops had discovered four civilian bodies showing “signs of torture” in the village of Zaliznychne. “Three of them were buried near private houses, the other one was found on the territory of the asphalt factory,” the prosecutors said in a statement on Facebook.

“Russian troops committed crimes and tried to hide them,” said Maksym Strelnikov, a council member of Izium, a major base for Moscow’s forces in the Kharkiv region and a gateway to the Donbas.

“Our investigative work in liberated cities has just begun,” said Oleksandr Filchakov, the chief war crime prosecutor for the Kharkiv region.

Just as when Kyiv region was occupied in March, Russian soldiers in Kharkiv hunted out men who had served in the military, Ukrainian officials told the Guardian.

One Ukrainian soldier who is currently evacuating people from the liberated areas said that the treatment of civilians was worse the closer they lived to the frontlines. “The bigger the presence of soldiers in an area, the more stories [of abuse] we heard.”

When Russian forces entered the villages around Kupiansk in late February, they seized a local man who had fought in the Donbas, according to his neighbour Luidmyla, a teacher. Luidmyla said the Russian arrived with lists of who had served, and the men were taken to the regional administration for their district, supposedly for questioning.

“We don’t know what happened to him,” said Luidmila. “His relatives tried to go to the administration to find out what happened to him. But the [Russian] soldiers wouldn’t take the food [they bought] to pass on to him – and while he was away, [the Russians] went to his house and stole everything.”

Ludmila said that though the villagers resented the occupation, she had seen no instances of rape or torture. After the Russians set up a base in their community centre, someone in village slashed their tyres. The Russian officer then gathered the villagers and tried to come to an agreement to coexist.

Anastasia, 23, who is from a small village near Balakliia and had twins on February 9, spent the first weeks after the occupation in a basement barely coming up for air. It was only when the fighting stopped and they saw the Russian checkpoint that they realised they had come under occupation.

“The worst thing is that my husband was fighting [for Ukraine] in Kharkiv,” said Anastasia. “I just wanted to kill all the Russians I saw.”

The villagers had no telephone signal, apart from one neighbour who bought a Russian Sim card, and for much of the time, satellite television appeared to be jammed, leaving the villages in what she called an “information vacuum”.

The Russian soldiers did not live in their village and had limited interaction with the locals, but Anastasia had no doubts over what she had just lived through: “There’s no other word for it but occupation.”

There was no electricity, gas or water for the first three weeks, and after that, the supply was often intermittent. For the first month, they survived on what they already had. When Russian goods finally started appearing, they were very expensive.

“It was about ($1) for one nappy,” said Anastasia. “The Russian soldiers didn’t bring us any humanitarian aid.”

Additional reporting by Artem Mazulin

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