Photos: Russian forces were driven out of this village outside Kharkiv, Ukraine

Nickolai Hammar, NPR

Capt. Daniil, a public affairs officer in the Ukrainian military, walks through a field in Mala Rohan, on the outskirts of Ukraine's northeastern city of Kharkiv. He is recording the aftermath of fighting between occupying Russian soldiers and Ukrainian forces.

The Ukrainian military escort says Russians were pushed out of the village of Mala Rohan at the end of last month.

But then, Tatiana, the military public affairs officer, who only uses her first name because of Ukrainian military policy, points to the middle of a field, to the carcasses of a tank and a helicopter. Both are tagged with the letter “Z,” which the Russians have used to represent their military offensive in Ukraine.

The vehicle and aircraft, she says, were shot down just a few days ago. In the distance, the sound of artillery echoes through the farm land. A plume of smoke rises. The battle for this town, just east of Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, and under an hour’s drive from the Russian border, was intense.

Tatiana won’t reveal exact numbers, but she says “many” civilians and Ukrainian soldiers died. Some of the dead Russian fighters, she says, were buried in a mass grave on the side of a hill.

The scenes in Mala Rohan are emblematic of the kind of fighting that has raged in Ukraine since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February. According to residents and soldiers interviewed by NPR, the Russian and Ukrainian militaries are engaging in few direct firefights. Instead, they say, Russians are lobbing shells, mortars and unguided missiles in the general direction of Ukrainian positions.

Second Lt. Dmitrii says this war has become a battle of artillery.

“The Russians are not very good at fighting,” he says. “They are good at shelling and sending rockets, but when they are close, they have a lot of casualties.”

The fighting has left the village destroyed. Most of its people have fled. But 67-year-old Natalia Blizniuk is sitting on a wall near the main road. Her house is in tatters — the roof is blown; the windows are broken; she has no heating, no water — but she says she has nowhere to go. She says she can’t make sense of this war.

“I don’t understand who is right and whose fault it is,” she says. “We need peace. That’s the only thing we need.”

On the other side of the village, Ukrainian soldiers walk into a bombed out warehouse. Russian soldiers had turned it into temporary barracks. A Ukrainian rocket smashed through the walls and into the basement, leaving everything coated in a black soot.

Capt. Daniil looked through the spoils. The Ukrainian military moved in fast and the Russians fled in hurry, leaving behind medicine, food and rubber boots. Daniil stops in front of a table full of unused bullets. He uses the flashlight on his cellphone to inspect each one.

“The irony of fate,” he says, as he methodically picks up the bullets and puts them into his bag. “Now,” he says, “these bullets will kill the people who brought them here.”

Hanna Palamarenko contributed reporting to this story.

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