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After 6 months of occupation, a small Ukrainian town has been liberated

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As we've been reporting, Ukraine appears to have made stunning progress retaking towns and territory in the east. Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, says his country's armed forces have regained more than 1,500 square miles since launching a surprise counteroffensive in the region around Kharkiv just last week. The first town to be liberated in the counteroffensive was Balakliya. That was September 8. NPR's Ashley Westerman was in the first group of journalists let into the town today. She joins me now. Hey, Ashley.

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: Hi.

KELLY: What did you see? What's it look like?

WESTERMAN: Yeah. So Balakliya is a small rural town about 60 miles southeast of Kharkiv. And as we know, that's Ukraine's second-largest city. And as we rolled into town, we saw a few bombed-out vehicles, including some Russian tanks. And they were rusted, and they seemed like they'd been there a while. But most of the damage was actually concentrated in the center of town. A handful of blocks had been shelled. And the town was under Russian occupation for six months, Mary Louise, but I honestly didn't see the destruction like what we saw in Bucha and Irpin, those suburbs of Kyiv that were liberated in April. And the people I spoke to were understandably relieved that the Russians had been driven out. I spoke with Valentyna Dacenko, who said it's hard to express in words.

VALENTYNA DACENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

WESTERMAN: "We were very happy. We cried and kissed," she says. And it's like she's still in shock that all of this is over.

KELLY: Yeah. Very happy now, but were you able to ask people what it was like all these months under Russian occupation?

WESTERMAN: Yes. I spoke with several people who said that there has been no electricity, no water and no cell service for months. And many people spent a lot of time in their basements because of the intense shelling that was going on and just not wanting to run into Russian soldiers in the streets. Lyudmyla Vorona said the town just wasn't ready for this.

LYUDMYLA VORONA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

WESTERMAN: "We didn't have extra food and other essentials like toiletries and cleaning products," she said. "And the children were scared from all the shelling, and we were very cold and hungry." And in a sign that the Russians were unprepared for this, they ransacked people's homes for food and cleared store shelves. Seventy-year-old Olga Panchenko says Russian soldiers also went after people's farms.

OLGA PANCHENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

WESTERMAN: "There was a farm with cows nearby, and Russian soldiers drank all the milk," she says. Meanwhile, Mary Louise, officials say that, so far, they've only found five Ukrainian bodies, but there are likely more. And they also say they found evidence of abuse, like beatings and torture, by Russian forces that could constitute as war crimes. And they'll be taking all of this very seriously moving forward.

KELLY: Yeah. And I imagine the list of what these villages need moving forward must be so long.

WESTERMAN: Indeed. First off, they need supplies - food, water and other resources. Humanitarian aid is coming in right now, but they also need utilities restored. And, you know, the Kharkiv region is still actually 15% occupied by Russian forces, so the fighting and the shelling may not be over for them. And that's something that the people of Balakliya are definitely aware of.

KELLY: NPR's Ashley Westerman - she was one of the first journalists to see the just-liberated town of Balakliya in Ukraine today. Ashley, thank you.

WESTERMAN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.
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