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Liberation no holiday for Ukraine resort village

Ukraine’s recent rapid advance into Russian-occupied territory liberated the resort village of Shchurove, once a forest haven for families and fishermen taking a break from city life.

But the Russian occupation and the recent fierce battle in the woods around the village have left the once neat little bungalows and country hotels devastated, and the streets silent.

The few civilians around estimate that only between 20 and 30 of the once 200 permanent residents remain, and the only guests are the cheerful Ukrainian soldiers resting among the ruins.

“God only knows how we survived. Only a few of us remain,” said Svitlana Borisenko, 65, a widow who has lived in Shchurove all her life, even through the four months of occupation.

“It was miserable when Russia arrived, it was a disaster. They destroyed everything around them. They kicked in our doors and it was really terrifying.”

Borisenko was twice forced for cook and clean for the occupiers.

But on Saturday the Ukrainian troops who drove away the last Russians holding out in the village school house last week were enthusiastically taking care of themselves.

– Forest mushrooms –

In one of the damaged guesthouses, next to a swimming pool half-filled with green-stained water, they have set up a wood-fired grill and have caught and prepared a bucket of pike.

Six of the men are crouched around a water bowl cleaning and slicing a huge pile of forest mushrooms, gathered in a pine wood filled with the carcases of smashed tanks.

There are occasional dull detonations in the distance, but a mortar crewman assured AFP that Russian forces are now more than five kilometres (three miles) away.

Atop the four-storey school house, now a hollowed ruin surrounded by chipped concrete and spent cartridges, there now flies a blue and yellow Ukrainian banner.

Inside there are hundreds of unused Kalashnikov rounds in Russian ammo boxes, amid the filthy bedding and abandoned clothes left by the sudden retreat.

Nearby live 75-year-old Zynaida Chupryna and her son Ivan Lobachov, 43.

The tail of a mortar shell sticks out from the flower bed by their bungalow, the warhead buried in the sandy earth. Two craters are visible in their back garden.

Shrapnel from one of the blasts pockmarked the back door, and the modest home’s asbestos roofing has been partly ripped off — allowing rainwater to collapse the interior ceilings.

“I’m trying to clean up because… We’re not dirty. Look what they’ve done to us. We’re still people,” Chupryna told AFP.

“We crawl around in the basement. What else can we do? They shell all the time. If you go upstairs, you’re finished. We couldn’t go outside.”

As much a nature lover as the tourists who came before the war to relax on the banks of the Siversky Donets, Chupryna says she longs to swim in the river once again.

Her son Ivan, a former forest ranger who retired on a disability pension after losing an eye in an accident, said Russian soldiers twice offered the pair food.

– Car battery –

But he suspected the offer was a trick: the troops wanted to collect personal data in exchange for aid, perhaps in order to issue Russian papers to the Ukrainian residents.

Now, the pair have received a single World Food Programme aid parcel, holding seven kilos (15 pounds) of rice and enough oil and canned meat to see them through two weeks.

They have no electricity, but Lobachov has rigged a car battery up to a transistor radio and was aware that an explosion had damaged the bridge between Russia and occupied Crimea.

To the extent that this was a defeat for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, he took some bitter consolation from the news. “It’s good, I’m glad,” he said, looking at a loss.