Staryi Saltiv, Ukraine (CNN)– Two convoys of civilian cars in a town in northeastern Ukraine speak of Russia’s withdrawal from Kharkiv and the brutality it left behind.
The first, of three cars, carrying a priest, dogs and scowling, is speeding through the town of Staryi Saltiv from the north, fleeing violence as Ukraine pushes Russian forces out of Rubizhne. “We don’t even know what’s going on,” said one driver. “We won’t stick around to find out.”
Ukrainian officials said this week that they are continuing to push toward the Russian border, liberating small towns on the outskirts of Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city before the invasion began. The Ukrainian advances threaten the symbolic embarrassment of driving Kremlin forces back to their own border while at the same time posing the strategic threat of cutting off Russia’s supply lines to Ukraine and its forces further south in the Donbas region. Progress has been rapid in recent weeks.
The second convoy talks about what Ukraine has found after the passage of Russia: five vehicles riddled with bullets, two burned.
On May 4, according to Ukrainian officials, this convoy was trying to leave the city when it was attacked by Russian troops. Bullet holes are concentrated in some of the drivers doors. Children’s clothing and toys are found around the vehicles. Ukrainian officials said four civilians, including a 13-year-old girl, were killed when Russian troops opened fire on this convoy.
CNN’s escorts from the Kharkiv city territorial defense force say a tank shell hit one of the cars, explaining why its front section is twisted beyond recognition.
Moscow says its forces do not target civilians, a claim contradicted by evidence of apparent atrocities witnessed by CNN here and elsewhere in Ukraine.
A short distance from the road, in the woods and nearby hills, are the remains of a Russian convoy. Among the trees lie the remains of an armored personnel carrier, the carrier strips of which were ripped off by a rocket-propelled grenade, our companions say. Sleeping bags, prayer books, grenades and rations litter the leaves where Russian troops slept outside the village. Two Russian bodies were found there days earlier and buried.
At the top of the hill lies another rarer piece: the remains of a Russian T90M tank destroyed days earlier, apparently by a Swedish-supplied Carl Gustav recoilless gun. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry released a drone video of the tank destroyed in the apparent attack, showing the vulnerability of Russia’s latest armor to NATO sidearms. The tank’s turret was removed and its shell bearings lie in the ashes.
The Ukrainian counterattack to disrupt Russian supply lines is underway. Ukraine’s General Staff said on Friday that Russian forces “did not carry out offensive operations in the direction of Kharkiv. The main efforts were focused on preventing the advance of our troops in the area of the Vesele settlement,” another town located less than an hour’s drive from Staryi Saltiv in normal times. The Ukrainians have recaptured several villages in this area east of Kharkiv.
As Russian forces continue to withdraw, three bridges in the Kharkiv region have been demolished, according to satellite images obtained by CNN on Friday. It seems likely that the Russian units destroyed the bridges in an effort to protect their supply lines from further Ukrainian advances.
Elsewhere in the Kharkiv region, the Russians appear to be using artillery sporadically but to deadly effect. On Thursday, the shelling of the city of Derhachi killed two people, according to the local administration, and destroyed the humanitarian center and medical facilities.
In a village near Staryi Saltiv, locals seem less aware of the details of their occupation and liberation. A man, Viktor, is in a well, filling metal buckets, since there has been no electricity or water on his street for weeks. Only three of his neighbors remain.
“Which calm? My heart is about to jump out of my chest,” he says. “Everything around is exploding. There’s a hole in the garden from a shell hit. The roof was pierced by a shell, the fence is gone. It’s really hard. We sleep with our clothes on. They land nearby. There’s nowhere to hide.” .