BALAKLIIA, Ukraine — Lyudmyla Vorona says her hometown of Balakliia, in northeastern Ukraine's Kharkiv region, was not prepared when the Russians took control in early March.
"We didn't have extra food and toiletries," the 60-year-old Vorona says. "And the children were scared from all the shelling. We were very cold and hungry."
So, when Ukrainian troops took back Balakliia late last week — the first of a string of towns they swiftly liberated as part of their recently launched counteroffensive in the east — residents were thrilled.
"We were very happy," Vorona's friend, Valentryn Dacenko, 60, recalls excitedly. "We cried, we kissed each other, we kissed our warriors, we hugged them. ... It's hard to describe with words."
Retaking the area happened surprisingly fast; so quickly that Russian forces retreated in such a hurry they left behind a lot of military equipment and vehicles, and didn't release people they had detained — and reportedly tortured — in the Balakliia jail.
They spoke to NPR on Tuesday while standing in line for humanitarian aid in Balakliia's heavily damaged town center. They're two of many of the residents who NPR spoke with while on the first press tour of the newly liberated area. Many still seemed genuinely shocked that their town had been liberated.
"The only thing we are afraid of now is that Russians could come back. It's really hard to believe that this is for good," Dacenko says.
Clean up begins
While the physical damage to Balakliia and surrounding areas isn't nearly as bad as the destruction left behind in the Kyiv suburbs of Bucha and Irpin, the town still has a lot of cleanup to do.
Utilities that have been out for months, such as water, electricity, the internet and cell service, need to be restored. Residents need food and other supplies, Russian soldiers stole food from people's houses, cleared store shelves and killed off farm animals. Several buildings also need to be rebuilt, homes repaired and abandoned and bombed-out vehicles removed.
There's also the task of assessing the extent of the death toll during the area's six months of occupation. Officials say they've found the bodies of five Ukrainian civilians in Balakliia, but they suspect there are more. At least two of those are of men who are thought to have been shot by Russian soldiers while driving through a checkpoint. Their bodies were buried in makeshift graves near the center of town and have now been exhumed for further investigation.
"We'll try to do whatever is possible to register all of the war crimes committed by Russian forces," Oleg Synegubov, head of the Kharkiv Regional Military Administration, told reporters.
This could be a turning point
The Institute for the Study of War, a think tank in Washington, D.C., says Ukraine has retaken more territory in its latest counteroffensive in less than a week than Russia has managed to capture in all of its operations since April.
The Kremlin has acknowledged it had to withdraw its troops in the Kharkiv region, and several members of the Russian State Duma have expressed concern about the situation on the front line, according to the institute. Meanwhile, officials in some Russian-controlled areas in eastern Ukraine have urged residents to evacuate.
Seth Jones, the senior vice president and director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says Ukraine's recent success has been a culmination of things — including getting the Russians to move many of their troops to the south.
"The Ukrainian forces had essentially feinted that the priority was going to be in the south, in areas like Kherson," he says. "The Russians moved some military forces from the north and the east down to the south, and it provided an opportunity for [Ukrainians to] push into areas of the north and the east."
Analysts say the counteroffensive has damaged Russian troops administratively and that morale is low. Russia would have to move more of its troops around to take back territory it's lost — something it really can't afford to do right now because it would leave them vulnerable on other fronts, Jones says.
Officials say some 15% of the Kharkiv region is still Russian-occupied, which means the fighting may not be totally over for places like Balakliia.
"I think it is likely to be a turning point, probably not the turning point," he says.
Polina Lytvynova contributed to this report.