Why does Russia want my hometown? From a resident of occupied Izyum

Izyum (Credit: Max Strel / Facebook)

Izyum is a town of less than 50,000 people in the Kharkiv region near the Donbas. The name translates as “raisin” in English. Maksym Vysotskyi, a journalist who was forced to flee his home, describes what life in the now-occupied town is like.


I can compare my feelings with what I felt eight years ago. When Russia invaded the Donbas in 2014, the Russia-led insurgents were less than two hours away by car. Izyum became a temporary home to the Ukrainian army headquarters. But I refused to believe that this could happen, that my Izyum would also be occupied one day and become “Russian.”

This rejection is probably what saved me from going crazy back then. The last days before 24 February, 2022 were spent dreading the worst. Those fears turned out to be justified.

Why does Russia want Izyum? The Siverskyi Donets passes through my town. It’s a fairly small river, but the military vehicles would struggle to drive through it. Izyum is also a crucial part of the infrastructure system. The Kharkiv-Rostov route passes through it, and so does the railway service for the Donbas. The majority of Izyum residents are clearly pro-Russian, too. Although the views of some have changed since the invasion.

Some people have been comparing Izyum to Khatyn (a Belarusian village that was destroyed in 1943 -ed.). I’ll let you be the judge of that.

The Izyum town centre – a wide street with shops, residential buildings, and a square – has been destroyed by Russian bombs. Almost everything was struck, some schools turned into ashes. Who is behind the destruction? Well, Russian tanks and Grads have entered residential yards. From there, they shoot and sometimes directly into another neighbourhood.

Locals have been killed. I heard that some people were buried in our central park. Some were found while searching through the ruins of destroyed buildings. At first there was nobody to rescue these people, and then Russia banned everybody from searching through the ruins.

In the first weeks of occupation, electricity, water, and gas were all cut off. The private sector helped the locals to survive by providing food from their stocks, giving access to their wells, blocks of wood, and power generators. There was no phone signal, too. People were roaming the town in search of “some signal.” When found, they would make calls accompanied by series of air strikes and Grad bombings. After hearing these sounds for a couple of days, the residents learnt how to distinguish them.

Some places have now managed to get their electricity and gas back. Water supply sometimes comes back for a couple of hours before disappearing again. But that water is technical. It is clear that the Russians plan to stay.

Pretty much every crossroad has an entry-exit checkpoint. The Russian soldiers look more or less tolerable, but the so-called “LPR” and “DPR” insurgents are quite a sight to behold. If the occupants don’t like the way a resident looks, they will interrogate them. They will take off your shirt to check your body for any “Right Sector tattoos” or body marks left by a Sam Browne belt. They threaten those who don’t pass the checks with a gun.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to leave Izyum. No more nice cars can be found in the streets as people are worried that those will be stolen. Most recently, offers to “evacuate” to Russia have become more frequent. The men are being offered to serve in the occupant army. To escape the atrocities of the “Russian world,” people swim across the Donets or walk tens of kilometres.

The Russians have their “kill lists” of Izyum residents: these are the people whom they aim to find, torture, but also force into “cooperation.” These lists were clearly formed by the local collaborators. One such collaborator, for example, is the former mayor. In his case, it’s an attempt to regain power. The decrees by the new “authorities” are now all across the town.

All in all, Izyum – with its crooked little streets, bakeries in the centre, and markets – is no more. But Izyum will come back when the Russians leave. And it will be Ukrainian.

*The author of this article is writing under a pseudonym.

Read the original Ukrainian version of this article here.