MALAYA ROHAN, Ukraine — The village of Malaya Rohan, east of Kharkiv, lies largely in ruins. Burned-out tanks are sandwiched between collapsed buildings. Hot tub-sized craters pock the roads. The school is shattered.
Sergei Shapoval is one of the luckier residents. His house is still standing, though most of the windows are broken. A grenade went off inside and shrapnel ripped through his television. He and his family fled to a bomb shelter, the basement of his aunt's house, in the first days of the fighting. Russian troops took over his house and camped in his living room.
"Everything is ripped. Everything is destroyed," he says as he walks through the rubble in his hallway. "You can see the ceiling is burnt out."
Russian forces took over the village soon after launching the large-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. Now, areas like this are finally being liberated as the Ukrainian military makes advances in the northeast. The battles have been going on since the invasion. A senior U.S. defense official said Monday that Ukrainians forces continue to gain ground around Kharkiv, pushing Russian forces to within two miles of the Russian border.
Shapoval, 49, says he spent half his life working hard — maybe too hard — to build this house. Now he'll have to work even harder to repair it.
"You can see the bullet holes here," he says, pointing to puncture marks in a wall.
Shapoval ended up living for weeks in the basement of his aunt's house. Soon after the invasion, the power went out. Shapoval and his family lived without lights or heat, he says, cooking potatoes over an open fire and eating canned vegetables they found in nearby cellars.
Larisa Skorkina, helping to organize humanitarian aid distribution, says the entire village needs to be rebuilt. In the short term, the most pressing needs are reconnecting electricity, gas and water lines. Many residents also need food. Over the weekend, volunteers brought in buckets of hot soup and tubs of red cabbage salad for dozens of residents who'd remained throughout the occupation or recently returned.
And there are shortages of matches and powdered laundry soap. The matches have run out because so many people are still cooking over open fires, and they need more laundry detergent as they try to clean up.
"Pretty much every building got some level of destruction," says Skorkina, who also spent most of the Russian occupation in a basement.
"When our forces started to liberate the village, there was heavy bombs and heavy shelling," she says. "It was really bad. The walls, the ceiling, even the earth, the soil, was trembling because they were bombarding it so hard."
The invasion has fundamentally changed people's attitudes toward Russia
Shapoval never thought the Russians would actually attack Ukraine. His part of the country is heavily Russian speaking. Downtown Kharkiv is just 30 miles from the Russian border. People used to go shopping in Russia.
"They were like animals or beasts," he says of some of the invading Russian troops. They shot at people who tried to flee. They rammed over front gates with their vehicles rather than opening them. He says one soldier raped a young girl. NPR has not verified these allegations. But for Shapoval, the occupation fundamentally changed his vision of Russia.
"I have a family in Russia right now and my whole ... life, I was speaking Russian," he says. "Now I feel disgust to speak Russian. I don't want to speak the language anymore."
In the days after the invasion, sitting in his aunt's cold, dark basement, Shapoval says he was struck by how different Ukraine is from Russia. "It was only at that stage that I realized that we'd lived in a European village," he says. "We had European roots. We had European TVs. We had the European community here. Now we have simply nothing."
Disbelief over Russia's invasion has given way to determination to rebuild
Until last week, Russian ground troops continued to fire mortar rounds and artillery shells into residential neighborhoods in Kharkiv. By Saturday, Ukrainian troops pushed the Russian lines back to the point that a Ukrainian military spokesman said that for the first time in weeks, there had been no strikes on Ukraine's second-largest city.
Like Shapoval, Maria Miroshnyk says she couldn't believe that Russia actually invaded her village.
"They were saying to us that Russians are going to attack, but we simply refused to believe it," she says as she takes a break from cleaning up shattered glass in her granddaughter's house. "We know people from this village who are in Moscow, working there. It was simply unimaginable to us."
Miroshnyk, 77, is retired but worked for much of her life as welder in Malaya Rohan. Russians and Ukrainians got along well here, she says.
"I thought we were always like brother and sister before," she says. "And I was even going to Moscow to buy some supplies for my house."
Russian President Vladimir Putin said one of the reasons for his invasion of Ukraine was to liberate oppressed Russian speakers in this part of Ukraine. But Miroshnyk says there was no issue.
"We never had any problems like that before," she says. "If you want to speak Russian, speak Russian. If you want to speak Ukrainian, speak Ukrainian."
Miroshnyk spent the entire occupation living with a dozen other people in a basement. She says she wouldn't have left even if she'd been able to, because her husband and daughter are buried in the local cemetery.
Miroshnyk, who's also known as the local granny "Baba Marusya," says the alleged Nazis who Putin says he wants to get rid of in Ukraine simply don't exist.
"Putin is a liar," Miroshnyk says. "We always lived peacefully here. There are no Nazis here. He simply wants more land."