Family tries to rebuild life in shattered Ukraine village retaken from Russia

By Ivan Lyubysh-Kirdey

KAMYANKA, Ukraine (Reuters) - Villagers in Kamyanka in eastern Ukraine are digging up mines as well as potatoes as they slowly rebuild their lives after six devastating months of Russian occupation.

Kamyanka is outside Izium, a rail junction and focal point of the Ukrainian counter-offensive that recaptured swathes of land in the northeast of the country.

The 12 remaining residents of what once was a village of 1,200 face an uncertain, cold winter.

"We heat with wood from ammunition boxes," Nataliya Zdorovets, 64, told Reuters as she cooked on a makeshift outdoor stove, surrounded by an array of metal pots.


"There are so many of these boxes here, destroyed. They (Russian forces) ran over them with their tanks and armoured vehicles. We collect them and use them as fuel."

Zdorovets said her family was confined to the cellar to stay safe from daily air strikes after Russian forces advanced on the town a week after the invasion in late February. Ukrainian forces recaptured the village on Sept. 11.

The Zdorovets family depends on their crops to keep everyone fed, but when it was time to harvest potatoes, they found small green butterfly-shaped anti-personnel mines littering their land.

"We dug them out with a shovel with a four-metre (14-feet) handle and took then to a visible place, pointed them out to the (Ukrainian) soldiers," said Nataliya's son Yuriy, pointing to one of the mines.

"They shot at them (to make them safe). There were about 15 of them in among the potatoes."

There is no immediate prospect of heating or electricity in the Zdorovets' home as the weather turns colder.

Bits of twisted metal, interspersed with piles of shattered planks and beams litter the family courtyard. A cow munches hay in an outbuilding left largely without walls.

Vehicles in the village are daubed with the letter "Z" used by Russian troops as the symbol of the invasion. A wrecked Russian tank stands on a hilltop.

Yuriy, 42, was pessimistic about the family home.

"This house can't be repaired," he said with a shrug. "I work in construction and understand that this has to be demolished and redone completely."

Thousands of soldiers and civilians have died in nearly seven months of conflict.

The Kremlin still describes its campaign as a "special military operation" and denies targeting civilian areas. Ukraine, emboldened by its recent successes says it will keep fighting until the Russians are forced out of the country.

(Editing by Ronald Popeski and David Ljunggren; Editing by Alison Williams)