In Ukrainian villages east of the capital of Kyiv where Russian forces have withdrawn, residents begin to slowly emerge from hiding and the new reality they’re facing is nothing short of devastating.
CNN’s Clarissa Ward toured a pair of villages that were occupied by Russians for more than a month. She reported that they found “endless accounts of horror, executions, arbitrary detentions and more.”
One local school was taken over by Vladimir Putin’s invading army, used as a base, and left in shambles after being looted and ransacked by the troops.
Bloodstains speckle the main entrance, where the school’s principal is left to wonder how such an atrocity came to be.
“We are for education. Education is the future. Our students,” the woman told Ward. “It’s such a shame that our occupiers didn’t understand this. Why steal everything? This is a school.”
One chalkboard in a classroom Ward visited that was formerly occupied by Russians said, “Forgive us, we didn’t want this war.”
Nearby, a local cemetery houses the bodies of six Ukrainian men who authorities say were executed on the first day the Russians arrived.
“We dug very fast so they wouldn’t shoot us,” a woman told CNN. “But there was shooting over there and heavy shelling.”
A pair of brothers are among the dead, Igor and Oleg. Their mother survived, but now mourns.
“They were very good boys,” she said. “How I want to see them again.”
One Ukrainian mother told Ward her daughter was taken on March 25. More than two weeks later she doesn’t know where she is, or whether she survived the Russians’ invasion.
“They said they found information on her phone about their forces,” the mother told Ward. “They told me she was in a warm house. That she was working with them and she would be home soon.”
But as Ward revealed, “Victoria never came home.”
Amid the risk of certain death, the Ukrainian residents clung to one another, and their sense of pride, with one woman finding solace among blue and yellow stripes, Ward reported.
“We kept it, we kept it,” the woman tells Ward, showing the Ukrainian flag given to her husband for his military service. “We hid it.”
Now the flag can come out of hiding, as Russian forces have retreated. The village is decimated, but for the moment, it’s once again free.
Watch Ward’s on the ground reporting: