Relief, but little joy, in a Ukrainian town liberated from Russian occupation

Its streets were almost empty on Tuesday, five days after the Ukrainian forces passed. Their trucks and a heavy police presence were the only signs of the dramatic events of the past few days, and now a stark reminder of who is responsible.

There were few civilians. A few, anxiously gathered outside the police station, waited to check their phones for any sign of collaboration with the occupier.

Ukrainian officials have vowed to face criminal penalties for anyone who collaborates with the occupation forces.

Other civilians rushed in and out of their homes, heads down and eyes downcast, to a food truck headed by the Ukrainian military, where they handed out bottles of water and plastic bags full of food.

Few were willing to speak to the media, and CNN cameras zoomed away from the police station whenever Kharkiv police, handcuffed and blindfolded, were taken away in a police car.

Only a couple of elderly women strolling in a nearby park agreed to speak, reluctantly at first and then with all the emotion of those who have been silent for too long.

“We had no choice,” said Maria, who declined to give her last name for security reasons, bursting into tears. “They came and occupied us.”

Longtime friend Larisa Kharkivska, 73, agreed to drive to the home she shares with her disabled daughter Svetlana, 35. According to Kharkivska, they are the only people left in her building. Everyone who could afford the $400 it cost to leave Russia did, he said.

He shared his guilt about taking the food provided by the Russians, showing two cardboard boxes containing some bags of sugar and some rice.

“We couldn’t buy anything in the shops,” said Kharkivska. “And we couldn’t get money because the banks were closed, so we had to be beggars.”

Their apartment became a prison they didn’t dare to leave.

“They (the Russians) were walking around with automatic weapons, we were too scared to go out,” said Kharkivska.

Almost every night from 20:00 to 06:00 they had no electricity and water, he added.

“We survived, thank God we survived! But it was very scary. We hope we never come back.”

Shevchenkove, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) southeast of the city of Kharkiv, had been occupied since February 25 — a day after Russia began its invasion — and remained unscathed despite shelling as the Russians swept through the town.

On Tuesday night, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy spoke of “stabilization measures” currently underway in what he says are 8,000 square kilometers (3,088 square miles) of territory Ukraine has reclaimed from the Russians.

“The remnants of the occupiers are being arrested, the collaborators are being arrested and full security is being restored,” Zelensky said. He added how important it is to return to “normal life” after an area has been freed from occupation.

In Shevchenko, there is still no sign of that, as authorities try to figure out where cooperation ends and survival begins.