Topic: International Justice
Team Europe and Human Rights Researcher,
Global Human Rights Defence.
The interview with Natasha was conducted over the phone with the assistance of a translator. Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
One year ago, on September 10, 2022, the city of Kupyansk in Ukraine was liberated from Russian occupation, marking a significant milestone in a conflict that had torn the community apart. Today, we reflect on that liberation and the rebuilding that has taken place since, through the lens of an interview conducted by GHRD with Natasha, an almost 90-year-old resident of Kupyansk, shortly after her escape from the city.
Natasha became a face of Kupyansk’s struggle when she spoke to GHRD a year ago. “We were shocked,” she recalled in that interview, her voice tinged with the disbelief that still lingers. For Natasha, who had lived through World War II as a child, the invasion was a horrifying déjà vu. “This is not my first war,” she said, her eyes clouded with memories of another time, another occupation. “I was only 4 or 5 but I remember everything. The cold, the hunger… everything.”
Life under Russian occupation was a daily battle for survival. Basic amenities like water, gas, and electricity were luxuries that the people of Kupyansk could no longer afford. “At the beginning, we couldn’t believe it. It didn’t feel like occupation until we had no light, no gas, and no water,” Natasha recounted in her interview. The city was isolated, both physically and psychologically. “They cut off all communication, completely,” she added. “Absolutely no internet, and there was not anywhere you could go to place a call.”
During the occupation, Natasha lived in constant fear for her life and the lives of her family members. She recounted instances where Russian soldiers would arbitrarily detain young men, accusing them of being Ukrainian spies. Natasha herself was subjected to interrogations and was forcibly displaced from her home, which was then occupied by Russian soldiers. She also witnessed the looting of personal property and essential supplies by the occupying forces.
Perhaps the most egregious violation was the denial of medical care. Natasha, who suffers from a chronic medical condition, was denied access to her medications and medical facilities. This not only endangered her life but is also a clear violation of International Humanitarian Law, which mandates the provision of medical care to civilians in occupied territories.
The Russian occupation of Kupyansk was not just a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty but also a breach of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). The CNN article published on August 10, 2023, reports that a Russian bomb hit a blood transfusion center in Kupyansk on August 5, 2023. Such attacks on medical facilities are clear violations of IHL, which prohibits attacks on civilian infrastructure and medical facilities. The indiscriminate shelling and the targeting of civilian areas are also against the principles of IHL, which calls for the protection of civilians in armed conflicts.
The liberation of Kupyansk was a watershed moment. Ukrainian forces had retaken more than 20 settlements in the Kharkiv Oblast. “On September 9, 2022, Ukrainian forces re-entered the outskirts of Kupyansk,” reports indicate. By the morning of September 10, they had recaptured the city council building. The city breathed a collective sigh of relief, but the scars remained.
Today, a year later, Kupyansk is in the process of rebuilding. Buildings are being restored, and life is slowly returning to normal. However, the city faced another scare on March 3, 2023, when Ukrainian authorities ordered an evacuation due to advances of Russian Armed Forces around Kupyansk and Bakhmut. The situation remains tense, but the spirit of the people is unbroken.
According to a CNN report, a mandatory evacuation has been ordered for Kupyansk due to intensified shelling by Russia. Around 12,000 people, including more than 600 children, are now subject to evacuation orders. The situation has escalated to the point where Russian assaults have intensified, posing a significant threat to local residents. A Russian bomb even hit a blood transfusion center in Kupyansk on August 5, 2023.
For Natasha, the liberation was bittersweet. She was able to escape and reunite with her son in Kharkiv, but she left behind her entire life. “What I truly left behind is my life and my love. Everyone I have ever loved, who has died, is buried in Kupyansk,” she said tearfully in her interview. At almost 90, Natasha is a living testament to the resilience and enduring spirit of Kupyansk. She dreams of returning to her hometown, to be buried next to her loved ones. “At my age, you have to think about death, of course. But I believe I will be back to Kupyansk,” she said, her voice filled with a hope that defies her years.
As Kupyansk continues to recover, its residents, like Natasha, hold onto hope. Community centers are being established, schools are reopening, and there is a concerted effort to bring life back to normal. “Ukraine will survive, we will live. You have to have hope,” Natasha said in her interview, echoing the sentiments of a community that has seen the worst but expects the best.
The city’s liberation and subsequent rebuilding serve as a beacon of hope, not just for Kupyansk but for all of Ukraine. It’s a testament to the resilience of its people and a tribute to souls like Natasha, who even in the twilight of their years, continue to dream, hope, and fight for a better tomorrow. As the city rebuilds, one brick at a time, its people know that the road ahead is long and fraught with challenges. But they also know that they have something that cannot be taken away — their indomitable spirit and their hope for a better future.
Reflecting on Natasha’s interview a year later, it’s clear that her resilience and hope have not only sustained her but also serve as an inspiration for the entire community. Her story, like that of Kupyansk, is a testament to the enduring human spirit that refuses to be broken, no matter the odds. As we look forward to another year, we are reminded that the story of Kupyansk is far from over, but its chapters are filled with resilience, hope, and an unbreakable spirit.
Sources and Further Reading:
Volzhsky, I. (2023). “A tale of one city.” Novaya Gazeta Europa. Retrieved from https://novayagazeta.eu/articles/2023/08/12/a-tale-of-one-city-en
CNN. (2023). “Mandatory evacuation ordered for Ukrainian city of Kupyansk due to intensified shelling by Russia.” Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2023/08/10/europe/kupyansk-ukraine-evacuation-russia-intl/index.html
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