What Life is Like in the De-Occupied Territories of Ukraine

December 26, 2022
In September and early October, as a result of a large-scale and unexpectedly rapid offensive by Ukrainian troops, the Russian-occupied territory of the Kharkiv region was liberated.
Photo credit: Volodymyr Yermolenko

The first of the largest liberated settlements was Balakliya, followed by Izyum, Shevchenkove, Kupyansk, Vovchansk, and Borova. Having pushed back the enemy in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the Ukrainian army concentrated on combat operations in these areas and pushed toward Kherson. The process of clearing and gradually reconstructing the liberated territories then began. Ukraine, which already had experience of being occupied, but not yet of recovering long-occupied territory, faces several problems. Some of these are unexpected and extremely challenging, and do not currently have any solutions.

The world knows a lot about the war crimes committed by the Russians in the territories they occupied: the execution of civilians, violence, looting, the destruction of civilian infrastructure, and so forth. However, other issues remain behind the scenes, such as the liberated population's non-acceptance of the legitimate Ukrainian government and democratic problem-solving, the strengthening of paternalism, the impunity of collaborators, and the separation of people based on "those who fled the occupation" and "those who were under occupation."

The biggest challenge is to change how people, who lived under occupation for six to eight months, think and behave.

All this is taking place amid slow reconstruction, unmet basic needs of the population, and in some cases, the absence of local authorities and their lack of understanding of how to act under such conditions.

Let's classify these problems.

Humanitarian aid

Over a month, all liberated cities and villages were gradually supplied with food, hygiene products, and medicine. At first, people, exhausted by months of occupation and the lack of basic goods and services, stood in lines and fought to get basic items -- bread, cereals, canned goods, oil, or soap. If a humanitarian mission brought a doctor with them to remote villages, it was a remarkable event because medical care was mostly unavailable during the occupation. However, thanks to the systematic and continuous assistance of European foundations, the Red Cross, and various charitable organizations, the primary needs of the population are currently being met.

Evacuation and resettlement are being arranged mainly by charitable organizations and volunteers, sometimes with the assistance of the authorities. If earlier people who wanted to escape from occupation were evacuated, now it is those who live in areas under constant shelling or those who are not sure that they will be able to survive the winter in this area. (Photo by Volodymyr Yermolenko)


During the hostilities and occupation, 23 bridges or dams were destroyed in the region. Repairing them will cost a lot of money. Currently, temporary crossings have been established or are being arranged for only eight of them.

In total, damages from the destruction of roads and bridges in the Kharkiv region alone amount to 46 billion hryvnias (about 1.1 billion euros), more than half of it in the territories de-occupied in September.

People within one community separated by a river are sometimes transported across the water to the other bank by boat, from where the rest of the cities can be reached by bus or rail. Many people anticipate that they will be able to walk or drive across large frozen rivers and reservoirs in winter.

Gas supplies were restored swiftly in the de-occupied territories, but about half of the settlements were still without electricity. During the occupation, the Russians connected these areas to the Russian electricity grid. Due to large-scale battles and targeted mining and shelling by the Russians, most transformers, substations, and power lines were destroyed. Due to the lack of electricity, central heating, water supply, mobile communications, and the internet are all out of the question. Elon Musk's Starlink satellite communication system is used mainly by military personnel and officials. Generators can power cellular towers for several hours a day. However, there is an urgent need for diesel and gasoline for generators and transport.

Without electricity, restoring the regular operation of banks, shops, and the provision of administrative services is impossible. A temporary solution for people to be able to withdraw cash is mobile bank branches, which come to different settlements, and mobile post offices (in Ukraine, a large number of pensioners receive their pensions through Ukrposhta).

Passenger transportation services (buses and trains) are gradually being restored, but without the restoration of bridges and roads, such services are still not an option for many settlements.

The main reason for such a slow rebuilding of the infrastructure, in addition to broken supply chains and lack of equipment, is the large area of mined territories. The occupiers purposefully mined roads and energy facilities. Demining one square meter costs 3 to 4 USD. In Ukraine, more than 300,000 square kilometers are contaminated with explosives. Therefore, completing the demining process could cost up to $900 billion and take up to 10 years.

In the Kharkiv region, 12,000 square kilometers of Kharkiv region, or almost 40% of the region's territory, require demining, and it will also last for more than one year. Rescuers prioritize the demining of energy facilities, residential and communal areas, educational and medical institutions, and about 4,000 km of roads.

In parallel with demining efforts in the Kharkiv region, the process of clearing roads of roadblocks, destroyed military equipment, etc. and restoring transport connections between cities continues. First of all, work is being carried out on the roads connecting settlements with Kharkiv to ensure the passage of humanitarian aid to the de-occupied cities, towns, and villages as soon as possible.

Izyum suffered tremendous destruction, where about 80% of the buildings were damaged. Restoring schools, hospitals, administrative buildings and private houses requires substantial financial investment. However, the most pressing problem is obtaining construction materials for the emergency patching of holes: it is impossible to spend winter in a house without windows or a damaged roof. Therefore, the most popular humanitarian aid is no longer medicine or food but roofing materials, special sealing foil, wood, windows, bricks, and so forth.

The economy

Most of these de-occupied areas are agricultural. Agriculture has suffered huge losses. The spring sowing of crops was disrupted; where grain was sown, it could not be harvested. Fields are mined, equipment and warehouses are destroyed, grain has been stolen, and fertilizers and spare parts are difficult to obtain. Livestock (pigs, cows, etc.) mostly died from bombing or lack of care. It needs to be made clear how farmers should continue their work.

Industrial facilities have been completely or partially destroyed. Unemployment in these areas has reached unprecedented highs. (Photo by Volodymyr Yermolenko)

Education, medicine, social services

Most hospitals were destroyed or looted. Expensive medical equipment was taken by the Russians.

Currently, in cities like Izyum, medical care is provided mainly in mobile hospitals. Where the electricity supply has been restored, pharmacies are gradually starting to open.

Furthermore, there are significant problems with the education of children in schools. About half of the children and teachers left and are now staying in other regions of Ukraine for the time being. They are studying remotely which, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, all schools have experience with. However, children and teachers in the liberated territories do not have the internet for studying. The Russians tried to introduce their own curricula and textbooks, and they induced the cooperation of local teachers and school principals, often under duress. Currently, many of those who officially agreed to cooperate are recognized as collaborators and will be held accountable before the law.

Collaborators and restoration of justice

These are mainly former Ukrainian police officers, teachers, doctors, and employees of state authorities, but also residents who provided the occupiers with information about local residents and their property (the Russians were mainly looking for families of Ukrainian soldiers, volunteers, officials, entrepreneurs; most of those found were killed or tortured, and their property looted).

However, there is a major problem with evidence of collaborating with the enemy.

After all, there are no photo or video recordings of such activities because the Russians strictly prohibited them. According to Ukrainian legislation, a case can be initiated based on the testimony of four people. However, Ukrainians in the liberated territories are scared and do not trust law enforcement officers, so they do not give statements or provide evidence of collaboration. This fact dramatically complicates and slows the process of identifying those who helped Russians commit crimes.

A significant number of collaborators fled to Russia or other occupied territories after the Ukrainian offensive. Their tracks disappear there. Nonetheless, many of them, having a large amount of information about their pro-Ukrainian compatriots, have created popular Telegram channels with so-called lists of shame. They share information about fellow villagers as "Nazis and Banderites" (in order to be labeled a Nazi or Banderite, it is enough to speak the Ukrainian language or have a Ukrainian flag as your social media avatar).

The moral and psychological climate

Many people in these territories have radically changed during the occupation. They view those who left and are now returning as if they were "at a resort." Many people perceive those who were waiting for the Ukrainian government as enemies after several months of assurances from the Russians that "Ukraine has betrayed you, it does not need you, and we will save and protect you." They also demand from the authorities quick and decisive actions to improve life. At the same time, they are not willing to do much by themselves (e.g., to sort through or deliver goods, to make repairs). During the occupation, they got used to fighting for survival, so now they are ready to fight for humanitarian aid. They are used to having the boss, who should be feared, decide everything for them, and now they expect something similar.

The influence of Russian propaganda and disinformation turned out to be unprecedented, despite the fact that this is a traditionally Ukrainian-speaking area.

The main narratives at the moment are that "under the Russians, we had electricity, but now we don't", "we didn't have to pay for electricity, gas, and medical services, but now we have to", "we were not fired upon by the Russians, but we are by the Armed Forces of Ukraine", "the Ukrainian government is incapable", and "the Ukrainian authorities are lying and have left us to our own devices."

After those who left began to return home, they were met by hostile neighbors. Infantilism and paternalism, which are already characteristic of Ukrainian society to a large extent, flourished in the environment created by Russian management methods (coercion, unilateral decisions, demonstration of force, and suppression of freedom and dissenters).

Currently, many conflicts and quarrels exist in the de-occupied territories, but crimes do not occur just because of heavy police and military presence and a strict curfew. These might end soon, but the conflicted communities will still need to live together. And they have a lot of resentment, anger, and trauma to deal with. Community leaders or officials who have returned from the free territories are confronted in the squares by angry crowds consisting of people who, for six to eight months, were subject to ideological enforcement of Russian propaganda.

They accuse the local authorities of being slow and inactive and betraying them.

However, there can be no quick solutions at the moment. There is a difficult winter ahead, demining, and the threat of new shelling to deal with.

In addition, many teachers, doctors and other specialists who left during the war to other regions of Ukraine or EU countries will not return because they have found work and recognition elsewhere. The next priority, after satisfying the basic needs of people from the de-occupied territories (products, services, etc.), is carrying out justice: to punish the guilty, to understand everything that happened there during the occupation, to thank the heroes, and to acquit the innocent. The local government should now be strong and confident in its actions. Because after the iron hand of the occupiers, the Ukrainian democratic, and often simply spineless local authorities look weak in their eyes, as they are scolded and disobeyed. For this, local authorities must have precise action mechanisms, resources, and support from above. And they also need to be taught how to work with a community that is experiencing massive collective trauma. Obviously, Ukrainians will need to deal with this trauma for a very long time and need just as much psychological help as they do with medical and military aid. The experience of other countries that have experienced something similar would be very useful.

Another problem is the election or appointment of heads of communities or military administrations created temporarily instead of councils. In Ukraine, despite numerous attempts, a law has not been passed prohibiting people who belonged to pro-Russian parties or supported Russia's war against Ukraine from holding office. Therefore, no matter how absurd it sounds, members of such parties are still in power, and candidates for new positions, including such people, are being considered afresh. This fact infuriates the pro-Ukrainian part of society.

The same problems also await the recently liberated Kherson and other territories that will be de-occupied. It is therefore important to learn the lessons and consider the findings in each previous liberated region.

This article is produced within the project «EU Emergency Support 4 Civil Society», implemented by ISAR Ednannia with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Internews Ukraine and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

Olena Konoplia
Volunteer, Blogger