In a Russian-occupied village, five men went off to feed cattle. Their relatives and neighbors are wondering what happened to them.
HUSARIVKA, Ukraine — The cows wouldn’t stop screaming.
Russian soldiers had occupied this remote village in eastern Ukraine for about two weeks and were using a farm as a base. But the animals at the farm hadn’t been fed. Their incessant bleating was wearing on both occupiers and townspeople.
A group of five residents from Husarivka, an unassuming agricultural village of around 1,000 people, went to tend the cattle.
They were never heard from again.
“My two nephews disappeared. They went to feed the cows on the farm,” said Svitlana Tarusyna, 70. “They are gone, vanished.”
What transpired in Husarivka has all the horrifying elements of the more widely publicized episodes involving Russian brutality: indiscriminate killings, abuse and torture taking place over the better part of a month.
Human rights workers around Kyiv, the capital, are gathering evidence of Russian atrocities, hoping to build the case for war crimes. But for the villagers here, the occupation’s legacy is not measured in mass killings, corpses or ruined buildings, but in the disappearances of friends and neighbors.
Though the residents are free of Russian occupation, questions about what exactly happened during those troubled days will linger for years to come.
The Russian soldiers were, for the most part, reserved after their arrival in Husarivka in the first days of March, residents said. But that quickly changed. They looted empty homes. Then they started stealing from the people who had stayed behind. It was around the time Ms. Tarusyna’s nephews and their colleagues disappeared that the occupation turned violent.
“At first, they were not wandering anywhere around at all,” said Yurii Doroshenko, 58, who is Husarivka’s de facto mayor, noting that more than 1,000 Russian soldiers were hunkered down at their headquarters — a collective farm — on the outskirts of the village. “Then, three or four days later, they started to sneak around, searching. It was around March 10 that they started to come into the houses.”
Wedged between rolling wheat fields, tracts of sunflowers and natural gas lines, Husarivka is about 60 miles southeast of Kharkiv, once Ukraine’s second-largest city. Its capture by the Russians was part of a broad advance westward that included troop movements from near Kharkiv and the more eastern city of Izium, where Russian and Ukrainian units are still locked in battle.
The Russian campaign stalled, and Ukrainian forces managed to rout Russian troops from the village in late March.
Husarivka is only about three miles from the front line, and it continues to be shelled incessantly, much as it was when the Russians held the area. The power and water have been out since early last month and cell service is practically nonexistent, leaving the village all but isolated except for the humanitarian aid ferried in from surrounding towns.
In recent days, residents have slowly started to piece together what transpired in their enclave, emerging from their basement shelters between artillery strikes. But they have been left with more questions than answers, such as: Where are the five people who disappeared around March 16 after heading off to feed the cows?
Mr. Doroshenko pointed to his frayed list of people who had disappeared or died, some from natural causes, during the occupation. The names and dates of death were written in blue ink.
“This is Yehor Shyrokin,” he said. “He was a foreman at the farm. Sergiy Krasnokutsky was working as a security guard. Olexandr Tarusyn was handing out the fodder. Olexandr Gavrysh was a tractor driver. Mykola Lozoviy was the Gazelle driver,” he said, referring to a transport truck.
Before the war, 1,060 people were registered as residents of Husarivka, Mr. Doroshenko noted on Thursday, as dark clouds rolled over his village and the thud of artillery echoed in the distance. Now most people have fled, and he estimated the number had shrunk to around 400.
In the days leading up to the disappearances, only one resident had been killed during the occupation. On March 8, Ukrainian forces tried to retake Husarivka, and during the fighting Sergiy Karachentsev, a driver, was killed, said Mr. Doroshenko. Some residents said he was fleeing to meet his wife in a neighboring town when Russian troops stopped his car and shot him.
“His car, an old Opel, is still there,” the village chief acknowledged.
As the occupiers settled into Husarivka and ransacked the homes, their interactions with residents became more frequent.
Oleksandr Khomenko, 43, a beekeeper, echoed the accounts of a half-dozen other residents: The Russian forces were undersupplied and demanded alcohol and food. One woman refused to give up her pig, so they went next door and shot the neighbors’ pig, the woman said.
They also took cellphones and other electronics, presumably to stop residents from contacting Ukrainian forces and providing information about the Russian troops’ location. Or so they could call home.
“We were holding on to our tablet for a long time,” Mr. Khomenko said. “The Russian soldier took me aside and said: ‘What’s more dear to you, your wife and kid or the tablet? I will take your tablet anyway, and you should only choose whether they will live or die.’”
He gave them the tablet.
Sometime during the second week of the occupation, several days after the power went out, the cows started to roar. Some of the Russians and their armored vehicles were holed up in a tractor garage by the cattle pens and had stopped people from working at the collective farm, called Husarivkse. As a result, the animals languished.
“There were over 1,000 cattle here,” said Anatoliy Isitchenko, 67, the deputy director of the agricultural company that ran the cluster of farm buildings.
“Here is what they did,” he said of the occupiers. “On this street next to the farm, they told the guys who worked there as machine operators and foremen to go and feed the livestock.”
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The five men fed the cows and tended to their duties. But as they left, something on the farm exploded, residents recalled. Whether it was an artillery strike or an attempt at sabotage is unclear, but it seemed to contribute to their disappearance; Mr. Doroshenko stated that the Russians captured the men after the explosion. It is possible they were behind some type of attack on the Russian headquarters.
“They only got to the crossroad and were seized,” Mr. Doroshenko said.
Two other people near the farm also went missing that day, Mr. Doroshenko added. Roughly a week later, on March 24, a Russian sniper shot and killed Andriy Mashchenko as he rode home on his bicycle. He had been sheltering in a neighbor’s basement during an artillery barrage. He died on Peace Street.
Under heavy bombardment, the Russians retreated from Husarivka about two days later, and Ukrainian forces swept through afterward. The town’s casualty tally during the occupation: seven people missing, two killed by gunfire and at least two by shelling.
Evidence scattered around the town showed how artillery had ruled the day. Spent rockets lay in fields. Roofs were caved in. The rusted hulks of Russian vehicles were seemingly everywhere. In one armored personnel carrier, the corpse of what was presumed to be a Russian soldier remained, barely recognizable as someone’s son.
But as Ukrainian soldiers sifted through the battlefield wreckage after their victory, they found something on Petrusenko Street. It was in a backyard basement sealed shut by a rusted metal door.
“In this cellar the bodies were found,” said Olexiy, a chief investigator in the region who declined to provide his last name for security reasons. He gestured down into a soot-covered hole. “They were covered by car tires and burned,” he said.
“There is no way to tell the cause of their death,” he added, “We found three hands, two legs, three skulls.”
The bodies have yet to be identified, he said. Residents of Husarivka believe the three had been part of the group of five who disappeared. Images provided to The New York Times clearly showed that a rubber work boot was melted to the foot of one leg.
But hauntingly, no one knows for sure what happened to the five men. Many of the cows they went to feed ended up being killed by the shelling.