Alina Korenyuk remembers exactly where she was 100 days ago when Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
“That morning I woke up at 5:30 a.m. and a full-scale war was under way,” said the native of Popasna, a town in the Luhansk region. “We were called to a meeting at my work and everything was explained to us. Then my family made the decision to flee to [the central Ukrainian city of] Kryviy Rih. There was shelling as we drove out — I was driving one car and my husband followed in his.”
“The kids asked me to close the windows so they couldn’t hear the explosions,” said Korenyuk, who is now a refugee in the United Kingdom. “But I had to keep them open so I could hear what direction the shelling was coming from.”
She still has difficulty believing that February 23 was the last night she would spend in her home.
“I never thought that on February 24 we would gather up what we could and that I would end up with only the things I could take with me,” she told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. “You make plans for your life…. We had plans. Now, I can’t say what will come next.”
Popasna was the scene of fighting in 2014-15, when Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and fomented a separatist conflict in the part of the eastern Ukrainian region known as the Donbas. Korenyuk’s mother’s home was badly damaged at that time.
“But no one left,” Korenyuk said. “We rebuilt it and she kept living there.”
In the ensuing years, the city began to rebuild, she said. Streets were repaired and improved. Fountains were installed. People began making plans for the future. Now, after 100 days of war, the town is in ruins, and the plans of its residents are in tatters.
Adding Insult To Injury
For Korenyuk and her family, insult was added to injury when they saw a Reuters photograph of a Russian tank bearing the Latin letter ‘Z,’ which has become the Russian government’s symbol for its so-called “special military operation in Ukraine, that was taken in Popasna on May 26.
More specifically, it was the box, bed linens, and other items strapped to the top of the tank that caught their attention in the photograph, which they could tell had been taken about a five-minute drive from their home.
“My husband sent me a message on WhatsApp saying: ‘Do you notice anything strange?’” Korenyuk said. “I began to look carefully. Naturally, I didn’t notice the box with the hot-water heater at first. The first thing I saw was the children’s bed linen, which we had never managed to use. They were Disney sheets.”
By all appearances, the items on the tank had been looted from the Korenyuk’s home. The box contained a hot-water heater that the family had purchased around New Year’s and planned to install this year when they renovated their kitchen.
“Plus, when I looked more closely at the photograph, I recognized an old bedcover that we used out in the yard and a green tablecloth that was in the cupboard in my kitchen,” she said. “And there was something wrapped up in these things, but there is no way to tell what it might be. I think it could be our television and other things like that.”
There have been widespread reports and evidence of Russian looting since the early days of the war. In April, a Belarusian Telegram channel published extensive video footage apparently showing Russian soldiers sending tons of parcels back to Russia. The journalists believed the parcels contained goods stolen in Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials accused Russia of looting hundreds of thousands of tons of Ukrainian grain from the territory Moscow’s military controls in southern and eastern Ukraine.
Last month, an opposition Telegram channel in Chechnya, 1ADAT, published video purporting to show Russian troops from the North Caucasus region sending stolen Ukrainian agricultural equipment back to Russia.
Looting during war time is prohibited by international law and considered a war crime.
“It was pure chance that my things ended up in that photograph,” Korenyuk said. “There were about 15,000 people living in Popasna who are now in approximately the same situation as I am now. They have no shelter, no possessions. Some have it even worse, with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. We at least were able to grab a few things, take our documents with us.”
“It isn’t enough that they destroyed so much — do they have to steal, too?” she added. “They have stolen every last thing they didn’t destroy.”
Robert Coalson contributed to this report.
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