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As Russian Troops Flee Lyman, Ukrainians Rejoice---and Help Themselves to Russian Supplies

The Wall Street Journal. 10/2/2022 Yaroslav Trofimov
© Manu Brabo for The Wall Street Journal

LYMAN, Ukraine—Residents of the war-wrecked town of Lyman ventured onto the streets Sunday morning, enjoying an unusual quiet after months of fighting, and unsure about who was now in charge.

The last Russian forces drove out of the city the previous night, trying to avoid getting encircled by the advancing Ukrainian troops. Not all the Russians made it out. Burning Russian vehicles and sprawled bodies of dead Russian soldiers remain on the roadsides outside the city.

“We still can’t figure out who is what. Are those soldiers down the street Russian or Ukrainian?” wondered Dmytro Hontar as he watched dozens of Lyman residents help themselves to abandoned Russian stores on the city’s main square Sunday morning, carting off sacks of flour marked “Russian Humanitarian Aid.”

“People are just looting everything,” he said, shaking his head, and, minutes later, joined the frenzy himself.

“We had no aid from anyone here. We were just eating whatever reserves we had stockpiled before the war,” explained Tamara Kozachenko as she dragged two bags containing 5 kilograms of flour each.

“The Russians, we didn’t even see how they vanished,” she added before asking, alarmed: “Is it final now?”

Home to some 22,000 people before the war, Lyman is a strategic town on the northern tip of Ukraine’s Donetsk region, one of the four areas that Russia has claimed as its own land following sham referendums last month. Its loss is a major embarrassment for President Vladimir Putin—the first such retreat from a city that he claims is officially part of Russia.

Coming on the heels of a rapid Ukrainian offensive that ousted Russia from occupied parts of the Kharkiv region last month, the Russian defeat here opens the way for Ukrainian forces to advance into the nearby Luhansk region, further reversing the territorial gains Russia had made in recent months. Luhansk and Donetsk are collectively known as Donbas, and Russia has occupied parts of the two regions since 2014.

“Nobody had told us that the Russians are leaving—they just picked up and were gone without any warning,” said Roman Chornomorets, who worked at the local railway station before the war.

He said he was thrilled with the Ukrainian victory: “There was misery, darkness, constant shelling, no gas, no power. I hope that now, at least, it will start getting better.”

Another resident, who declined to provide his full name because of his fear about the future, was less optimistic. He pointed out that Lyman was taken by Russian forces in late May, and has now changed hands for the fourth time after being held by Russian proxies and then retaken by Ukrainian troops in 2014. Russia has now pledged to take it back once again.

“People here will only be happy when the war finally ends,” he said. “This back and forth really bugs us. All we want is peace and quiet.”

Just a light force of Ukrainian airborne troops penetrated Lyman on Sunday morning, going from one known Russian location to another and looking for leftover ammunition and stray Russian troops. After entering the local municipal building on Lyman’s main square, the soldiers dragged out Russian flags and last week’s referendum posters that proclaim “Russia and Donbas, Forever.” They piled them on the ground and set them on fire.

As the bonfire blazed, a local man on a bicycle approached a Ukrainian police officer who had just arrived in Lyman. “How long are you here for?” the man asked. “Forever,” said the officer.

“I am finally home,” added the officer, who is a native of Lyman. “I haven’t been home for six months. Too long.”

As he spoke, another local resident, poet Viktor Trokhymenko, walked up with copies of his book, “Ukraine Above All,” wrapped in plastic bags but nevertheless soggy. Mr. Trokhymenko said he had been hiding the books from the Russians, and now wanted to give them as a gift to the Ukrainian troops.

“To meet you it feels like daylight has come after a long polar night,” he said. “It was a dog’s life until now. You couldn’t utter a word against [the Russians].”

While no Russian soldiers and only a few abandoned Russian military vehicles were visible inside Lyman on Sunday, it wasn’t clear what proportion of the thousands of Russian troops made it out of encirclement when the city was abandoned overnight. A large pocket east of Lyman toward the town of Zarichne hasn’t been cleared yet, and Ukrainian artillery could be heard pounding in that direction.

When a Wall Street Journal team tried driving on the road past a smoldering Russian armored personnel carrier and a shot-up minivan, a man was crawling onto the asphalt, his foot severed by a recent explosion, next to a green pickup truck marked with the Z symbol of the Russian army. Five minutes later Ukrainian soldiers picked up the man, unsure of whether he was affiliated with the Russian forces, and took him for medical treatment.

On the other side of Lyman, at a stretch of the road that passes through a thick pine forest, the twisted remains of seven Russian vehicles testified to a recent Ukrainian ambush. Nine bodies of young Russian soldiers lay on the roadsides, two hugging each other in unnatural contortions, another, his skin waxlike pale, lying on his back with his fists clenched. Nearby, amid antitank mines and other ordnance, a severed hand was perched on the asphalt, a wedding ring on one of the three remaining fingers.

On Sunday morning Ukrainian troops said many Russian survivors of similar ambushes were still lurking in the forests around Lyman. Foot patrols are starting to clear the area.

In the city itself, the Ukrainian airborne soldiers who first entered Lyman were jubilant. One put a trophy patch of the Russian proxy statelet in the Donbas on his cap. After an initial firefight Saturday morning, the Russians retreated to the eastern side of Lyman, toward Zarichne, he said.

“Then, the bastards just evaporated,” said a team leader of the Ukrainian airborne troops.

As he and his fellow soldiers went from one formerly Russian-occupied compound to another, they spray-painted over the Z symbols left behind by the occupation troops, writing instead ZSU, the acronym for Armed Forces of Ukraine.

In the local hospital that was used by the Russians, they found a room with several decomposing bodies, and the stench was too overpowering to investigate further.

As the troops cleared a mansion that was used by the Russians, they disarmed a tripwire at the entrance. Inside, they found boxes of medication and canned meat that they decided to distribute to local civilians. Then, to general laughter, a soldier threw from the window another trophy—a dildo. “Are they bringing these to their wives?” a soldier joked.

Finally, they hauled out a sack full of hand grenades, and a box with fuzes for them, and threw the trophy weapons into their pickup.

“It’s great we get help from the Russians,” the team leader quipped as they drove off.

Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at yaroslav.trofimov@wsj.com

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