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Fighting for Okhtyrka

WARNING: This material contains scenes of violence and may be sensitive to you.

A blown-up bridge in the village of Klementove between Okhtyrka and Trostianets. Photo by Iryna Rybakova

Press officer Iryna Rybakova shows photos and tells about Russian prisoners, trophy equipment and local resistance

The town of Okhtyrka is located in the Sumy region. It is less than 30 kilometres from the border with Russia, but Russian troops have not been able to occupy the town. Okhtyrka has a strategically important location. If the city were captured, Russian troops would have a direct route to central Ukraine, to Poltava and Myrhorod, as well as to the southeast towards Kharkiv, which would allow them to blockade the region;

In the first days of the full-scale invasion, the Russian military shelled the city with thermobaric vacuum bombs prohibited by international law and heavy artillery. Residential areas of the city were heavily damaged, and only a part of the facade of the city council building remained standing.

Ukrainian Armed Forces soldier, press officer of the 93rd Brigade Kholodnyi Yar and photographer Iryna Rybakova was in Okhtyrka on the third day of the full-scale Russian invasion. On 24 February, the 93rd Brigade Kholodnyi Yar fought the invaders' columns, captured Russian soldiers and won trophy equipment. Iryna and her chaplain were travelling from their permanent deployment point to the battalion that had broken the Russian columns.

Consequences of air and artillery strikes on Okhtyrka. Photo by Iryna Rybakova

"We stopped in a car park near an office building - there was a battalion command and observation post in the basement. We got out of the car and then there was a bang! I had never heard such a sound, it was like a huge earthquake. I instinctively fell to the asphalt," the photographer recalls. It turned out that this was the third Russian high-explosive aerial bomb (HEB) the enemy had dropped from an aircraft on the 91st Engineer Regiment. The first one hit the barracks and made a hole in the building, the second fell nearby on the road, creating a lake with a diameter of 30 meters. The third bomb fell on the military ambulance unit, where the wounded from the first bomb were being transferred. Half of the building collapsed there. It was no more than a kilometer away from the command post.

The entrance of the office center became the "decision-making center". It was the battalion headquarters: commanders gave orders, scouts reported on the location of enemy troops, new groups of soldiers arrived here, and weapons were brought in. On the roads, there were anti-tank units - Corsair missile launchers - stationed.

"Decision-making centers Photo by Irina Rybakova

Anti-tank units with Corsair systems on the roads of the city. Photo by Iryna Rybakova

Iryna Rybakova, together with the battalion psychologist, tried to get closer to the regiment's barracks. Ammunition was constantly detonating there and they could hear shooting. They ran to a nearby residential neighbourhood. The building of the local kindergarten was shelled with grenades, and the day before people had died in its yard - there were already dry bloodstains on the asphalt. Dozens of civilians were hiding in the basement, including a baby. "At first, people suspected that we were 'sent Cossacks'. I was wearing my statutory uniform with all the chevrons, showing my military ID. Then people started asking us what the situation was, what to do next, what happened to the barracks - many people had family members serving in the unit," says Iryna Rybakova.

A baby with her grandmother in one of the cellars. Photo by Iryna Rybakova

From the kindergarten building, Iryna and her friend went out into the street and walked between the Khrushchev houses towards the engineering regiment. People looked out of the basements and asked about the situation, asking, for example, if they could go up to their apartment to use the toilet. "Machine gun fire was constantly coming from somewhere. It was like a Fallout game, where you don't know the situation, you have no food and no allies," Rybakova adds.

In one of the courtyards, people dressed in military uniforms started shouting at Irina and her friend. They pointed machine guns and grenade launchers at them and forced them to put down their weapons and raise their hands. It was a territorial defence that caught the "DRG" in Okhtyrka. "They asked my friend, who is a career officer, pointing to a 'fly': "Do you even know what this is?". The statutory uniform of the Armed Forces of Ukraine with all the chevrons, patches, a surname embroidered with black threads and all the documents did not guarantee that you would not be accidentally shot near a five-storey building," explains the absurdity of the situation.

Ukrainian soldiers on the streets of the city. Photo by Iryna Rybakova

That day, he and the battalion psychologist did not reach the barracks. The sounds of machine gun fire from the "DRG catchers" became more and more insistent. At first, they decided to walk slowly and confidently, but after another machine gun burst, they fell to the ground, jumped up and ran very quickly, ducking, towards their basement;

In the evening, Iryna and her scouts went to the battlefield near the Marshal petrol station. There was still a smoking truck with the corpse of a Russian smoldering in it - bones could be seen here and there. Further on, there was a burnt BMP and another truck with bullet holes in the glass and doors. Near the intersection were Ukrainian soldiers from the company command, scouts, TROs and a local resident who helped them. Some were digging trenches, others were on duty at a post with a bullhorn. MT-12 guns, white-painted trophy trucks, trophy mines and a 120 mortar were placed on the road. Everyone was tired but in a very good mood. People were eager to take pictures to record this historic moment and their involvement. "Our fighter, a young, short soldier with the call sign 'Vampire', was excitedly telling us about the past events. He recalled how the convoy was moving, how he and his comrades were not sure that they would be able to stop the Russians with their grenade launchers and machine guns, how they took up positions and fired, and how he emptied one magazine into a Russian officer who had gotten out of his car. "The soldier took us to see the corpses of Russian soldiers, who had already been dragged off the road," says Iryna Rybakova. The body of the Buryat in the Russian pixel was covered with hay. Near the bus stop, they set up minefields made of trophy anti-tank mines in case the enemy breaks through this road again.

The aftermath of the fighting in the city. Photo by Iryna Rybakova

When Iryna Rybakova was driving back, the barracks of the engineering regiment was still smoking and shells were detonating. A day later, she managed to get in and film the rubble. According to Irina, more than a hundred people died there.

The aftermath of the strike on the barracks of the Engineer Regiment and the rubble. Photo by Iryna Rybakova


Iryna Rybakova is a press officer of the 93rd Kholodnyi Yar Brigade of the Ukrainian Army. Probably one of the most famous and successful press officers, photographer, and journalist. She was born in Kyiv. Trained as a journalist, she has worked in Ukrainian print and online media since 2004, as well as a communications manager at the anti-corruption organization Transparency Int. She first went to war in February 2015 as a member of the Carpathian Sich volunteer battalion in Pisky, Donetsk region. Since then, she decided to document the fighting in Ukraine. In 2017, she was drafted into the 93rd Brigade. She recorded the fighting in which the unit took part during the Joint Forces Operation and during the full-scale invasion. She filmed the liberation of Okhtyrka, Trostianets, Kharkiv region, the course of hostilities in Soledar and Bakhmut. She has been published in foreign agencies (Reuters, Associated Press).

We would like to remind you that the Ukrainian Association of Professional Photographers has launched a series of materials dedicated to key events of the Russian war against Ukraine where we will publish memoirs and photographs by Ukrainian documentary photographers.

The project is implemented with the support of ZMIN.


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