Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Wednesday traveled to the recently liberated city of Izium in Ukraine’s northern Kharkiv region after Russian forces withdrew from the area late last week.
“Before, when we looked up, we always looked for the blue sky, the sun. And today we, and especially the people in the temporarily occupied territories, looking up, are looking for only one thing – the flag of our state,” Zelenskyy said in a flag-raising ceremony. “This means that the heroes are here. This means that the enemy is gone, he ran away.”
Ukrainian forces have regained large swaths of territory in Kharkiv after Kyiv launched a major counteroffensive earlier this month.
Western defense officials have said Ukraine is gaining ground and has forced some Russian forces back across their own border.
But as Zelenskyy championed the successes Ukraine has achieved, he also noted the devastation Russia left in its wake following a six-month occupation.
Pictures released following Russia’s withdrawal show buildings blackened and destroyed by shelling, animals wandering the streets and, according to officials, signs of torture among the dead.
“The view is very shocking but it is not shocking for me,” Zelenskyy told reporters, “because we began to see the same pictures from Bucha, from the first de-occupied territories… so the same destroyed buildings, killed people.”
The Ukrainian president’s comments were in reference to the village of Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, where bodies were found in the streets, mass graves were discovered and several reports of torture were told after Russia withdrew its forces in March.
“We have a terrible picture of what the occupiers did, particularly in the Kharkiv region. Such cities as Balakliia, Izium are standing in the same row as Bucha, Borodyanka, Irpin,” Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin said.
The head of the Kharkiv prosecutor’s office, Oleksandr Filchakov, said investigators were looking into reports of civilians being killed and buried by Russian soldiers in the town of Balakliia – another town that has been retaken by Ukrainian forces in the Kharkiv region.
Civilian bodies were found in the towns of Hrakove and Zaliznyche as well.
Ukrainian officials said Wednesday that numerous investigations have been opened over accusations of human rights violations.
Zelenskyy thanked his troops for their efforts in the hard fought war against Russia and in retaking several strategically important Ukrainian cities.
“The last few months have been extremely difficult for you. Therefore, I am asking you very much [to] take care of yourself, because you are the most valuable thing that we have,” he said. “It is possible to temporarily occupy the territories of our state.
“But it is definitely impossible to occupy our people, the Ukrainian people,” he added.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.