At the bottom of a muddy bank on the road out of Lyman, the body of a Russian soldier lies on the ground.
Flies buzz around the charred remains of his upper body, his limbs twisted into unnatural positions.
Behind him stretches dense woodland, now a graveyard for an unknown number of his comrades.
The unnamed soldier was among hundreds of Russians who died as they made a last-ditch bid to escape the “cauldron” of Lyman, in one of Moscow’s worst defeats of the war so far.
The recapture of the Donetsk city, which came just a day after Vladimir Putin formally annexed the region, was a major blow for his demoralised army.
One Ukrainian military officer estimated about 1,500 Russian soldiers were killed in the battle, although no official numbers have been released.
After a request for an orderly withdrawal was reportedly denied by Moscow, the troops died as they fled for their lives, abandoning Lyman so quickly they left the bodies of their comrades to rot in the streets.
Those who stayed to fight were taken out by a rain of shells and missile fire. Some were shot in the forests.
As he walks through the debris of Russian uniforms and packs of food rations scattered on the road, bullets crunch under Lieutenant Illia Yevlash’s boots.
The Ukrainian soldier bends down to pick one up – it has a manufacture date of 1983.
Evidence of the chaotic withdrawal is everywhere. Lt Yevlash points to the burnt-out carcasses of a column of Russian vehicles, now nothing more than twisted lumps of white and amber-coloured metal.
“Nearly 10 Russian soldiers died here while running from our counter-offensive,” he said. “Our drone was watching them and then our artillery found them.”
The soldiers were part of the 20th Combined Arms army and Bars-13 troops from the Russian Guard who, until just last week, were occupying the strategic logistics and railroad hub used to resupply the army in the Donbas.
Moscow seized Lyman in May but late last month, as Ukrainian forces completed a pincer movement around the city, taking village after village, the Russians found themselves encircled.
Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty, spokesman for Ukraine’s army in the east, told CBS News the victory was down to strategy and western-supplied weapons, especially the US advanced rocket systems.
“Artillery was very important,” he said. “American weapons and, of course, the Himars (rocket launchers).”
Amid raging gun battles on Saturday morning, the Russians retreated to the eastern side of Lyman.
“Then, the b***ards just evaporated,” a team leader of the Ukrainian airborne troops told The Wall Street Journal.
Since then the Ukrainians have been conducting foot patrols in the forests around Lyman, searching for any survivors.
On the roads, streams of Ukrainian military vehicles shuttle back and forth. Many are little more than ordinary cars painted camouflage green, but all bear a white cross painted or taped on to their windows.
A nod to the country’s famed semi-nomadic tribe, the Cossack cross has become such a symbol of resistance to the Russian invasion that some soldiers even paint it on their foreheads before heading into battle.
But for many residents in Lyman, troubles lie closer to home.
“In our house there is no glass left, including none in our windows, and our wood-burning stove has been destroyed,” said an elderly woman standing in line for bread and other humanitarian aid.
After months of fighting, the city is barely habitable. Nearly every building has been damaged. Previously home to about 22,000 people, just 7,000 remain, according to Igor Ugnivenko, the city’s police chief.
Most of them are elderly and did not want to leave their homes behind.
Mr Ugnivenko said Russian forces made no attempt to repair power cables or restore running water, leaving residents fighting their own personal wars just to try to stay alive.
“I’m very glad to see Ukrainian defenders,” said one man in the queue for food.
But many people didn’t want to talk about the Ukrainian liberation or the Russian occupation – they just wanted to get out.
Winter is fast approaching, a bleak prospect without heating or windows.
And few believe this latest development will lead to a lasting peace, given that Lyman has now changed hands four times since 2014.
In the distance, the sounds of shelling can still be heard and the front line changes every day.
“I want to go to a place where there is no war, where I can develop normally, go study and all that,” said Illia, a 20-year-old soccer fan wearing a Shaktar Donetsk football shirt.
“I don’t care where I go, I just want to live calmly,” he added. (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2022)
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