BARVINKOVE, Ukraine — The mayor of Barvinkove climbed out of his SUV in front of the supermarket, rifle in hand and flack jacket on.
He looked angry, but that’s understandable when the Russian army has been raining missiles, rockets and cluster bombs on your town.
A farming community of 9,000, Barvinkove has no real strategic value but has found itself in the path of Russia’s disastrous invasion.
Russian forces are positioned 40 kilometres to the northeast in Izyum and have been attempting to push south to seize Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
The Ukrainian defences have held them off but Russia’s strategy of levelling cities before advancing has left Barvinkove battered and deserted.
Aside from military vehicles, ambulances and dogs, the streets were mostly empty. A mangled car lay on its side in the desolate main square.
But what really upset Mayor Oleksandr Balo was the use of cluster munitions — bombs that release many smaller bombs that disperse over a wide area.
As he walked the main street of his town, Balo stopped across from the statue of the city’s Cossack founder, Ivan Barvinok, and bent to pick up a shrapnel pellet similar to those found in some cluster munitions.
Before long he had found several more — on the sidewalk and behind a residence. The marks they had left were visible on building walls. Other nearby debris also appeared to have come from cluster bombs.
“The whole city is like this,” the mayor said.
Cluster munitions are such a menace that most countries have signed an international treaty banning them, but Russian forces have launched them in more than a half-dozen regions of Ukraine.
While designed to kill infantry, Russia has been accused of firing them at civilian areas.
The evidence of cluster munitions that Barvinkove’s mayor showed Global News was near shops and homes.
A Russian missile that hit the Kramatorsk railway station on April 8 also allegedly carried a cluster warhead. More than 60 died.
In Kharkiv, which is cleaning up from intense Russian bombardments, members of the State Emergency Service ordinance disposal team said they regularly found the remnants of cluster munitions in populated areas.
On the weekend, Global News observed as they pulled the spent rockets of two Russian Uragan cluster bombs from an industrial property.
Such indiscriminate violence could amount to war crimes.
Russian-made cluster weapons have killed hundreds of civilians since the Feb. 24 invasion ordered by President Vladimir Putin, according to Human Rights Watch.
“They typically disperse in the air, spreading multiple sub-munitions or bomblets indiscriminately over an area about the size of a city block,” the group said in a report.
“Many fail to explode on initial impact, leaving dangerous duds that can kill and maim, like landmines, for years or even decades unless cleared and destroyed.”
Ukrainian forces appeared to have used cluster munitions once, it said. Neither Russia nor Ukraine have signed the convention banning them.
Surrounded by lush farmland, Barvinkove is an unpolished town, and the day-and-night shelling from Russian positions has worn it down.
A large roadside missile crater greets arriving visitors. No street has escaped without damage, the mayor said. Why Russia is doing it baffles him.
“We don’t have an answer for that question,” he said.
But the Institute for the Study of War reported Sunday that Russian troops were shelling settlements southeast and southwest of Izyum “indicating continued Russian plans to move southward” to encircle Ukrainian defences in the east.
Eleven civilians have been killed in Barvinkove, including children and the elderly, Balo said. More would have died had the town not been largely evacuated, he added.
The mayor for the past eight years, Balo was indignant cluster bombs weapons were being fired at his citizens.
“I can’t understand, in the 21st century, who can think about it,” he said of their use by Russia on civilians. “We have a lot of rockets like this.”
Shellfire was still audible in Barvinkove, but locals said it had decreased and they were returning to their corn and sunflowers beds.
A farmer with a sunburnt face and gold teeth said he had been working his crops that morning, after staying home for over two months.
With artillery flying and shells landing in fields, it was just too dangerous, said the man, who said his name was Alexander.
He stood in the vacant city centre, looking confounded by the lack of activity. No cars, no shoppers, no kids.
“No one expected it could be like this,” he said.
Down the road, a car lay on its side in the grass, across from a house with its roof ripped off and windows blown out. The garage was gutted.
The owner said she was in Dnipro when the neighbours phoned to tell her the Russians had bombed her place, and she came home to take care of it.
She needed to clean up the mess and plant her garden or she’d miss the growing season. She said nobody was injured in the attack.
Two days after she returned, the debris she collected was already stacked at the end of her driveway, and she had made a start on the roof repairs.
“Life is continuing, we need to live,” she said.
She collected the metal fragments of the Russian rocket and leaned them against a wall, as if to hold them to account for what they did.
“They don’t understand us and we don’t understand them,” she said of the Russians. “And we will never forgive them.”
She began to tear up. Artillery guns boomed somewhere in the distance.
“Everything will be good,” she said.
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