IRPIN (Ukraine), April 2 — The last survivors in the ruins of Irpin have just one word to describe the Russians who have retreated after one of the pivotal battles of the war in Ukraine.

“Fascists!” rages Bogdan, 58, as he and his friends walk a dog through a deserted town centre that is free of shelling for the first time in a month.

His friends nod in agreement.

“Every 20 to 30 seconds we heard mortar shots. And so all day long. Just destruction,” the tent construction worker told AFP journalists who reached Irpin yesterday.

It used to be a smart commuter town in the pine forests on Kyiv’s northwestern edge.

But Irpin held off the full force of Russia’s invasion, becoming the closest Moscow’s forces got to the centre of the capital some 20 kilometres (12 miles) away.

The town whose once leafy parks were left strewn with bodies is now back under Ukrainian control, as Russian troops hastily pull back from outside Kyiv.

Victory came at a terrible price that has left it looking more like Aleppo or Grozny than an affluent satellite town in Ukraine.

Barely a building has escaped the fighting unscathed. Shelling has blasted huge chunks out of modern, pastel-coloured apartment blocks.

The foggy streets are eerily empty, littered with cars with bullet-scarred windscreens, and echoing with the sound of stray dogs.

“It’s the apocalypse,” says a Ukrainian soldier who hitches a ride across the empty town.

‘I love Irpin’

Irpin embodied the horrors of war in the early days of the invasion that Russian President Vladimir Putin said he launched to “demilitarise and denazify” Ukraine.

Images of a family wiped out by a shell as they tried to flee, and of thousands of people sheltering under a destroyed bridge, were seen around the world.

For the past three weeks it has been closed off to the media since the death of a US journalist, with Ukrainian authorities saying it was too dangerous to enter.

Now, near a sign in the town centre that says “I love Irpin” with a red heart, the handful of the town’s residents who stayed tell how they survived more than a month of relentless shelling.

“We hid in the basement. They fired Grad rockets, mortars and tank shells,” says Bogdan, asking to be identified only by his first name.

“My wife and I came under mortar fire twice. But that’s okay, we are alive and well.”

Wandering through a street blocked by a burned-out cement mixer, resident Viktor Kucheruk begs for cigarettes.

“As soon as we hear a shot, we immediately scatter to our burrows,” the 51-year-old says.

“The lamps in the chandeliers.. fell down from the explosions. We sat at home in the corner during the shelling, where the walls are the thickest.”

A new housing development with a large sign saying “Irpin, Rich Town” is pockmarked by shelling, with two apartments totally destroyed.

Playgrounds with abandoned children’s scooters lie covered in rubble.

Rescue workers are still retrieving the dead from Irpin and placing them in body bags, before taking them to the blown-up bridge that links the town with Kyiv.

The bridge is covered with dozens of burned, bullet-ridden and abandoned cars, which rescue workers are now trying to clear.

Russian tank graveyard

Ukrainian forces have “liberated” a string of Russian-occupied towns and villages near the capital in recent days after Russia said it would scale back attacks on Kyiv.

Russia’s pullback now appears to be gathering pace, even as Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said Moscow was consolidating for an assault in the country’s east and south.

AFP journalists counted at least 13 destroyed Russian armoured vehicles around the village of Dmytrivka, five kilometres (three miles) southwest of Irpin.

At least three charred corpses of Russian soldiers could be seen in the burned-out wreckage of a single wiped-out convoy of eight tanks and armoured personnel carriers.

A severed lower leg lay next to one vehicle.

Russian military uniforms and personal belongings lay scattered on the ground, including a red-leather bound Russian translation of Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”.

Villager Oksana Furman, 47, shows where Moscow’s military might had left a shell hole in her kitchen during the tank battle two days ago.

A Russian tank had also reversed into her garden wall, causing it to collapse.

“There was a crazy rumble, the noise of the vehicles, everything was shaking. And then it was shell after shell,” said Furman, who hid in a neighbour’s basement.

Back in Irpin, where authorities say at least 200 civilians were killed, residents are keeping Ukraine’s success in this battle in perspective.

“We recaptured Irpin, we recaptured a lot of things, but the war is not over,” says Bogdan. — AFP