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‘We aren’t Ukrainians or enemies of the people!’ Meduza and 7×7 report on the aftermath of deadly blasts in Russia’s border city of Belgorod
Around 3:00 a.m. on Sunday, July 3, residents of Belgorod were woken by the sound of explosions. The Russian authorities accused Kyiv of launching missiles at the border city — and not for the first time. In April, Russia leveled accusations against Ukraine after a Rosneft oil depot in Belgorod went up in flames. And in May, Belgorod Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov reported two deaths allegedly caused by shelling from Ukrainian territory — one in the village of Solokhi and another in Zhuravlyovka. The explosions on Sunday night damaged dozens of apartment buildings and private homes, killing at least five people and wounding four others. In this joint dispatch, Meduza and Russian news outlet 7x7 report on how Belgorod residents are picking up the pieces after the deadly blasts.
This report was originally published (in Russian) on July 3, 2022.
‘You think it won’t catch up with me?’
Freshly cut flowers lie on the side of the road at the end of Belgorod’s Mayakovsky Street. Locals have been bringing bouquets since morning, in memory of those killed as a result of shelling overnight.
Near the impromptu memorial there’s a multi-storey building surrounded by the red-and-white hazard tape of the Emergency Situations Ministry (MChS). The building’s window frames are empty and the neighboring house has been reduced to rubble. The next house over no longer has a roof.
According to the Russian Defense Ministry, the series of explosions that rocked Belgorod in the early hours of July 3 were allegedly the results of a “deliberate strike” by Ukrainian forces using Tochka-U ballistic missiles equipped with cluster munition warheads. Official reports claim that Russian air defense systems destroyed all three missiles in the air, but missile fragments hit a residential building on Mayakovsky Street, killing multiple people, including four Ukrainian nationals. The Russian Investigative Committee has opened a criminal investigation into the shelling of the city.
A police car has blocked off the entrance to Mayakovsky Street. In the courtyard of one of the neighboring apartment buildings there’s a stack of broken window frames. On the first floor, a shirtless man is covering his balcony with plastic sheeting. “Those aren’t mine,” he says, nodding at the pile of debris below. “They’re from upstairs.”
The man recounts what he has learned about the explosions that took place overnight — a Tochka-U was shot down and a piece of it hit the house; three people died and, apparently, the fourth person was dug out of the rubble. “[They were] from Kharkiv,” he says. “It’s scary, but what can you do?” Asked if he’s planning to leave the city he replies dryly: “We’ll see.”
Further down the street there’s another damaged house surrounded by hazard tape. A crowd has gathered in front of the it. A boy in a blue t-shirt with the pro-war letter “Z” sways from side to side with his hands folded behind his back. A policeman wanders along the cordon, quietly reminding people that “photographing this object is currently prohibited.”
A woman sitting on a nearby bench says that it was a “very painful” night. But she doesn’t see the point in leaving Belgorod. “You think it won’t catch up [with me]?” she says, emotionally. “People came [here] from Kharkiv and it caught up with them! And here you are asking me to leave.”
‘Only my mom and brother survived’
There were seven people inside the house at 25 Mayakovsky Street when, according to the Russian authorities, it was hit by fragments from a destroyed Tochka-U missile on the night of July 3. Five people were killed, including four refugees from the Kharkiv region of Ukraine. Ilona, a relative of the deceased who asked journalists not to use her last name, identified the two survivors as her mother and brother.
“I was sleeping when my dad called me at around four in the morning,” recalls Ilona, who lives in Voronezh. “He was with my brother at the hospital — he had a fragment in his eye and was operated on. He said that a shell exploded in the yard at my mom’s house. When I got through to my mom she said that my stepfather Artem [name changed] and his entire family had died. Only my mother and brother survived.”
Artem moved to Russia from Ukraine several years ago and was granted Russian citizenship in 2021. After Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he evacuated his ex-wife, mother-in-law, son, and daughter from Kharkiv. The family were staying in an outbuilding next to the main house. When the first explosion happened, Ilona’s mother and brother stayed in the main house, while Artem went outside to check on his family. After a few more explosions took place, Ilona’s mother ran outside after her husband. He used his body to shield her and was pierced through by shrapnel.
“When my stepfather ran to the outbuilding it was gone: the addition was completely demolished,” Ilona explains. “My stepfather and his entire family died — five people. There’s nothing left of the house, just an open field behind a fence. I don’t know why the authorities are only talking about four [casualties]. Of all the bodies, only Artem’s body was whole — the rest are being collected in parts.”
Upon learning about the tragedy that had befallen her family, Ilona immediately began making plans to return to Belgorod. She says what happened hasn’t affected her anti-war stance. “I think that I ought to tell everyone about what happened. No one knows if this will happen again or not,” she explains. “I could imagine something [hitting] my home town. I invited my family to come stay with me in Voronezh. But I never imagined how much this could affect me personally. I’m very glad that my loved ones — my brother and mother — survived. But I still adhere to a pacifist position: I’m against any and all wars. We live in an era of progressive technologies in which people shouldn’t be killed.”
After Russia invaded Ukraine, Ilona and other volunteers began helping Ukrainian refugees in Voronezh. Now, Ilona says she’s the one who needs help. Her family hopes that the authorities in Belgorod will rebuild their destroyed home. Ilona also plans to raise money to help her family on her own.
Belgorod Regional Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov promised the families of the dead 3 million rubles (roughly $45,450) in compensation, and the wounded 500,000 rubles each ($7,575).
‘How can we sleep peacefully now?’
Not far from the house where Ilona’s family lived, the Belgorod authorities have set up an operational headquarters. It’s cordoned off, but there are hardly any people behind the barricade tape. The yards of neighboring apartment buildings, however, are filled with curious onlookers. Local residents, who are sitting outside their damaged buildings, say that people are treating the destruction like a tourist attraction.
“I live a 10-minute walk from here,” explains a woman who had just finished taking a picture of the destroyed roof of a private home. “Thank God we weren’t hurt. Only the windows were blown out.”
Belgorod Mayor Anton Ivanov hurries by, tablet in hand. “We are going door-to-door and assessing the damage,” he tells our correspondent, without slowing down.
— What are the residents saying?
— What can they say? They’re waiting.
— Aren’t they afraid that something else will come flying [at them]?
— We don’t discuss this issue with them. I’m not going anywhere, I’m always here. Right now we’re waiting for everything to be repaired.
The mayor hurries across the street as the light turns red. Not far from the traffic light, there’s an elderly couple and a middle-aged man with a can of beer sitting on a bench next to another damaged apartment building.
“There was a bang and the glass flew out,” the man holding the beer says succinctly, when asked about last night’s events.
“Our guys shot it [the rocket] down, it fell on a residential building,” the elderly man pipes up, pointing his cane at Ilona’s mother’s house. “Five people were killed.”
“You don’t shoo away the people who come and stare?” our correspondent asks.
“No, what for? We’re people. We aren’t Ukrainians or enemies of the people!” the old man with the cane replies. “How can you help being scared when people are being killed? Innocent people, at that. The old, the young, and children. It’s a pity,” he continues. “They came [from Ukraine] and they were killed.”
The old man says he doesn’t know what he’ll do if the shelling resumes. “There’s nowhere to hide,” he laments. “Go to the store, get a bottle, and raise a glass. Nobody [from the government] said anything.”
* * *
“How are we supposed to live peacefully after what happened?” — this is the main question Belgorod residents are asking in the aftermath of the explosions. The crowd gathered around the damaged and destroyed homes near Mayakovsky Street have been discussing this question since early this morning. An emotional man tells his neighbors that they need to tape their windows and, in case of shelling, take shelter near a load-bearing wall.
“But how can we sleep?” asks someone in the crowd.
“You’re fine — at least you have somewhere to sleep,” a woman replies.
A local resident put the exact same question to Vyacheslav Gladkov when he arrived on the scene. “How can we sleep peacefully now?” she asked the regional governor.
“There’s no way [one can],” Gladkov replied. “I can’t say that it will never happen again.”
Abridged translation by Eilish Hart
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