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“We are already used to the explosions.” How Belgorod region residents ended up in a war zone – an on-the-ground report

The Belgorod region is a Russian region that was hit the hardest by the Kremlin's aggression in Ukraine. Rockets are fired at Kharkov in the evenings from here (and occasionally there’s return fire), and it’s a transit point for Russian troops before they are sent to the war zone. Residents of three villages near Belgorod had to be resettled because of shelling, and fortifications for firing positions appeared on roads in the border area. And as Ukrainian chat rooms are calling for avenging the strikes on Odessa and Kremenchuk, the residents of Belgorod are watching with anxiety, preparing for bombings and even for an invasion by the AFU. The shelling of Belgorod on July 3, with casualties and destruction, showed that such fears are not unfounded. The Insider reports on what life looks like on the Russian side of the border and what local residents think about the war, their governor, and their future.

  • Night Bombings in Belgorod

  • Disquiet in the city: They threaten to drive people away and plant beets instead.

  • Governor Clapkov

  • Incidents involving the military: The general came and found them drunk

  • Closed Off Villages: They're fine, they have everything - except their homes

  • Border Zone: We're used to it, but it's scary when it's loud

  • Protecting the border

  • The hospital in Shebekino

  • Humanitarian aid: Soldiers arrive nearly barefoot.

  • Shortages in Valuiki

  • Volunteering on logs

  • Alternative History

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Night Bombings in Belgorod

On the night of July 3, several people were killed and dozens of homes damaged in a series of explosions in the center of Belgorod. The Russian Defense Ministry reported that it was the AFU that struck with Tochka-U rockets, which the Russian military tried to shoot down with the Pantsir S-1 SAM system. Because of Pantsir, the Ukrainian missiles changed their trajectory and hit residential areas rather than military facilities. Vyacheslav Gladkov, governor of the Belgorod region, said that a family from Kharkiv was killed together with a local resident who had brought them to Belgorod to wait out the fighting.

Consequences of shelling in the Belgorod region
Consequences of shelling in the Belgorod region

Sunday night's events were the first attack on such a large scale on the region's central city. There had already been fears in Belgorod that the war would come to Russia. In early spring, soldiers who came “from beyond the ribbon” - as the area of hostilities is called in the region - spoke of preparations for an AFU attack and increased shelling. Even specific dates were named. Some Belgorod residents left, but then returned, since no escalation followed. But after the events of July 3, the city is again in a state of panic, and the residents have been temporarily leaving their homes again.

Removal of rubble from a destroyed house on Mayakovsky Street in Belgorod
Removal of rubble from a destroyed house on Mayakovsky Street in Belgorod
Photo by TASS

Disquiet in the city: They threaten to drive people away and plant beets instead.

Belgorod's airport has been closed since late February, so trains are overcrowded and tickets, especially inexpensive ones, are being bought up quickly. I'm riding the St. Petersburg-Belgorod train, where there are only a couple of empty seats - those are the most expensive compartments which cost 12,000 rubles. And on the way back the train will be 100% full.

There are a lot of military men at the city station, because since the beginning of the war Belgorod has become a transport hub for those who go to war. There are regular announcements requiring people to observe sanitary rules to prevent cholera. In the spring, when streams of refugees headed for the region, rumors appeared on social media about the region’s water being contaminated. The governor declared the rumors a fake, but Rospotrebnadzor still recommended that the preventive measures be strengthened.

The military at the railway station in Belgorod
The military at the railway station in Belgorod

Not only the trains and the station are cramped, but also the hotels. As I check in at the reception, guests come in and take the last available room.

“We've been like this since the beginning of the special operation, that is, for the last 3-4 months,” says the hotel manager. “Almost the entire low-cost segment is occupied. Military men live in budget hotels, refugees settle in. The situation with hotel space is a little better in Kursk.”

The region has had a yellow terrorist alert level declared since April. There are military vehicles in the streets and armed men patrol Belgorod in groups of two or three. Local residents said that compared to the beginning of the war, it became calmer. But the “calm” lasted only until July 3.

There are rumors in the city that foreigners, including Western Europeans, are coming here to take part in the hostilities. But we have not yet been able to verify this information. “There are many Germans and Poles living in the hostel that our friend owns, all of them soldiers and all of them are fighting on our side,” says a female resident who asked not to be named. Foreigners go “beyond the ribbon” for 10 days, which is also the duration of their “holiday” period. The interviewee believes they are volunteers who work for the Russian Defense Ministry. Vladimir Putin spoke of the decision to invite foreigners to participate in the war on the side of Moscow at a meeting of the Russian Security Council in March.

Residents of the region sometimes receive calls and text messages from unknown numbers. Those texts contain information about upcoming attacks on Belgorod, transfer of military operations to the territory of Russia and evacuation of the population. Belgorod are also being intimidated on social media. Opponents of the war post hundreds of comments on local Telegram channels promising to “liberate” the residents of the region.

Opponents of the war are flooding local Telegram channels with comments promising to “liberate” the region's residents

“They call us BNR, that is, the Belgorod People's Republic, in their Ukrainian chats. By analogy with the LNR and DNR,” complains one of the local residents. “They are voting on what to do with our region. Some of the options are: leave it as it is, annex it to Kharkiv, create a demilitarized zone, burn it out completely, drive out the people and plant beets instead.”

Governor Clapkov

According to the region's governor, 359 homes and 112 cars were damaged during the entire phase of the “special operation” until July 3. The Russian authorities do not say how many Ukrainian households were hit from the territory of the Belgorod region. That particular region was used as the main springboard for the offensive against Ukraine in the Kharkiv and Sumy directions. It has been launching missiles at Kharkiv daily and getting “retaliation” from the AFU.

“The governor is being jokingly called Clapkov. Vyacheslav Clapkov, not Gladkov,” says Dmitry, a resident of the village of Repnoye. The official got such a nickname for calling the sounds of explosions “claps” or “loud noises” on his social media pages. The people of Belgorod, on the other hand, speak of “bangs” or “thumps.”

The village of Repnoye borders on Belgorod from the southwest. Every evening, between 11 p.m. and midnight, the inhabitants of the village see rockets fly out in the direction of Kharkiv. On average there are 3 or 4 launches a day and sometimes more. Locals say that missiles are launched from Mayskoye, a village one and a half kilometers away. Now, at half past twelve, there’s a characteristic sound and then another one. Two launches today.

Every evening between eleven o'clock and midnight the inhabitants of the village see rockets fly out in the direction of Kharkiv

“It's the Iskanders being launched, although you can’t tell for sure,” Dmitry says. According to him, he is the only one who still watches the launches. Other residents are used to it and don't pay attention. To be more exact, they were not paying attention till July 3.

Dmitriy was the only one of the region’s residents I met who condemned the war and advocated the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine. Opponents of the war are almost invisible here, either on social media or offline. There are no anti-war rallies, except for an attempt to set fire to the military registration and enlistment office with a Molotov cocktail. According to Dmitry, even before the elections to the State Duma, the regional authorities bought up all of Belgorod's VKontakte and Telegram resources.

Incidents involving the military: The general came and found them drunk

The military and their equipment is the first thing that catches the eye in the Belgorod region. Locals are used to it and do not pay much attention to it – as long as it does not affect them. Thus, in the Valuiki district a military “KAMAZ” with the letter “V” ran over a passenger car. As a result, a man and a teenage girl were killed and another passenger was injured.

As we travel toward the border volunteers tell me a lot of similar stories. Nina, a resident of the village of Tavrovo, one of the volunteers helping the Russian military, told me about the tragedy in the village of Yasniye Zori, 6 km from the border:

“When they started shooting at night, one family in Yasnye Zori panicked and decided to leave in a hurry. They got in the car, loaded the children, hit the gas and drove at full speed in the dark into a military convoy. The car was smashed to pieces.”

But Nina still treats the military with warmth and complains about the guys being punished by the military police for misbehavior:

“Once a guy on an APC dropped his assault rifle. That's a serious violation. My brother, who works in the Ministry of Emergency Situations, helped him look for it in the mud – so that no one would know. We searched for two days with a metal detector and eventually we found it.”

There were cases when the military messed things up because of alcohol, Nina says:

“Once they slept through a missile attack in Komsomolets! A general came and found them drunk. They wanted to have some fun, bought some moonshine from a farmer and fell asleep. And one day I was delivering condensed milk to a checkpoint. I saw a military vehicle there, and there were guys sitting around and drinking beer.”

All the volunteers I met perceived the events not as a Russian aggression against Ukraine, but as part of the West's hybrid war against Russia. They consider the “special operation” a forced measure. Some claim that they are ready to go to war themselves, if there is a mobilization, to “save Russia from the Nazis.”

Closed Off Villages: They're fine, they have everything - except their homes

As we drive to the Shebekino district near the border, volunteers tell us about the closed off villages. The war in Ukraine left residents of the border villages Zhuravlevka, Nekhoteevka and Sereda homeless back in spring. They were resettled after shelling from beyond the border. The first two villages are in the Belgorod district, the third one is in the Shebekino district, not far from Murom. Some of the village residents moved to their friends’ houses in other villages, and those who had nowhere to go ended up in the Amaks Hotel together with refugees from Donbass.

“They were evicted there by the governor because had they been killed there, he would have been responsible,” says Elena, a resident of Valuiki. “Some people bring diapers and food for the children. But they're not living in poverty. I personally went there and I saw that they were properly fed and had everything, well, except their homes.”

Consequences of shelling in Khotmyzhsk
Consequences of shelling in Khotmyzhsk

Housing repairs after shelling were completed in the settlement of Politotdelsky and the village of Solokhi, Belgorod district; in the villages of Golovchino, Bezymeno and Khotmyzhsk, Grayvoron urban district. Work continues in the settlements of Maisky and Kozychevo. No one has yet begun to rebuild houses in the closed off villages. It is impossible to get there even if you have a local registration. According to the governor, the situation there “is not safe yet.” However, Nina says that not all of the residents have left, a few people remained to look after the animals:

“I know a guy who works at a gas station. His whole family is in Europe - his wife and children. But he is in Zhuravlevka, doing chores during the day and sleeping in the basement at night. He uses hidden trails to get to work. What else can you do if you have a farm?”

Border Zone: We're used to it, but it's scary when it's loud

When you find yourself in the Shebekino district near the border, you immediately realize that the Russian military had been seriously preparing for battle within the region. In addition to the mysterious trenches that were much talked about in March, there are artillery positions on the roads. The closer you get to the border zone, the more often you come across bunkers with embrasures, camouflaged on the slopes. And at clearly observable intersections there are massive fortifications made of white sacks with gun ports on the sides.

Fortifications at the exit from the village of Novaya Tavolzhanka
Fortifications at the exit from the village of Novaya Tavolzhanka

As we drive towards the border, there are fewer people and cars on the roads. We want to go to Murom, but find ourselves at a fortified checkpoint. It is guarded by nearly 20 soldiers with submachine guns. They stop the car and inspect it, ask to see a passport, open the trunk, ask the purpose of the visit, where exactly we are going, and inquire about the work. For those who do not have a registration in a border zone village, a visit is only possible subject to the FSB’s consent - even if you hail from the Belgorod region.

As we chat with the military, an MLRS vehicle drives by and turns onto the road, presumably in the direction of the village of Vergilevka. Telegram channels reported it had been shelled from Ukraine.

After the start of the war, the area around the entrance to Murom was transformed into a huge maintenance site for the Russian military. Near the exit towards Nikolskoye, military men are repairing equipment. One can see the turret of a self-propelled artillery unit, a couple of MLRS vehicles and Ural trucks.

Fortification near the Murom checkpoint
Fortification near the Murom checkpoint

Volunteer Tatyana says some areas in the Belgorod region have been mined: in Grayvoron and near Khotmyzhsk. According to her, a lot of shells fly in but do not explode:

“Our guys demine them. I have two brothers, the youngest was on duty yesterday and he is demining all those shells that did not explode. It is quiet today but there were “bangs” yesterday.”

Tatyana lives in Belgorod, but she knows about the events firsthand, because her family members work on the border:

“Sometimes you can hear it in the center of Belgorod, but more often in the south - closer to the border. It has already turned into a background noise for us. We are used to it, but it's scary when it's loud. When it first started, we were constantly on edge”.

Not only the Russian military has been using Belgorod's hilly terrain to camouflage gun emplacements. Kyiv also used it. Volunteers believe that it is what enabled two AFU helicopters to fly low to Belgorod in early April, hit an oil depot and return safely to Ukraine.

Gun emplacements in the Shebekino district
Gun emplacements in the Shebekino district

Protecting the border

“The border guards were waiting for the bus at the gas station in Nekhoteevka (village and checkpoint on the Ukrainian border) during the shift change. Suddenly they saw a copter hanging over them, with no one else around. They started making faces, shouting and waving at it. And then a shell dropped on them! Of the five, two were killed, three wounded”, Tatiana says.

According to her, security was stepped up after the Ukrainian military came close to the border:

“They used to work two days on the border, two days here, well, the regular setup. But recently, they weren’t returning for a week, packed along the border like herrings in a jar. There were attempts to cross the border in multiple locations.”

In May, Russian prosecutors opened a criminal case against the Belgorod border guards who entered Ukrainian territory in pursuit of a group of Ukrainian soldiers. “The guys from our border guard directorate on Studencheskaya Street are in charge of guarding the border near Zhuravlyovka and Nekhoteevka. The state issued them night vision goggles, but they don’t always work,” Tatiana says. “And then one day at 8.30 p.m. in Zhuravlevka six jeeps come out of the forest, turn around and open fire in our direction. Soldiers on armored vehicles went after them. Three of jeeps were destroyed. But now the soldiers face five years in prison for violating the order not to cross the border. The military unit has interceded for them and asked the authorities not to put them on trial.”

Shebekino district. A road after the passage of military vehicles
Shebekino district. A road after the passage of military vehicles

The hospital in Shebekino

There is a military hospital in the town of Shebekino, about 6 km from the border. “Soldiers are brought to us endlessly,” say the volunteers who help the Russian military with medical supplies in their Belgorod chat group.

It seems to be true. In Shebekino, military-medical Ural trucks, minivans and buses are now parked in front of the central hospital. Like in Belgorod, the city hospital admits Russian military personnel injured in the Kharkiv and Sumy military operations.

Military vehicles are parked in front of the Shebekino central district hospital
Military vehicles are parked in front of the Shebekino central district hospital

Ordinary residents have to park their cars further away. The entrance to the left wing is provided for the admission of wounded Ukrainian soldiers, it is guarded by armed military servicemen. However, civilians are also allowed in, if they need to visit one of the departments located near the left entrance. A visitor has to show his passport and tell the guards where he is going. Guests and relatives are allowed in to visit military patients.

“Our guys have been brought here, I came to visit them,” someone says in the parking lot. The exit from the parking lot is on the right; it is also guarded by servicemen with submachine guns.

A mobile military hospital has been set up in the pine forest near the Shebekino hospital, its first pavilions erected back in February, before the start of the invasion of Ukraine. The hospital was fenced in and covered with camouflage netting. In addition to the pavilions, vehicles, and maintenance station, there are warehouses for spare parts and tents for storing medical supplies.

There are no cameras, but security guards monitor the perimeter. It is forbidden to take pictures. “You can, only inconspicuously,” the guard explains in response to a request for a photo. He orders the military to look the other way.

“There’s a constant shortage of medical supplies “beyond the ribbon” and in field hospitals. They are in need of tourniquets, bandages, hemostatic sponges, painkillers, antiemetics, suture materials, and more.

Humanitarian aid: Soldiers arrive nearly barefoot.

Humanitarian aid is being sent from all over the country to the Belgorod region for the Russian military and the self-proclaimed LNR and DNR. Local volunteers coordinate efforts in chat rooms. After the start of the war, it turned out that army supplies were almost non-existent. There was a shortage of everything, from hygiene products to military equipment. The situation has not improved even after four months.

Nina from Tavrov regularly sends money to volunteer groups and tries to help with groceries as well. She is a member of several chat groups, many of which are private and can only be accessed via a direct link:

“I have been wanting to help the military since March. I looked for an aid group, asked everyone I knew, there weren't a lot of groups back then. I asked my sister-in-law, she lives in Yasnye Zoryi, they were the first to collect aid there, and she told me where to go.”

“When they come back, all their uniforms are torn. They need to change into new clothes. And they get no medical aid down there. They need supplies of medical disposables to survive. When they arrive, our girls dress them up and equip them. Soldiers arrive nearly barefoot. For example, their tank was hit, and they barely had time to escape,” Nina says.

There are almost two dozen locations in the region where you can bring aid - lists of needful things are published in chat rooms. Humanitarian aid is picked up by the military, or volunteers themselves carry the aid “beyond the ribbon.” The Ministry of Defense and the FSB are well aware of that. Women are mainly involved in collecting the aid, and men in delivering it.

In the beginning they collected medicines, food and other necessities, but now the needs of the military have grown. Almost all volunteer groups collect expensive equipment: quadcopters costing 1.5-2 million rubles apiece, collimator scopes and thermal binoculars. A list of equipment worth 4 million rubles is not uncommon.

The collection of humanitarian aid is not without scandals. One of the large Belgorod chat rooms with almost 15,000 subscribers spent several months collecting expensive aid. The owner of the resource regularly transported food and equipment to the occupied territories of Ukraine.

Every day the participants were encouraged to “drop tails,” that is, the amount of money on the credit card to a round balance (for example, 68 or 368 rubles for a total of 20,368). Among other things, they were collecting money to buy copters costing 1.5-2 million rubles. All of it was announced as aid to Russian servicemen, including conscripts, who found themselves “beyond the ribbon.”

But one day, to the surprise of the subscribers, the owner of the chat room posted a medal awarded by the leadership of the so-called LNR. “From the grateful people of Luhansk,” read the inscription on the attached card.

Some of the volunteers were perplexed. Some of the subscribers said that they wanted to help soldiers from Russia. Some suspected that the Russian side was trying to lay the entire supply of the “LNR” and “DNR” forces on the volunteers' shoulders. The pro-Russian blogger Yuri Podolyaka added more fuel to the fire, slamming the group and its leader for inefficient use of funds in his video. The volunteers themselves also wrote that aid was not reaching many Russian soldiers.

Shortages in Valuiki

Food shortages are not limited to areas “beyond the ribbon.” The military stationed at the base in the town of Valuiki have also faced shortages of rations, clothing and equipment, Reuters reported in June.

Valuiki is located 150 kilometers east of Belgorod. It is about an hour and a half’s travel by car on road 14K-3, the road that appeared on Maxar satellite images in early April showing a cluster of equipment and military convoys. The residents complained it was forbidden to overtake them - one could lose two hours of travel time if caught in the convoy.

All the way to Valuiki, I saw military Ural trucks marked “V,” which were heading in the direction of Belgorod. In Belgorod, Shebekino and the suburbs, most of the cars are marked with the letter Z. Along the roads there are posters with Putin and portraits of Russian “heroes” who died in Ukraine. In the Belgorod region, the phrase “Za Putin” is used more often than “Za President,” which is customary in big cities.

The first thing that catches the eye in Valuiki is the huge number of military symbols, even compared to Belgorod. The letters Z and V are everywhere. “We do not abandon our own” appears on storefronts, cars, clothes, schools and, of course, military equipment.

Volunteering on logs

Belgorod volunteers and I go to Dorogobuzhino, a place south of Belgorod near the Sokol children's camp. Volunteers there are engaged in an unusual kind of assistance – harvesting logs for the Russian military. Timber is taken to Ukraine’s occupied territories and used to build dugouts, caponiers, fortifications and gun emplacements.

“3 or 4-m logs are used for dugouts. And 7-meter logs are used to cover equipment in special pits dug in the ground,” volunteer Elena explains.

They cut logs every day from 9 a.m. to 2 or 3 p.m. During the day, military personnel from Ukraine come to the sawmill and take the logs away. 2 or 3 Ural trucks, on average. Large amounts of timber are needed because the Russian military keeps moving around. The attacks by the AFU also damage the shelters.

On weekends, up to two dozen people come to the logging site. Today, in the middle of the working week, there are seven, four men and three women. The guys are cutting down dead wood. According to them, they do not touch live trees. As a rule, there are not enough hands on weekdays, the fact they regularly complain about in the chat room, asking new members for help. The women carry the logs from the logging site to the loading area. They also bring water and make lunch.

Three Ural trucks showed up around four in the afternoon. All cars are marked with the letters Z and have code 39 on their license plates, which means they belong to the 12th Main Directorate of the Russian Ministry of Defense. Servicemen wear unmarked military uniforms. It took about an hour and a half to load the trucks, with a break for a meal.

In the afternoon they painted the logs loaded into the trucks with stars, letters Z and V, and wrote their thanks and wishes for victory. Children especially like to paint on logs. Patriotically-minded parents take their kids along to chop wood.

A child paints a log with patriotic slogans
A child paints a log with patriotic slogans

“We don't ask where they're going,” Yelena admits. “We know that everything serves an important cause. Logs save lives. It's better not to ask too many questions.”

The volunteers confirm they have all the necessary logging permits. But from the conversation it becomes clear they mean some oral agreements with the governor, which do not always work. One of the volunteer chat members complained that once a team from the Economic Crimes and Corruption Department came to the logging site while they were working and promised to fine them.

Volunteers believe that victory is not far off. In their understanding, victory means freeing as many towns as possible.

“I know they are waiting for us there. Both Odessa and Mykolaiv. So, it is necessary to liberate them, of course, - volunteer Elena has no doubts about it at all. I carefully ask her why she is so sure. “What do you mean? Those who were against it have left, those who were for it have stayed. Only those remained who are waiting for our people, waiting for Russia. It’s either us or them. They, NATO, were counting on a quick victory. They did not know that our Vladimir Putin is so respectful of history.”

Alternative History

The region’s residents are taught to “treat history with reverence” from school. Some school entrances are decorated with portraits of “heroes” who died in the war. The initiative, however, elicited a mixed reaction. Several local chat rooms reacted negatively - they called on the authorities “to strop turning the schools into graveyards.”

After the events of July 3, the rhetoric became more radical. There were calls to “retaliate” and “destroy Kyiv.” The explosions deepened the sentiments that were already there: texts explaining why the invasion of Ukraine was inevitable and prevented a major world war have been circulating in Belgorod's Telegram and Viber chats since early March.

Their leitmotif is undisguised hatred - for Ukrainians, Westerners and anyone who does not support the invasion. The messages say that the whole world is at war with Moscow, a war fought with the hands of Kyiv, and that it’s a logical continuation of the events of World War II. Back then, Europe, with the hands of Hitler, made its first and unsuccessful attempt to destroy the USSR. It is argued that the existence of the anti-Hitler coalition and the assistance to the Soviet Union from the United States and Europe in the war against Hitler was just a cover-up, but now it is time to learn the truth.

And it’s not just a product of an amateur alternative history writer. The main points are carefully fleshed out and backed up by pseudo-scientific arguments. Similar points were made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

“Hitler's army consisted of about a million soldiers of Nazi Germany's allies who are now members of NATO,” claims the author of the propaganda material.

Volunteers with whom I was able to meet do not doubt this account of historical events. It seems that everybody has forgotten or did not know in the first lace the history of the events leading up to the new round of the conflict: the negotiations with NATO, the unrealizable ultimatum on security guarantees given by Russia to the Alliance, the fact that it was the Russian army that crossed the border of the independent state of Ukraine on February 24. On the whole, based on the conversations with those who agreed to talk, the impression is that everyone in the Belgorod region supports the war. However, those who do not support it are unlikely to admit it at this time.

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