Meduza.io : The authorities kind of forgot that our region is also part of Russia.” What is happening in the Belgorod region where “Ukrainian saboteurs” have infiltrated? Local residents share their stories. On May 22, a counter-terrorism operation regime was introduced in the Belgorod region. According to local authorities, a ‘sabotage-reconnaissance group of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU)’ infiltrated the territory of the Grayvoron urban district. On the same day, the authorities began evacuating residents from bordering settlements. On May 23, the Russian Ministry of Defense reported the ‘destruction of Ukrainian nationalist formations.’ The independent journalist cooperative ‘Bereg’ spoke with residents of Belgorod and Grayvoron, and now shares what is happening in the region. With permission from Meduza, this text is being published in its entirety.
The authorities cannot admit their mistakes.
In the morning of May 22, comments started appearing on the VKontakte page of Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov, with residents of Grayvoron complaining about homes and vehicles destroyed during the shelling. Some tried to find out the fate of relatives in the village of Kozinka with whom they had lost contact. The Belgorod Operational Headquarters requested clarification of contact information, stated that the ‘special services are taking all measures,’ and promised that ‘as soon as the operational situation changes, information will be immediately conveyed to the population.’
In the morning, Ekaterina, a resident of Grayvoron, was at home. According to her, the shelling started around 9 a.m.: people heard the sounds of explosions and saw smoke in the sky. However, there were no usual retaliatory attacks from Russian forces, nor any official information from the authorities about what was happening. To understand what to do, Ekaterina and her neighbors had to rely solely on information from news Telegram channels about the Belgorod region.
According to Ekaterina, she and her husband spent several hours trying to persuade their parents to leave. It was only in the middle of the day when they heard automatic gunfire and the sound of infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) ‘literally on the neighboring street.’ It was then that their parents agreed to evacuate. The family left for Belgorod by car, leaving behind their pets: a cat, a dog, and a horse. Ekaterina recalls:
As we were driving, there were constant blasts overhead. On the way, we saw long queues at the entrance to Belgorod and huge columns of vehicles and buses for the evacuation of residents who were heading to Grayvoron.
The media talks about 80 saboteurs (SHOT Telegram channel reported this number of fighters on May 22, citing an unnamed source – editor’s note). But we saw so much [Russian] military equipment that it is unlikely it was brought only for 80 people. The central road was completely packed with tracked vehicles.
According to her, some local residents decided not to evacuate and were ‘sitting in the basement with neighbors’ at that moment (later, acquaintances from Grayvoron did evacuate from the city).
Ekaterina herself wanted to return to the city for the animals but was unable to do so as the entrance to Grayvoron was closed at the time of publication.
“I don’t understand why they [the saboteurs] entered so calmly, and there were hardly any of ours [military personnel] there,” Ekaterina reflects. “The authorities respond to our appeals, but they don’t say anything substantial. I understand that they cannot admit their mistakes, but we also need to understand something.
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In Belgorod, it is calm. We are used to it.
In Belgorod, it has always been relatively quiet, with occasional air defense system activations. There have been a few impacts, but it is understandable because the air defense systems allow some missiles to pass through. Nothing has changed in the city; it is still peaceful and quiet. There are no traffic jams or panicking people.
This is how Kirill, a resident of Belgorod, explains why he doesn’t plan to leave for another region even after the attack. Irina, another local resident, also admits that she has the opportunity to leave (she is “not tied to the city”), but emphasizes that she is “not afraid of what is happening.”
“We have a peaceful atmosphere in our city, but perhaps it’s because everyone is already accustomed to it. I don’t see anyone panicking. In Belgorod, the people who don’t plan to leave have stayed behind.”
On April 20, a bomb from a Russian aircraft fell near residential buildings. I was nearby at the time, and the people around me were not severely affected. If even the bomb didn’t scare the residents, then nothing will.
Another Belgorod resident, Inga, notes that on May 22, the explosions in the city were clearly audible. However, she immediately adds that she doesn’t feel anything in response to the news about “saboteurs” from Ukraine.
The reaction to the introduction of the counter-terrorism operation regime in the region was quite different. Local residents say that they were not concerned about the “sabotage group of the AFU.” “The authorities granted power to enter homes and confiscate belongings, and that’s distressing,” says Marina, a resident of Belgorod. “It’s done as if to maintain public order, but I feel less safe because I do not support the war. I understand that spaces for free expression have become much smaller.”
Igor grew up in Belgorod but moved to another region before the war. He recalls that on April 22, the day after a bomb from a Russian aircraft fell on the city, he called his mother, who remained in Belgorod. However, she didn’t even remember the incident.
“All of this doesn’t make a significant impression on them,” claims Igor. “Perhaps it’s because they live not in the border zone but in the city, and the war is limited to the sound of explosions for them.”
Maria, another local resident, nevertheless admits that in the summer of 2022, she realized that “now anything can fall on any part of Belgorod at any time,” and a fragment of a downed missile “could fall on your house.”
Maria has passed by a residential building destroyed by shelling on July 3 several times. According to Maria, the area is now fenced off, and the authorities plan to build a kindergarten on the site of the destroyed house.
“Now I’m just afraid to walk through Belgorod and see windows taped up in the shape of snowflakes (residents are trying to protect themselves from glass fragments during shelling).
People are afraid that a projectile might hit their homes. And once upon a time, this city was different; it was even called a city of kindness and prosperity. Now, in my opinion, it is the most troubled region in Russia. You think: was it really different before? All those peaceful times seem like they belonged to another life.
Before, I used to think that the war was far away, but now it’s right in our region
Kirill, a resident of Belgorod, admits that he supports the Russian army and is not worried that full-scale military operations could also begin in Russia. He explains his position by saying that until February 2022, he had visited his relatives in Ukraine many times and witnessed how the country was being filled with anti-Russian propaganda.
Inga, another local resident, disagrees with Kirill and opposes the Russian invasion. She doesn’t publicly demonstrate her position. Moreover, not long ago, Inga was in Mariupol on a business trip and, seeing the destroyed city, started to fear that Belgorod could face the same fate.
“Before, I used to think that the war was far away, but now it’s very close, right in our region,” she says. However, she has no plans to leave the region in order not to lose her job.
The majority of residents also do not express public dissatisfaction with the situation. Maria, another resident of Belgorod who opposes the war, emphasizes that it was a “big shock” for her.
“For some reason, people endure everything and don’t ask to stop concealing various shellings and attacks, to stop pretending that they don’t exist. Instead, many, especially in border areas, support the war. They argue that if we didn’t go there, sooner or later they would have come to us. Therefore, Belgorod residents thank the military who defend the region against Ukrainians.”
However, according to Inga, against the backdrop of constant attacks on the region, she began to notice that residents of the city “are developing separatist sentiments.”
“They don’t understand why they are in Russia, and no one is protecting them. For example, the Russia 24 TV channel dedicated only 25 seconds of airtime to the situation in the region. However, they spent a long time talking about how beautifully we are fighting in Ukraine. I’m sorry, but we are fighting very ugly in Belgorod. The residents do not blame anyone for what happened, but they question why the Russian army is not protecting them.”
“The authorities have not achieved the goals they set for themselves and have not fulfilled the promises they made. Nobody understands why all of this started,” adds Irina, a resident of Belgorod who also opposes the Russian invasion. According to her observations, recently, the townspeople have started to reproach the Russian authorities for “kind of forgetting that our region is also part of Russia.”
Meanwhile, the authorities, specifically Governor Gladkov, have already lifted the counter-terrorism operation regime in the Belgorod region. At the same time, the legion “Freedom of Russia” announced that its fighters have “demilitarized” a Russian motorized rifle company and “destroyed several units of their armored vehicles.” The statement says that the legion plans to continue “moving toward the goal” of the “full liberation of Russia.
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FAQs: Belgorod Region Infiltration by “Ukrainian Saboteurs” – Local Resident Testimonies
Q1: What is happening in the Belgorod region where “Ukrainian saboteurs” have infiltrated?
Local residents share their stories.
Answer: On May 22, a counter-terrorism operation regime was introduced in the Belgorod region. According to local authorities, a ‘sabotage-reconnaissance group of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU)’ infiltrated the territory of the Grayvoron urban district. The independent journalist cooperative ‘Bereg’ spoke with residents of Belgorod and Grayvoron to provide insights into the situation. This text, published with permission from Meduza, presents a comprehensive account of the events.
Q2: What were the reactions of the local residents to the ongoing situation?
Answer: The reactions vary among the local residents. Some residents, like Kirill, remain calm and choose not to leave the region, as they have grown accustomed to the relative peace that Belgorod has maintained. Others, such as Inga, express concerns and draw parallels between Belgorod and the destroyed city of Mariupol in Ukraine. Despite the differing views, the majority of residents do not publicly express dissatisfaction with the situation.
Q3: How did the authorities respond to the concerns raised by residents?
Answer: Residents raised concerns about the destruction caused by shelling and the lack of official information from the authorities. Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov’s VKontakte page received comments from residents seeking answers, and the Belgorod Operational Headquarters assured them that measures were being taken while promising to provide timely information as the operational situation changed.
Q4: How did the residents experience the evacuation process?
Answer: Some residents, like Ekaterina and her family, eventually agreed to evacuate after hearing gunfire and observing military activity nearby. They witnessed long queues and large convoys of vehicles and buses transporting evacuees to Belgorod. However, not all residents chose to evacuate, and some remained in Grayvoron, sitting in basements for safety.
Q5: How do residents perceive the ongoing conflict and the role of the Russian authorities?
Answer: Residents have varying perspectives on the conflict. Kirill, for example, supports the Russian army and attributes his views to witnessing anti-Russian propaganda during visits to Ukraine. Others, like Inga and Maria, oppose the Russian invasion and express concerns about the authorities’ handling of the situation. They question why the region’s safety is not adequately ensured and criticize the limited coverage of the situation by Russian media.
Q6: What has been the impact on the overall atmosphere in Belgorod?
Answer: Despite the occasional air defense system activations and sporadic impacts, the overall atmosphere in Belgorod remains relatively calm, with no significant disruptions or panic among the residents. However, some residents, like Maria, admit feeling a sense of fear and uncertainty due to the increasing frequency of attacks in the region.
Q7: Has there been any military action or response to the infiltration by Ukrainian saboteurs?
Answer: The Russian Ministry of Defense reported the “destruction of Ukrainian nationalist formations” following the infiltration. The legion “Freedom of Russia” claimed to have “demilitarized” a Russian motorized rifle company and destroyed several units of their armored vehicles. However, the situation remains dynamic, and the authorities have lifted the counter-terrorism operation regime in the Belgorod region.
The information provided is based on local resident testimonies and the reported events at the time of publication. The situation may have evolved since then.