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The man has a winter hat pulled over his head. At eye level, it is wrapped in duct tape advertising a logistics company and cafes selling croissants. Policemen in military uniforms walk around the man. One of them pulls Russian license plates from Crimea from the car. The car was allegedly brought over by the detainee’s father, who worked for the Federal Security Service on the occupied peninsula. Other police officers shuffle through documents, collect phones, SIM cards; next to them they place a computer and a jacket (such jackets are issued by the Russian army).
The first words written in the notebook of the detained man are: “Fire support” and “Machine gun team.” Then there are functions, names, surnames, fathers’ names, nicknames; even dates of birth, home addresses, draft commissions, and telephone numbers. Then another team is listed along with a roster.
“Look, he even has shoes with a zed,” jokes the portly company commander of the Odessa “Tsunami” police detachment nicknamed “Cichy.” The other policemen burst out laughing. The man with the cap pulled down is wearing New Balance shoes, the logo of which looks like an askew “Z,” which is a symbol of the Russian invasion.
“I wasn’t collaborating with anyone. I didn’t give anyone away. Ask the neighbors,” the detainee is trying to defend himself.
“They were the ones who told us you were doing it,” says “Cichy.”
The detainee tries to explain that he was a truck driver and that’s where he got the addresses. His wife explains that they transported dairy products to Kherson and recorded customer contacts there.
“We used to go twice a week. We had to contact them somehow,” says the woman, who is unperturbed.
“And you get a phone number from everyone?” one of the policemen asks.
“Yes, really. When I’m driving, I have everyone written down as ‘cottage cheese,’ ‘cream,’ ‘milk,’ because it is more convenient.”
“And that’s why you had to have so many SIM cards?” the policeman asks.
“All right, that’s it. The security service will come soon and explain who the cottage cheese is for and who gets the cream,” says “Cichy.”
Several policemen remain with the detainee. The rest move on to other villages. The so-called zaczystka (loosely translated as: cleansing [translator’s note: or purge]) continues. It is now called, in police jargon, stabilization activity.
They Informed on Their Own
Before February 24, more than 550 people lived in the village of Novosofiivka, Mykolaiv oblast. The village was occupied by the Russian army in March and was under their control until recently. Although initially only formally, because no one had stepped foot there. Novosofiivka is off the beaten path and it seemed as if the Russians did not know about its existence. Eventually, however, they made it there as well, when they saw a car turning off the highway onto a side road.
Now people are standing in one of the village streets. More join in, lured by the barking of dogs and enthusiastic shouting. Seeing the policemen, 87-year-old Anna cries and hugs a half-century-younger policeman, Vitaly.
“May God grant that you are safe and sound!”
“Don’t worry, everything will be fine,” Vitaly replies.
“Of course everything will be fine, our nation is strong!” Anna says. “God, my children, how I have been waiting for you.”
A coherent picture emerges from the words of the inhabitants of Novosofiivka. There were few Russians here, or rather fighters from the puppet republics in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions; they lived together in one building, mainly engaged in protecting the bridge and bothering the local population.
One of the neighbors apparently reported on the inhabitants of the street. She walked with the militants and showed them house after house. She was particularly keen on Vasylyna, 62, who was an easy target because she was born in Transcarpathia in western Ukraine and her two children serve in the Ukrainian police. Armed men raided her house several times. “We will find your children and shoot them, and you will also be punished for being a Banderite,” they told her. Vasilyna burst into tears and trembled with fright.
There Will Be a Parade, There Will Be a Car
They came to her yard, asked which doors and gates led where. They searched everything, turned it upside down, and made a mess. They found nothing, because what did Vasylyna have to hide? They wanted to take her passport, but she begged them to leave it, because otherwise she would not be able to pass through the checkpoints to reach the market. She couldn’t sleep at night as a result, because it always seemed that they were about to come back and hurt her. She prodded her husband, saying repeatedly that he shouldn’t sleep, because she was overwhelmed by fear.
In the first weeks, they noticed that she was hiding an old Lada Samara in the yard. They took an interest in it right away. Vasylyna told them: a young man left it when he was leaving the village and asked her to look after the car. However, she did not add that the youth was her son-in-law, a policeman. They hung around the car for two days. They couldn’t start it. When they succeeded, they took it. The next day, they ordered Vasylyna to write a statement that she was lending them the vehicle for temporary use. “The war will end on May 9, there will be a parade in Kyiv, and then I’ll return this car,” one of them said.
Vasylyna never saw the Lada Samara again.
As the Ukrainian offensive towards Kherson gained momentum and the front slowly approached Novosofiivka, the militants visited it again. They asked why she wasn’t leaving with her husband. Vasilyna replied that she had nowhere to go, that she could not just leave her cows. It was thanks to them that she survived the months of occupation, because she sold dairy products.
“You’re going to get screwed, because your side is attacking,” the militant allegedly told her.
“I’ll hide in the cellar,” answered Vasylyna.
The man left her house repeating under his breath that their end was near. She never saw them again. They left the village. The neighbor who denounced them also fled when the Ukrainian army closed in on Novosofiivka. Most people collaborating with the occupation authorities did so.
Contact with Loved Ones
Near the school, a police unit distributes humanitarian aid and sets up Starlink kits, thanks to which residents, cut off from the world for weeks, can talk to their loved ones via satellite internet. Every moment one can spot excited faces, tears, smiles full of joy, and hear the mingling of conversations about the fact that the Russians are gone, the police have arrived, and that people have breathed a sigh of relief. One of the servicemen controls a drone at the school, where curious children with Ukrainian flags quickly gather. They ask the policemen for gifts and to let them pilot the unmanned machine for a while.
6-year-old Kostiantyn runs among the children. His parents are standing nearby, but their minds are elsewhere. Olena, 40, and Serhiy, one year older, stare at a phone. They smile, the woman’s eyes fill with tears. Using a chat app, she hears and sees her 17-year-old daughter Kateryna, who left Novosofiivka six months ago and arrived in Poland. It was a miracle, because not long after she left the village, the bus driver for some reason told her to change to another bus. Kateryna arrived uneventfully, but the vehicle she was initially traveling in ran over a mine.
“These reptiles ruined everything for us, they didn’t even let us walk to the other side of the river to get signal there,” says Olena.
She uses the term reptiles many times in relation to the Russians and their henchmen.
I’m in the Same Place as 2014
Olena took a long time to get herself together to go to the square in front of the school, because just thinking about it made her cry tears of joy that the Russians were gone and the Ukrainian flag hung there again.
It was hung by 30-year-old Kateryna. Before the Russians entered in March, she buried the flag by night in the woods adjacent to the village. Nearby, she buried documents and medals belonging to her father, who served during the war in Donbas. From its outbreak in 2014 to February 24, 2022, at least 13,000 people died. Kateryna hid these things because she knew the Russians would soon be pounding on her door. And so it happened, but they found nothing during the search.
Although Kateryna is happy that the occupation is a thing of the past, she finds it difficult to muster positive emotions. Her father reported to the draft board two days after the invasion began and was soon mobilized.
“I’m where I was in 2014,” he only told Kateryna. She immediately understood that it was the town of Marinka near Donetsk, where heavy clashes had been taking place since the beginning of the invasion. Currently, the town is largely occupied by Russians. She talked to her father on the phone from time to time. The connection was terrible and the handset was constantly crackling, but Kateryna knew the most important thing: he is safe and sound. That was until the summer, when all of a sudden connectivity was interrupted. Only after some time, Kateryna learned from her family in Mikolaiv that her father had been taken prisoner. She has been trying to get information since, but is sent back empty-handed each time.
“I know he’s alive, and that’s good,” she says, her cheeks flushed and her eyes watering.
The woman who denounced Kateryna—like the one who sent the Russians to Vasylyna—left before the Ukrainian army returned to the village.
Calm Again, but not for Everyone
After the police visit, life in the village returns to normal. Residents bid farewell to the departing column of police vehicles, waving, cheering, holding flags and shouting: “Glory to Ukraine!” At least one man, the one with the cap pulled down, as well as his family, will not remember that day positively.
“And why didn’t you fuck off?” the policeman asks.
“I was born in Ukraine. Why would I do that?” the detainee replies.
He doesn’t get an answer. A few policemen stay with him until the security officers arrive, secure the evidence, and take the man in the cap with them.
Will life, even without some inhabitants, return to the way it was before the invasion? In Novosofiivka they hope that it will.
This article was originally published in Democracy Seminar (21 April, 2023).
Paweł Pieniążek is a Polish journalist and reporter specializing in Eastern Europe.