Belgorod under fire

November 25, 2022
Russia’s western borderlands are growing more dangerous by the day, as explosions and shelling rock the region, leading some residents to flee, while others prepare to hunker down for the worst.
Following Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive against Russian military forces in September, the Belgorod region on Russia’s western border has found itself under nearly daily artillery fire. Officials in Belgorod accuse Ukrainian forces of attacking Russian territory. But Ukraine denies the claims, arguing that stray Russian missiles are to blame.

As independent journalists in Belgorod have revealed, as of November 19, at least 20 residents of the region have been killed by shelling since February. Nearly half of the deaths have occurred since early October.

The first time that houses and apartments in Belgorod were damaged was on July 3, when a fragment of a downed Ukrainian missile fell into a residential area. Five people died that day and 74 houses were damaged, 16 of which were completely destroyed.

In the eight months following Russia's invasion, residents in Belgorod have grown accustomed to the sounds of fighting – where explosions are instead called “claps” (khlopok) – and border villages are very occasionally evacuated. But increased shelling since September is bringing the war closer to home than ever before. Video shared online in mid-November, for example, shows children at a kindergarten playground in the region’s capital running for safety indoors as explosions echo off in the distance.

On October 19, Putin declared a "medium level of response" for Belgorod, as well as other regions close to the border with Ukraine. Measures include boosting security and public order. The decree also envisages restrictions on the movement of traffic, as well as on entry into and exit from affected regions.

As the situation deteriorates, authorities in Belgorod are preparing residents for more regular shelling. In the region’s capital city, public spaces, including buses and trams, are covered in signs providing instructions on what to do in the event of shelling. The telegram channel Ostorozhno, Novosti (Caution, News) reported that coloring assignments allegedly given to children in the village of Zamostye in Belgorod region ask them to find and color landmines in pictures. However, the veracity of the assignments is unclear.

At the same time, Belgorodians now receive text alerts when shelling is observed, and sirens now often blare throughout the region. Locals are also preparing on their own, by devising bomb shelters in basements, purchasing bulletproof vests, and taping up the windows of their homes so they do not shatter during shelling.

The Telegram channel Mozhem Obyasnit’ (We can Explain), citing data from Rosstat, writes that from March, more than 26 thousand people have left the Belgorod region. Taking into account the total number of people who arrived in the region, the population decreased by about five thousand people. The outflow is a lot considering that between January and September last year, Belgorod recorded a net positive migration of more than two thousand people.

Yet not all local residents are so concerned about the growing dangers from the war. One man who lives in the region’s capital city told journalists from Novaya Vkladka (The New Tab) that he doesn’t understand those who have decided to leave: “Of course, the mood in the city [Belgorod] is tense due to shelling. People go out less, walk with their children less, but I cannot say that Belgorod is a frontline city. We have no problems with groceries and manufactured goods, prices have not increased,” the man says.

Although not everyone in Belgorod may connect the dots between Russian military losses in eastern Ukraine and their lives becoming less safe, others are quite disturbed by the situation. “We have military everywhere in our city, everywhere these letters Z and fucking explosions,” a bar owner in the Belgorod capital told journalists from Novaya Vkladka. “All this is already perceived as normal, as if it should be so, and then you arrive to a[n other] calm, big city, where, in fact, nothing happens. The city and people live as they used to live, unlike Belgorod, where everything is different now.”

Meanwhile, reporting on events in Belgorod has become more difficult for journalists.

As Novaya Vkladka writes, at the end of October Russian authorities tried initiating criminal charges against a journalist from the independent publication FONAR.TV, Valeria Kaydalova. Although authorities did not follow through on their intentions, at the time, they accused Kaydalova of spreading false information about the Russian military due to comments she made to Dozhd (TV Rain) back in September. During an interview on the independent news channel, Kaydalova said that not all Belgorod residents had yet received keys to the basements of their homes despite a decree by the governor, Vyacheslav Gladkov, instructing officials to do so. According to Kaydalova, the reason authorities went after her is because she said Belgorodians feared that Ukrainian forces might enter the city soon.

Likewise, Sobesednik correspondent Danila Nozdryakov was detained while reporting from Belgorod, during which he took photographs of the landmarks in the region’s capital city. Two hours after his arrest, Nozdryakov was released. In September, Kirill Ponomarev, a correspondent for The Moscow Times, was also detained. He was held by police for about 19 hours and was eventually fined 500 rubles for hooliganism.

Digest by Mack Tubridy for the Russia.Post editorial team.
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