Fear and unease await in the Russian prelude to the war in Ukraine | International

Shebekino, in the Russian region of Belgorod, is the prelude to the gates of hell, the last five kilometers that separate war from peace, the place where hope has died. Its main street is, ironically, Kharkov Avenue, a huge straight where trucks and military ambulances from an army that for months had besieged the Ukrainian city of the same name, located just on the other side of the border, are constantly coming and going. Now, however, those lines have been pushed back into their territory after the blow received by the kyiv counterattack. At the same time, the faces of the inhabitants of that town show sincere pain. They impotently denounce the life that will never be with their neighbors. They do it under their breath, there are military patrols nearby.

“It is terrible for everyone, for everyone. We had lived peacefully since the war [la II Guerra Mundial]. War taught us what war means. He broke many lives and it seemed that there would be no more. And here it is,” she says with tears in her eyes and an older woman’s soft voice.

The old woman was walking alone along Alexánder Matrósov Street, a Soviet boy who today would share her age if he had not died in combat in 1943 at the age of 19. “We are all afraid. I hear the bombs and I suffer for my grandchildren. In some way we have already lived our lives, I could say that I have not lived badly, but it is terrible for them, ”she tells us before imitating the little ones. “I look at them and they have a bad time. No, no, mom! All is well, all is well!… but I see that they suffer”, says the old woman disconsolately on a quiet morning where the explosions coming from a horizon of hills cannot be heard.

“We all have people close to the other side. Marriages have mixed us all up. Schoolmates, couples, went from here to there,” emphasizes the woman, saddened by this tragedy. “I am very much for peace, what else do we need to share?” she adds before bidding her farewell.

Nearby is the central market. Military transports pass by on that road all the time. A truck that brings troops from the border shows several impacts on its front, and some are also seen on its back. marshrutkas Green medical (vans) with the red cross painted on them. In the opposite direction, other trucks in better condition and several Lada SUVs completely covered in mud march towards the front. All of them with the most recognizable symbols of this war, the white Z and V. At no time are combat vehicles seen, the only armor that crosses there is that of skin, the cheapest of wars.

People mistrust the stranger. A man winces and continues on his way when asked about the situation there. Another woman checks the accreditation and leaves angrily: “You see how calm!”.

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On one side of the market, two men in their forties smoke. “They have already evacuated in some areas,” says one of them in a tense conversation. His mistrust is overcome after asking the journalist to show him his accreditation. “Understand it, this is dangerous,” he says. They both look askance that no patrol appears. “If you get close to a soldier, he can think anything, they look for saboteurs,” warns his friend.

A day before there had been bombings in the border area. “Everyone is worried that the mess will start. Very loud explosions were heard yesterday. I don’t know what happened, maybe the SBU [Fuerzas Armadas de Ucrania]”, he tells this newspaper.

“I do not understand the policy of our president. I honestly don’t get it. Entering Ukraine was decided by himself, ”he laments, once again relaxed. Both want to remain anonymous. “It is a difficult situation. It’s incomprehensible. Everyone lived as usual, from home to work, and from work to home, and suddenly… bam, bam, bam”, he adds while a third neighbor joins in to greet them. The acquaintance shakes his head down when his friend asks him if he wants to comment on his life at the moment.

“Everyone has relatives in Ukraine, I in Odessa, but communication has been lost,” says the most talkative. “Only the old ones have stayed here, those of us who have nowhere to go and some refugees from the Ukraine,” he points out, to which his friend makes a joke: “Where is my machine gun?” “When they start to bomb, we’ll see,” the first reflects on his future.

Hundreds of meters from there is the hospital, forbidden territory outside of which there are several military vehicles parked. “They are bringing the wounded there,” says the neighbor. These are days of terror in Shebekino. That same day the authorities denied the rumors that the Ukrainian armed forces had broken into their territory, and a few hours later they sent all the children to study at home until further notice.

A bubble tens of kilometers from Kharkov

The war dissipates as the marshrutka he heads away from the border on his way to Belgorod, the regional capital. The movement of troops is also visible there, but its inhabitants assure that the same calm reigns in the city as it was before February 24. Like in the Divine ComedyIt seems that the antechamber of hell is where the indecisive and indifferent wait.

“We live the same as before, nothing especially has changed and no one has attacked us,” says Alina, a 20-year-old medical student protected from the rain by an umbrella with a colleague. The young woman, a native of Belgorod, “before often went to Ukraine” and criticizes Putin, but considers that “you have to be on the side” of his country.

“Russia, Ukraine and Belarus are the Three sisters, three friendly countries whom we have helped, like other republics, with a lot of money, even after leaving the USSR and becoming a Third World, speaking harshly”, he affirms. “They did not return this support and I think they should defend Russia,” says the young woman, who says that in Ukraine “there are Nazis and normal people who want to live quietly” and that her country has “acted correctly” by “erasing the first group” .

A group of almost a hundred soldiers with the black and white Z on their sleeve walks down the street towards a central barracks. There hangs a giant poster with Putin’s face from a decade ago, images of armed soldiers and a slogan: “The Russian world can and must unite those for whom Russian culture is valuable. The best profession, protect the homeland.”

The barracks is located a few meters from the central market. A handful of stalls selling military clothing to soldiers have sprung up there. Boots, socks and other outerwear are flying as winter approaches on the front lines. “The cold is coming,” one vendor admits before challenging the Western journalist: “And the Europeans are going to need it too, they’re going to freeze!”

Next door is a KFC and the new Russian McDonald’s, the ‘Tasty and Period’. Soldiers on leave crowd them in their camouflage uniforms. Two Asian fighters walk into the fried chicken restaurant, each with an arm in a cast up their sleeves. They are the only ones to say goodbye to the waiters. Outside, another soldier walks with great difficulty, leaning on two crutches. We only tear out a sentence from a volunteer wearing a black, blue and red badge of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. “Everything normal,” he says before turning around.

“I’m not afraid. They won’t let you pass [a los ucranios]. I believe in our forces, our army is much stronger”, says Gueorgui, another student. A fifty-year-old man, Vladimir Mikhailovich, regrets on his part that now “there are few products”. “I used to go to Kharkiv on business. It is a good city, its inhabitants are normal people. There was nothing wrong, ”he stresses sadly.

A woman was walking with a baby cart in front of the Museum of the Battle of Kursk in Belgorod (Russia) last Tuesday.
A woman was walking with a baby cart in front of the Museum of the Battle of Kursk in Belgorod (Russia) last Tuesday.

One of the main attractions of the city is the museum of the Battle of Kursk. Its visitors walk through it oblivious to the war that is being waged a few kilometers further south. Outside, passers-by don’t hear the echoes of the fighting either. “In general everything is calm, everything in order. We work, the boys study and go to school, ”says Andrei, in his sixties, who also often went before with his family to Kharkov,“ a beautiful city ”.

Next to the museum is the memorial for those who died in the war in Afghanistan (1979-1989) and other battles. A long list of names covers his tables, stretching back to the fighting in Georgia in 2008. Not Syria, not Donbas, not the current campaign.

Soldiers today try to evade during their furloughs. In city parks, a huge military man in a wide-brimmed hat talks for hours with his loved ones. Meanwhile, several couples walk in silence and head down arm in arm. And at night, on the way to the station, a two-star officer walks his little dog in the rain. Unlike on the way to Belgorod, on the train back to Moscow (flights were suspended because of the war), not a single passenger wears a uniform.

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