Around Kharkiv, the hunt for collaborators
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We are stopped on the roadside at a police roadblock. “You will have to go through the filtration on your return”, said an officer. This is the first time we have heard of this filtration process. And it won’t be the last.

When the Ukrainians repelled Russian troops, they entered towns and villages that had previously been under occupation. Many of them were run by collaborators imported or chosen from among the local inhabitants.

Ukraine’s decentralized model of government has been both a blessing and a curse. In places like Mykolaiv or Zhytomir, the mayors immediately put themselves on a war footing, preparing their cities for the siege, rallying forces, volunteers, doctors; while providing humanitarian aid and rescuing refugees.

Elsewhere, those who rallied to the Russian side enabled the new regime to uproot the local pro-Ukrainian core by helping to detain, torture and kill people. The latter case turned out to be that of Kupiansk, a district center in the Kharkiv region.

Collaborate to profit

The former wife of a Ukrainian Donbass veteran who asks to be called Tetiana testifies:

“I was married to a soldier from the Aidar (battalion). They arrested me first, then they took him. He never came back. My neighbor disappeared, his brother and his wife, they were simply kidnapped.”

She found herself in a basement where men were beaten and tortured.

Such evidence emerged several months ago when the Russian army was pushed back from kyiv, Chernihiv and elsewhere. “We still don’t know what happened to them. It was a miracle to leave that basement alive,” she says. Even after being released, she was threatened to force her to stay in occupied Kupyansk. “They told me that if I ran away they would kill my mother.”

“At the beginning, the first Russian officers who came were correct”, she explains, adding that people even rushed to greet them. “I’m not talking about people like me, we were banderovtsy [de Stepan Bandera, dirigeant du mouvement nationaliste insurrectionnel ukrainien qui s’est battu contre les Allemands et contre les Soviétiques, accusé par ces derniers d’avoir été un collaborateur des nazis] for them, these so-called Ukrainian fascists who are fighting in the Donbassshe says. But later people from Luhansk came and then it all started.”

The Russian authorities have appointed Maxim Goubin as the new mayor. According to Ukrainian media, he had once been an unsuccessful candidate for Kharkiv city council and was nothing more than a petty crook, extracting money from people with the promise of finding them a job in Israel. Once he came to power, his methods gained momentum.

After he showed himself in a propaganda TV report receiving a Russian passport, a rumor spread that locals could also receive one for a contribution of 20,000 rubles, about 320 euros. The average pension in Ukraine is less than 100 euros.

“I knew a girl who told me she was going to get a Russian passport, Tetiana said. She said to me, go ahead [à l’administration locale] and you will receive yours. I asked how. She replied: by simply giving 20,000 rubles to the mayor.” But the passports never arrived for those who had taken the bait. “They just kept the money for themselves,” Tetiana said.

It is unclear what led people to apply for Russian citizenship: overt support for the occupying forces, necessity, or other reasons. According to previous accounts, Ukrainian passport holders were subject to interrogation by Russians if they attempted to flee.

“Leave, you are animals”

Tetiana mentions pre-war fellows who held important positions in the new administration. Their goal was to make a profit, she says. The occupation administration headed by Maxime Goubine allegedly began implementing other methods of racketeering, such as demanding $1,000 kickbacks in exchange for well-paying jobs that never materialized.

Another method targeted families with children. “Russia offered to take the children to the sanatorium. They took some children to the Crimea, but they were few, they were only the children of new officials, Tetiana said. The others were taken elsewhere in Russia. Goubin demanded 20,000 rubles for this. The Russians did it for free.”

Now, Tetiana is one of many people involved in the distribution of humanitarian aid. Under the Russians, it took whole days. “They were shouting: leave, you are animals, I will remove the water from you, step back, banderovtsy”, she says, remembering the vociferations of a soldier. Once a month, you had to queue for days at different places to get a meager ration.

All around them, the soldiers of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, occupied by the Russians, behaved like victors. “No one raped me, but they beat me. If they wanted to rape, they didn’t even need to. The girls here were rushing at them”, Tetiana said. She says prostitution or casual sex between Russian troops and local girls was a common thing in town.

Hunt down Russian underground soldiers

Once an elderly soldier stopped by her, but he just stared at her.

“I understood (what he wanted), because there were girls waiting for them next to their cars and armored vehicles. I couldn’t hear their conversations, but they were leaving together.”

According to several witnesses, the soldiers made advances to minors. “One of them came to talk to me, said a 12-year-old girl. When I told him how old I was, thank God he ran away immediately.”

To unearth those responsible for the repressions, including local collaborators, Ukraine implements its version of “filtration”. It also serves to unmask the Russian underground soldiers. According to reporters in Kharkiv, the soldiers are engaged in a mopping-up operation to hunt down the dozens of Russian soldiers in civilian clothes who were unable to withdraw in time during the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the fall.

To keep track of who is who, the place of residence of the locals is re-registered again, often it is a dacha or the house of their grandparents, where they often ended up when the war broke out. started.

“It wasn’t really an interrogation”

Previous reports have shown how Ukrainian authorities interrogate those fleeing Russian-held territories or coming from recently liberated places. A witness told the Russian online news site Medusa that he had been interrogated by the SBU, the Ukrainian security services, who asked him questions “on life under occupation, if they had been abused, that sort of thing”.

Officers also checked the phones of those fleeing Russian-occupied areas, but “it wasn’t really something you could call an interrogation” and it was “more like a conversation”, says the woman from the Kharkiv region. People were also supplied with medical aid, food and water.

This process is a pale replica of the forced deportations and detentions at the hands of the Russians, who transferred people to what later became filtration camps. There, the witnesses remember being stripped, interrogated, but also tortured during prolonged detentions. Later, they were subject to ideological checks.

But some Kharkiv residents fear the same from Ukrainian forces. This anxiety was also fueled by Russian propaganda. Valery Fadeev, the chairman of the Russian Presidential Council for Human Rights, assured, without proof, that Ukraine was leading “purges” and applied “filtration measures”.

“When the Ukrainians arrived, they announced that they were going to filter”, says a man who introduces himself as Dmitri. “We asked what it was about. Of a proof of loyalty, they said. I asked how they were going to check this? They made lists of those who lived there. We arrived at our dacha (before the war) without papers.”

Dmiti is next to Staryi Saltiv, one hour north of Kupyansk. The bridge connecting the city to the rest of the Kharkiv region is destroyed. People pass from one side to the other on a motor boat, piloted by Alexei, a cheerful and drunk guy who spices up his journeys with a few minutes with shots of vodka and tips from passengers. A boy who has nothing to do between power cuts and bombed schools assists him.

“They behave here as if they were the occupiers”

Passengers load bicycles, luggage, jerry cans of gasoline. Even the police cross to take over. For many, crossing means going to formerly occupied areas for the first time. Many tell the same story. They left a few days before the war to their dachas – their summer homes – taking water and snacks for just a few days. The ensuing battles trapped them in place. To survive, “we bought things from each other, we bartered, we shared”, said a woman.

Before returning to his house, near the Russian border, Dmitri watches his loved ones leave. They say that here the Russians and their troops showed restraint, even though some of their neighbors were tortured or killed. Some locals even cite cases where Russians returned stolen cars or slept in houses whose keys they gave to neighbors of vacant houses.

Dmitri chooses his words carefully, lowering his voice. He talks about the Russians who brought back electricity and life returning to normal under the occupation. And to add:

“The Ukrainians behave here as if they were the occupiers.”

Pro-Russian locals in Donbass have maintained the same opinion, not based on facts, year after year. Their views were mainly influenced by disinformation broadcast from across the trenches, with most locals getting their news by watching Russian televisions or listening to separatist radio broadcasts.

The accusations launched against the Ukrainian army on the airwaves border on the absurd, ranging from the theft of fences to the crucifixion of children. He still continues to have an effect on the locals, gradually pushing them into the arms of the pro-Russian camp.

The misinformation surrounding the leak likely found an audience in the Kharkiv region. According to Dmitry, they still have access to radio broadcasts in Russian, the only source of information, in the context of the war-induced information vacuum. Now he complains that the electricity has been gone since the start of the Ukrainian counter-offensive several months ago.

Asked if life was good during the occupation, Dmitri quickly raises his finger, those are our words, not his. “If I say she was beautiful under occupationadds Dmitri, I will understand what filtration actually means.”

Marks of normality

Just a few hours later, we are back on the road west. The mobile connection becomes stable again, the circulation of civilians increases. Workers clean up debris along the roads, while others repaint new signs. What remains of the Russian tanks is being dismantled piece by piece. In just a few days, the charred carcasses will be gone, only the black marks left in the middle of a field of sunflowers will remain.

Little by little, the marks of normality are returning to the reconquered territories.

At the last checkpoint, we are greeted by another policeman. He has no idea why we’re talking about filtration, beckoning us forward. “This should not apply”, he said, shrugging his shoulders.

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