The town of Belaya Beryozka stands on the Russian-Ukrainian border. Since the end of April 2022, this settlement in the Trubchevsky district, 130 kilometers from the city of Bryansk, has been regularly under fire. At first, people expected compensation for their destroyed property. The last fall, a presidential decree gave governors in the frontline regions the right to evacuate people, and it made them hope for relocation. By winter, the hope was gone as the authorities had been simply ignoring their appeals. Now people are angry. Instead of helping, officials present images of perfect parallel reality, and the locals, unable to make them listen, are leaving their homes.
"How are you doing here?"
On Monday, December 12, a group of regional, district, and municipal representatives visited Belaya Beryozka to meet with residents.
"How are you doing here?" they asked the people gathered in the local Community Centre.
On the same day, the pro-government newspaper Zemlya Trubchevskaya 32 published a story about the meeting that was allegedly attended by 400 people, and, according to the newspaper, people asked the visitors "where they could find safe shelters during attacks" and "what kind of help they could provide to the Russian troops.”
However, according to the locals who spoke to "7x7", it was a very different meeting. There were around a hundred people; the questions about helping the Russian army came from a group of strangers who had never been seen in the area before. There were also some unknown cars and vans parked near the Community Center. The visitors left, and no answers to questions about shellings, bomb shelters, and compensation for destroyed houses had been given.
"We ran into the woods"
On the morning of April 29, 2022, Maria [her real name as well as of the others interviewed are changed at their request and for security reasons] was in a church near a border checkpoint. It was the first week of Easter and the church was crowded.
At noon, the first bombs exploded at the checkpoint, and the shelling, according to witnesses, lasted for over an hour. Worshippers went for protection to the church basement. According to the Russian Investigative Committee, the shells came from Ukraine.
“When things had calmed down, the military arrived and transported everyone home," Maria recalls that day. “After that, the access to the cemetery near the church was closed. A few mines landed there, damaged some headstones, and destroyed the tombs. We had been told to stay indoors and be quiet. Military vehicles drove through the village, then specialists from Bryansk came to investigate what had happened.”
Bryansk Governor, Alexander Bogomaz, claimed that no one was injured. The shells damaged the water supply pipes and power system.
A second attack came a month and a half later. It started at 05:30 am on June 10 and continued for about an hour. People hiding in their homes counted "about 15 explosions.” Some of them ran from bombs into the woods.
“Our house is on the outskirts, not far from the forest," Anna Nikolaeva tells "7x7.” “And as soon as we heard the explosions we ran for cover into the forest. Still half-asleep, we could not understand at once what was happening and what we should do. Then, when the shooting stopped, we came back: we had to go to work or do chores around the house.”
According to Anna, the authorities, using online platforms, had appealed to the people not to panic. But since then, everyone in the settlement has been living in anticipation of "another bang:”
“We are very scared, I don’t even have words to tell you how bad. We live in constant fear. A door slams or any other loud noise and we run to hide or drop on the ground. That’s our life.”
After a new shelling on 12 July, the towners held a rally where they demanded from the authorities to take effective steps in protecting the area from bombing. The petition was signed by 50 people. Konstantin Pavlov from the local municipality promised to bring the petition along with his own request to the attention of the Bryansk Region administration.
There were new bombings in October and November. Two residential houses were hit, and one of them was completely destroyed. The authorities did not report any victims. Bombs also hit the territory of a children's summer camp which, fortunately, was empty at the time.
"We don't care anymore where the bombs come from"
Because of the bombings, young people have left Belaya Beryozka. No one younger than 40 any longer lives here. Some of the older residents even remember the days of World War II. They are scared, and in tears, but they don't want to leave their homes. "I have lived my whole life here," one would say. Or simply they have nowhere to go.
Nikolai, 56, lives with his mother, 87, and aunt, 80:
“People are very friendly here. We help each other. We know everyone here. Where would we go? There was a meeting in the summer when the first attacks happened. The authorities reassured us that everything would be fine and we were not in danger. But here it is. They tell us it is Ukrainians who are shooting at us, and then we hear it was a Russian air defense system. Frankly, we don't care who's shooting here anymore. We are tired to death of this all and want only one thing - all of this to end as soon as possible.”
Nikolai had a friend in the five-story apartment building where he lives. The friend happened to be at the church near the border checkpoint during the first bombing. Like others, he went to the church basement to hide from bombs. One of the shells fell near his son's grave. In August, the man died of a heart attack, and people think it was because of the constant stress he had been dealing with.
People in apartment buildings and those in privately owned houses react differently to bombings. From a multi-story building, one can run down the stairs into basements. From a private house (they don’t have safe basements) one can only flee to the woods. But now, when it is cold, people take shelter in bathrooms or sheds in their backyards.
“Since the spring, we’ve been keeping the apartment building basements open. The lights are always on, and there are supplies of water and food just in case. We keep documents at hand so in case of emergency we just grab them and run," Liudmila, 42, says.
Alexander, 47, doesn’t have a basement to hide in. He and his loved ones stay in the bathroom because it's the only place without windows:
“You could be killed before you reach a five-story building. And can anyone get down into the basement? I can, but my old mother barely moves. So I simply grab her and run with her in my arms into the bathroom, and my wife follows me.”
During one of the summer bombings, a son carried his elderly mother to a five-story building in a wheelbarrow. He now admits: "While running, I kept thinking that a bomb at any moment could kill both of us.”
"No one explains anything to us"
In late October, President Putin introduced a special regime in the areas near the border with Ukraine. It gave the Bryansk region authorities the right to temporarily relocate residents to safer areas providing them with housing, permanent or temporary. Many in Belaya Beryozka would like to take this option.
On November 23, Konstantin Pavlov, a town council member, wrote on his social media page, that more than 80 residents had asked him to help relocate. Pavlov passed the request to the governor’s office and to the district administration, advocating primarily on behalf of people with disabilities, elderly single persons, families raising children with disabilities and foster kids, and low-income and large families. He also asked the regional administration to provide the evacuees with moral, psychological, and other assistance, as well as at least 15 thousand rubles [around $200] a month to cover the rent in a new place.
"People find it difficult o remain rational, [they] succumb to panic and lose the ability to think logically, and they easily accept all sorts of rumors. There were people among us, and are and will be, who benefit from the state of panic in our settlement. We are in regular contact with the military, and they are very reliable, and our border is under strong control and in good hands," Sadovskaya wrote.
She asked the villagers to call her and report if they had seen "someone’s suspicious actions." The latest (as of 19 December) post on Iryna Sadouskaya's page was an invitation to come to a meeting with local municipal council members on 12 December, which she called "a meeting on security matters during the special military operation.”
The requests to evacuate have been ignored by the regional authorities. "No one is explaining anything to us,” people complain. They are left in the dark on the prospects of evacuation, who will pay for it, or whether it even makes sense to relocate now when they still have homes and jobs.
"Who is rocking Belaya Beryozka?"
Residents of Belaya Beryozka feel that they have been lied to by the Bryansk authorities. The authorities promised them compensation for destroyed and damaged houses but did nothing.
“People don't even know how much they are entitled to. Different sums have been mentioned, between 10 and 100 thousand rubles [$140-1,400]. There were visitors from Bryansk, they talked with our local administration, but none of them talked to the people. Our governor, wearing his hockey uniform, gave an interview to a federal TV channel, talking about bombings and the seriousness of the situation. But how come he has never come to meet with us? Like we are not even human beings! There was a story in the local newspaper that compensations had already been arranged, but no one has seen a penny," Nikolai Ivanovich, 70, says.
The text that outraged people in Belaya Beryozka appeared in "Bryansk Facts" newspaper on December 1, under the headline "Who Rocks Belaya Beryozka?" It claimed that those who complained in November that the authorities had failed to take measures to protect them from bombings, in fact, refused to meet with the regional legislature members during their visit to Belaya Beryozka. Sergei Antoshin, the deputy speaker of the legislature, told the newspaper that "the boat was being rocked" by "Ukrainian natives" who now live in the settlement.
"Some refused to communicate with us flatly, in an ultimate and even hysterical form. This is particularly strange. You complain about the authorities disregarding you, and when they come to listen to you no one shows up. Then what all this fuss was about?” Antoshin was quoted by the newspaper.
In an interview with Bryansk Facts, Sergei Antoshkin said that the authorities had assigned "fairly substantial compensations" for two destroyed houses, over 5 m [$70,000] and 2.8 m rubles [$40,000] respectively, and that they had already paid 943 thousand rubles [$13,000] for 16 damaged gravestones.
But the locals claim that the only money they have received is for the destroyed gravestones, and it has happened to a large degree because of Konstantin Pavlov’s interference. Pavlov himself was publicly reprimanded by his colleagues for convening a mass gathering in summer which, the colleagues insisted, could expose people to the danger of being attacked.
“As for the compensation [for the destroyed homes], they're simply making more promises and saying that this money has been allocated for 2023. We are told to wait," people complain.
According to them, they hadn’t been informed about Sergei Antoshin’s visit in November:
“It’s a lie that we didn’t show up. These officials arrived in the afternoon when everyone with a job was at work, and only helpless old people stayed home. To whom did they expect this meeting to be held?
In November, a popular weather forecaster and native of Belaya Beryozka, Evgeny Tishkovets, offered support to Bryansk residents. He, a frequent guest on propagandist Vladimir Solovyov's programs, suggested the people create a "people's militia" and he would lead it. Tishkovets also mentioned talking to Governor Alexander Bogomaz by phone. The locals trust the weather forecaster, but he is yet to visit his hometown.