“Come on, open this safe!’ said the Russian soldier, pointing at the microwave.” An interview with the head of the occupied Komysh-Zoria municipality.
Ihor Hnatusha about the sentiments among the locals, the crimes of the Russians and the fighting ability of the invader army.
Text by: Dmytro Syniak
Although the Komysh-Zoria municipality of Zaporizhia region is located 50 km from the old demarcation line, it has always played a significant role in the current war: in 8 years, more than 250 Ukrainian military trains have been unloaded here. And the head of the village, Ihor Hnatusha, would sometimes show his guests a huge fragment of a munition that Russia had used to shell the municipality in 2014. Komysh-Zoria has been in the deep Russian rear for three months now: the front line has moved through the village in just one day. Ihor Hnatusha remained in the village to the end and only left for Zaporizhia when he felt the danger to his own life. Mr. Hnatusha told Decentralization about the situation in the municipality.
What was the first day of the war like for you?
As probably for everyone in Ukraine, it started with a morning shock. Russia’s full-scale offensive was unbelievable. Once recovered, we began to adjust the provision of services in wartime. However, we did not have time to do much: the army of Russian orcs appeared on our administrative borders on 2 March. On the same day, the Komysh-Zoria municipality experienced a fierce battle, with rocket-propelled grenade fire, mortar fire and even air strikes. And 3 March set the countdown of the occupation for us.
How severe is it?
It’s something I can’t even put into words. For you to fully understand, you must live through it just like I did. For example, to be interrogated for an hour and a half at your own home, next to your belongings turned upside down, to listen to demands to give money, threats and so on… At first, Russian units were constantly rotated. Sometimes they started shooting, fighting, so that people could not even go outside. Then they stationed a ‘permanent garrison’ from the so-called ‘DPR’ here. Now other Russian units transit through our village. But they still stop here, because the Russians are sticking to settlements, knowing that Ukrainian troops do not fire at our cities and villages.
Did you try to explain to the occupiers that you did not need to be liberated?
On the first day in the evening, they knocked on my door and apologised for the mess they had made in the village. Thirteen soldiers came, including Buryats, people from the Caucasus and representatives of other ethnicities. I thought this was the right time to explain everything to them and gave a short speech right on my porch. The Russians listened intently and silently. I said that I had no idea who the Nazis were and that we had never seen them here. That we had a church and a nunnery of the Moscow Patriarchate, and we were not going to destroy them. I talked about our plans, about the great changes in the municipality related to the decentralisation reform. I said that our population does not want to come under Russian rule, much less become residents of any unrecognised republic. For a moment I even thought that I managed to knock sense into my listeners. But when I finished speaking, they disappointed me by saying something like, “Once we will replace your president, you will live even better!”. So there was no one to talk to among them… The next day, this Russian unit moved north, and later we learned that it had been destroyed by the Ukrainian military. This is the story of how the ‘Ruskiy Mir’ started in our municipality. Since then, I have not entered into any discussions and have not tried to prove anything to anyone. It was simply offensive to me.
Ihor Hnatusha would sometimes show his guests a huge fragment munition that Russia had used to shell the municipality in 2014
Did you create a Territorial Defence unit in the municipality?
No, we abandoned this idea. Can poorly armed men without any military training oppose the regular Russian army with tanks, armoured personnel carriers and jets? The municipalities that created Territorial Defence units only got their fighters in trouble. Because these fighters could not put up strong resistance to the Russians, but after the occupation, the invaders began to look for the members of Territorial Defence, perceiving them as enemies. And there was always someone who betrayed everyone, voluntarily or under torture.
What problems did the Komysh-Zoria Village Council face in the first days of the occupation?
Several power lines were damaged during the hostilities. Fortunately, everything was repaired. We drained the water from the heating systems and switched the employees of the village council to remote work. Only one office was left to work in the whole village council, where the residents could come with all their issues.
The Mariupol–Zaporizhia highway is near Komysh-Zoria. Did you have refugees from Mariupol?
Yes, there were several hundred of them, and we tried to give them all possible help. They mostly moved on to Zaporizhia. I vividly recall one man who came to us on foot from Berdiansk, after having reached — also on foot — Berdiansk from Mariupol. It is more than 180 kilometres in total! Later, that man left us for the Kharkiv region.
Why did you leave the municipality?
Because I could not stay any longer. During the night interrogation at my house, the occupiers put the question point-blank: either I was with them or against them. I didn’t want to have anything to do with them, so I left. I reached a certain red line, and then it was obvious that I would be arrested and put ‘in the basement’ [to be imprisoned and tortured] any day now. I was also worried due to the fact that my son was serving in the Armed Forces. Russians have a special attitude to families with current or even former servicemen, and these families are always in much greater danger than others. And if the invaders also found out that we were hiding Ukrainian soldiers — who, I hope, have already reached their units by now — it would be very bad.
Does that mean that the Russian invasion in Komysh-Zoria, as everywhere, was accompanied by various crimes?
On the first day of the occupation, the Russian military shot dead a man who was just walking down the road, holding a smartphone in his hand. One sloshed orc soldier thought that this man was taking pictures of a Russian convoy. The soldier started shouting something, threatening with a gun, and despite his comrades’ attempts to calm him down, he fired. The man died on the spot. Another of our residents died during the shelling.
Were there any crimes against women in the Komysh-Zoria municipality?
Most of the young women left immediately after reports of what the young women left immediately after the reports of Russian crimes in Bucha. That’s probably why we haven’t had any rapes. At the same time, it should be understood that there is no one to report such facts to in the occupied territories. And speaking up might make your situation even worse. That’s why people just keep quiet, only telling their families, if that. For example, I was illegally interrogated and robbed by masked and armed people at night. Who should I report this to? I kept quiet, and I’m only just telling you. I think there are a lot of people like me. Occupation is a great humiliation in general.
Do Russians take cars from locals?
Where else do you think they get them? Now they are cruising through the village in Jeeps and expensive cars that Ukrainians may have only afforded after decades of hard work. Many cars were also taken from our municipality. In the first days of the occupation, they stole three from me personally: two state-owned cars and my own car. It was like that. Once I was approached by the head of the so-called ‘DPR’ unit permanently stationed in our village, call sign ‘Behemot’ (Hippo). It was how he introduced himself to me, “I am Behemot.” He said that he needed a car with a diesel engine for the next day, and that I had to find it. Of course, I didn’t even attempt the search. Then the next day Behemot came back when I was not at home and took all three cars that were in my possession, as well as conducted a ‘search’. When I returned, I immediately went to this ‘Hippo’ and told him everything I thought about such requisitions. He then returned two of the three cars to me and even apologised to my wife for the ‘search’ that got her in a right state. However, Behemot kept the state-owned Niva.
Did Russian soldiers also loot shops?
On the first day, all our shops, ATMs and pharmacies were looted. I despair our utilities the most. A new grader, forklift and excavator were stolen. All this cost millions of hryvnias, and when I bought this equipment, I said that it was a long-term investment that would work for us later. And see how it turned out! We didn’t have time to evacuate all this, and now anything that had wheels was either shot, or looted, or stolen. I only managed to transfer two cars to Zaporizhia. Also on the first day, 90 tons of diesel fuel, grain and fertilisers were stolen from a private agricultural enterprise. In general, a lot of machinery was stolen from farmers. The Russians also found empty houses and looted them. They avoided ordinary people for the first two weeks, but later the seizure of phones on the streets became commonplace.
Stolen agricultural machinery should have now be working in the fields. Were spring field operations possible in the municipality?
Our farmers had one crucial question: “Will I be able to gather what I will sow now?” Therefore, only some of them decided to launch field operations. Some are still planting sunflowers, as it’s not too late for that. But many farmers fled to avoid looting and humiliation by the occupiers. They do not come to just anyone; they are looking for the wealthiest. That is why entrepreneurs were even afraid to open their shops in our municipality at first. Now they are gradually opening up. Street markets also work now and are significantly more crowded. Because some need money, while others need food. The introduction of roubles is just a rumour, so all our entrepreneurs only use hryvnia.
Is the municipality stocked with food and basic necessities?
It is impossible to bring any goods from the territory of Ukraine. However, we bring some humanitarian aid from the unoccupied territory. From each such supply run, every resident of our community receives 5-7 kg of various goods. But what matters to them is not the amount of aid, but rather that they are not forgotten, that someone extends a hand to them from the Ukrainian land free from the invader. The same applies to the delivery of pensions. We deliver them from the unoccupied territory despite certain risks. This is extremely important when bank cards are not working due to the almost complete lack of phone reception or Internet connection.
So is it still possible to bring humanitarian aid to Komysh-Zoria?
From Zaporizhia, where I am now, it is much easier for me to organise humanitarian aid for the municipality, and I have done it seven times already. The aid is now being supplied by our school buses. Yesterday I sent four of them. However, getting from Zaporizhia to Komysh-Zoria is a right quest. After all, there are only eighteen (!) rashist checkpoints on the way, and each of them resembles a state border in terms of the complexity of inspection procedures. You are stripped naked at almost every checkpoint, as they look for nationalist tattoos or traces of weapons, and humiliated at almost each one. The situation is the same with leaving the municipality. To get out, you sometimes have to stay at checkpoints for several days: sometimes, 500 to 1,000 cars get stranded there. Every Ukrainian is checked according to a special black list. When they looked for my last name in it, my whole life flashed before my eyes. Those whose names are mentioned in the Russians’ papers are taken aside and later imprisoned ‘in the basement’. Despite all these difficulties, about 40% of the residents were able to leave the municipality, and the number of those leaving is growing. Few have returned.
Bringing humanitarian aid from Zaporizhia to Komysh-Zoria is still possible, but it is a right quest
What kind of vertical of power have the occupiers established?
The Soviet one. With great celebration, they placed their leaders in the former district centres, and they believe that we will now run to them for some advice. But at the same time, the aggressors have not changed the structure of municipalities and do not oppose the fact that many villages have ‘starostats’ instead of village councils. As far as I understand, they are quite satisfied with the fact that these villages are successfully run one way or another and do not create problems for them. The Russians do not have any resources for us, and their higher-ups does not provide any assistance to people, dealing only with their own security instead. As for us, we work remotely, organising the mowing of grass, cleaning of cemeteries, functioning of all utility networks, security for kindergartens and schools, social assistance as well as many other services. For this, those workers who remained under occupation receive a salary. And since there is no phone reception in the community, they climb some hills and roofs to get in touch with me. But things are running.
What about the municipality budget? Do you have any funds to pay salaries to these workers?
Since March, we have received hardly any income. We have lived off what remained for two months. But since June, these balances will be exhausted, so the region promised to give us about UAH 1,000,000, exclusively for salaries. We have cut the staff as much as possible, but those who are working must be paid.
Does the village council work?
We have decided that the decisions of the meeting will be doubled by the decisions of the executive committee. Therefore, all changes to the budget are already made by the decision of the executive committee. I took with me all the seals, so we can gather a quorum of those who left in Zaporizhia.
What do you say about the combat effectiveness of the Russian army?
On the one hand, they know their job, but on the other, their weapons are clearly outdated. Moreover, none of the Russian soldiers understands why they are risking their life and health. And this, you will agree, is an important factor on the battlefield. In March, rashist soldiers were underdressed, hungry, and generally miserable. However, they very quickly began to solve these problems with the help of looting of the local population. Things that they stole were very revealing. Once Russian soldier entered one of the houses of our municipality and said to its owners, pointing to the microwave: “Come on, open this safe!”. That is, he has never seen a microwave in his life and thought it was a safe. Other robbers often baffled people with demands to give them a ‘vidik’ — a VCR. Remember, we had those in the ’90s? And there were also soldiers who stole electric kettles without lower parts and electric cords: just grabbed the kettle and left. That means that electric kettles, it turns out, are also unknown to them. Orcs will be orcs! How could such an army fight?
What is the sentiment among the people in the municipality? Do they want to return under the Ukrainian flag?
Our people please me immensely: 99% of our residents are against the occupation. I have no idea how the Russians intend to manage the occupied territories under such conditions. Only 3-4 locals came to celebrate May 9 with rashists in Komysh-Zoria. The rest of the municipality ignored the ‘festivities’. Although neither I nor anyone else called for it, people made their own decision. I have no information about local collaborators. I know for sure that there is still no one willing to take my place. I also know that many of our local guys — much more than in 2014 — went to serve in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Now the Ukrainian army must counterattack as soon as possible and liberate our territories.
A rapid counterattack means your municipality might face some destruction. Are people ready for this?
They are ready to live in basements, if only to be able to return everything as it was before! Because everyone has already experienced the dubious benefits of ‘liberation’. We had UAH 30 million of our own revenues in the budget for this year. In addition, we have actively attracted multimillion-dollar international aid grants, and we have been undergoing major repairs. Our biggest project was the construction of a house for IDPs from Donbas. It was almost finished, and now I am also an IDP in need of housing like that. After all, my house was requisitioned by the invaders, and now ‘DPR’ officers live in it. How should I treat them after that? This is how everybody feels as well. When leaving the community, people often do not take many things because they hope to return soon. After the victory of Ukraine. People often call me to ask one question: “When will we be liberated?” It doesn’t matter if everything we have built is levelled to the ground. The main thing is that our community returns to the control of Ukraine. Then we will rebuild even better! The main thing is that we return.
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