Ukraine is gradually and systematically taking back the territories occupied by the Russian invaders. That day, Kherson was deoccupied – the only regional center that the Rashists managed to capture in 8 months. While the inhabitants of this city are coming to their senses after the expulsion of the occupiers, life is already raging in other territories freed from the invaders.
Balaklia was liberated in mid-September as a result of the successful counteroffensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in Kharkiv Oblast. The joy of victory was marred by the terrible finds in this city that the Russians left behind: several torture chambers in which the occupiers mocked Ukrainian citizens, and makeshift mass graves where the shot civilians of captured Ukrainian cities were buried.
Firefighter Mykola Zubarenko did not leave his hometown even after the Russians came there. Together with his colleagues, he continued to work at the fire station in Balaklia. Representatives of the occupiers came several times to this part and tried to convince the firefighters to work under the occupation regime. But the employees of the State Emergency Service almost all remained faithful to the oath of allegiance to the Ukrainian people. And then one day they came to Mykola.
Zubarenko still cannot understand why the Russians arrested him after he was released from prison after five days. Thank God, Mykola himself did not experience all the horrors of the concentration camps, although he witnessed how the Russians mocked the Ukrainians.
“When the Russians entered Balaklia, the city seemed to have died down”
— The Russians entered Balaklia on March 6. How many residents had already left the city by then? – I ask Mykola Zubarenka.
– No. At that moment, almost all the inhabitants of Balaklia were there.
– Why do you think? After all, from February 24, when the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, until March 6 was evacuation time.
– Perhaps the residents of Balaklia were hoping for some happy outcome, that the Russians would not reach our town.
— On February 24 at five thirty in the morning, explosions were also heard in Balaklia?
— At half past five in the morning, my son woke me up with a phone call. He also works for the State Emergency Service and was just on shift. He says: “Take my whole family to Protopovka. Now the Russians are bombing Kharkiv.” I couldn’t believe my ears. I went out on the balcony – silence. No explosions. My wife and I looked at each other and she said, “Call your friend in Kharkiv.” Again I went out on the terrace with the phone and when I was talking to a friend, I first saw the explosion itself, and then I heard the sound of this explosion. The Russians fired at the arsenal, but hit somewhere outside the city.
– Was it scary?
– Of course it’s scary. And how could he still be here? Any normal person would be scared.
– Why didn’t you go with your family?
“I have such a job that I had to stay in town.” I work in the State Emergency Service. But that’s one of the reasons. I am from Balaklia. I have no relatives in other regions of Ukraine. So inThis is the same nowhere it was I’m going.
– Do you remember the day the Russians started entering your city? What was the reaction of the natives to the invaders?
— The first two columns passed by the bypass, but did not enter the city itself. A little later, the third column left. And now they have already entered Balaklia. I could see everything clearly from the window and even managed to capture something on video. What struck me: at that moment, the whole city seemed to have stopped. Everyone was sitting at home and didn’t know how to behave.
“Did the occupiers immediately begin to rule the city?”
– No, in the early days they kept very quiet. And so many residents of our city were under the impression that they would spend the night and leave. But March ended, April began, and we realized that the Russians were not going anywhere voluntarily.
“The terror started in April. People were detained in the street and forced to dig trenches. Not everyone came back from those jobs.”
— How did the occupiers treat the inhabitants of the city?
“Again, no one was touched at first.” And in April, the terror began. People began to be detained in the street and forced to dig trenches. Not everyone came back from these works. Some simply disappeared. Their relatives still do not know where they are.
— In April, they already started talking about the fact that the Rashists organized several executions in the city?
— It became known about this not immediately. The locals were just talking to each other that people had started disappearing somewhere.
– We will return to this question a little later. As I understand, you and your colleagues continued to work in the State Emergency Service. Did the Russians try to persuade you or your leadership to cooperate?
– They started from afar. Initially, they came to us to ask for water for their needs. And then they started coming more and more often. “Specialists”, as we called them, appeared – representatives of the Russian special services. After a conversation with the leadership of our unit, one of our superiors urgently left for the territory controlled by Ukraine. And only later, after some time, someone published his receipt on the Internet that he agreed to cooperate with the occupiers. He probably gave this receipt to save himself and buy time, and then escape.
“Even before the war, many people lived in our city who were waiting for the arrival of Russia”
— In March, the Russians entered the city without a fight. Where does so much destruction come from?
— So the Russians themselves shelled Balaklia to tell the local residents that they were being shelled by the armed forces. It was clear who exactly was shelling the city. It was enough to see how the occupiers behaved calmly at that time.
– Where do you mostly shoot?
– They broke the military factory. But very often it falls into the private sector and apartments.
“Did civilians die as a result of shelling?”
– Unfortunately, yes. You can’t hide from it. The Russians knew when and where he would fly, but ordinary people did not.
“And many of the locals believed they were being fired upon by the armed forces?”
– You see, even before the war there were many people who were waiting for Russia to come to our city. Theirs it is not necessary to convince of something. But mostly the locals knew who was actually shooting at them.
– Mykola, what have you been living for all this time? Were you paid a salary?
– Of course they paid. Ukraine paid. The money came to the card. But it was very difficult to remove them. But they got away with it. Businessmen were asked to transfer cash for a certain percentage. They transferred their salaries and somehow managed to get money. Not a single ATM in town was working.
– Were the shops in town open? Was there a product?
– Yes, the shops were open. But there were few goods. First it was transported from occupied Kupyansk, and then goods from the “DPR” began to appear on store shelves.
– Have the rubles run out yet?
— In the shops you can only buy something for bracelets. Prices in rubles began to appear closer to autumn.
— All things considered, closer to autumn the Russians themselves already believed that they would remain forever in Balaklia?
— Yes, they kept telling the townspeople that Balaklia would no longer be handed over to the Ukrainians.
“As soon as I said my name, they immediately put my hands behind my back, handcuffed me and put a bag over my head”
– In August, you were arrested… Didn’t you get the impression that someone betrayed you? However, your youngest son served in the armed forces and unfortunately died. I heard that the Russians were looking for relatives of the soldiers of the armed forces of Ukraine in every city they captured.
– Someone must have betrayed me. And most likely it was one of my colleagues. I even know who. But since I have no evidence against this man, I will not mention his name.
I was on duty when the Russians came to our fire station. They brought all the guards outside and started asking for names. As soon as I said my name, they immediately tied my hands, put handcuffs and a sack over my head.
They brought me to the local district police station and threw me in a cell. The chamber was small – about two by three meters. There were five of us there.
– Have you been questioned?
– No. I don’t even know what it was. He spent five days in a cell. Then they took me out of the cell, put me in a car and told me I was going to Ukraine. I don’t know which saint to pray to so that I won’t be touched. By the way, as soon as I was sent to the territory controlled by Ukraine, I called my son and told him that he had to leave Balaklia. I made an agreement with a carrier who picked up my son and brought him to Kharkiv. Just in time. After a few hours, the invaders came to the house where he lived with his family to arrest him.
– You could say you’re lucky.
– I do. But the same cannot be said for the rest of the arrested. They were beaten mercilessly. At night, a Chechen, judging by his accent, would come, take someone of his choice out of the cell and beat him severely there. And someone was taken in for questioning. We had a guy in the cell called Sergey. During the five days I was in the cell, he was called in for questioning several times and barely crawled out alive.
Basically, a lot of my colleagues from the fire department were detained then. Among them were two of our women – dispatchers. Thank God our girls were not taunted. But at night Murat came to them, who said he would be their curator. I remembered it even before the arrest. He would often come to our firehouse early and try to make small talk with the officers. I don’t know what this Murat talked about with the girls every night, what he was leaning towards.
— Have you already returned home after the deoccupation of your native Balaklia?
— Yes, as soon as the Russians were expelled from our city, I and all my colleagues who were forced to leave returned to Balaklia. We all continue to work in the “pozhezhka”.
— How does Balaklia live today after the occupation?
– You could say it’s wonderful. The city is coming to life, rebuilding, people are coming back. However, both the city itself and its surroundings are heavily mined. Here, for example, in the village near Balaklia, where I have a cottage, many so-called petals were scattered. Unfortunately, pyrotechnics were detonated several times during demining. An ambulance was recently blown up by a mine. Ours came to the place to extinguish the fire and remove the bodies of the dead and came across anti-tank mines. Before leaving, the Russians mine everything they can.
Earlier, “FACTS” published the story of a police officer from Balaklia, who worked in the local police station before the Russians invaded the city.
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