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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #394

This morning I wanted to visit the SBU filtration camp at Krasnopillya in Sumi Oblast, northwest of Kharkiv. This is a centre at which the Russian government gives you a one-way ticket from Russia to the West; you cross the border on foot through a barbed wire fence and you find your face to face with the Ukrainian State Security Service (the SBU) who “filtrate” you (i.e. debrief you to make sure you are not a Russian spy) and then after 24 hours, assuming you pass “filtration”, you are transported onto refugee accommodation in Sumi. It is remarkable that such a consensual process between the warring parties in this conflict exists; Russians, whether from the occupied territories of Ukraine or otherwise, can just leave for the West if they want, via this route - but they must never return. I found this so fascinating that I wanted to persuade my two friends to endure the six-hour return drive from Kharkiv to Krasnopillya which involves wearing body armour because the drive is straight up past the Russian border via the town of Grayvoron, from where apparently some Ukrainian-trained Russian rebels are based to attack Belgorod in a show of hostility towards and betrayal of their own mother Russia - or, more specifically, her terrible government. Who knows what the conditions are like in Grayvoron, which is right on the Russia-Ukraine border, and my two friends vetoed the trip. So instead we looked for something else to do that would be safer.

One friend wanted to spend the day visiting the nearby very boring town of Shevchenkove to the southeast of Kharkiv, but that wasn’t good enough for me at all. Okay the town was occupied by the Russians for a short time during the battle of Kharkiv early in the second Russian invasion of Ukraine; but that didn’t suggest there would be anything interesting there and indeed there wasn’t: just a shop selling deep-fried hamburgers and other revolting pastry things, together with a lot of soldiers and a post office where all the soldiers receive their deliveries who are stationed in nearby Kupiansk. Now Kupiansk is on the front line and that’s where I wanted to go. One of my friends had put on his body armour even to go to Shevchenkove, which I thought was a little ridiculous: barely a building is damaged and there’s no danger. My other friend played the diplomatic wizard and suggested that we ask around in Shevchenkove whether the road to Kupiansk was safe, to reassure my friend who had donned all his body armour. Of course, in their laissez-faire way, the Ukrainian soldiers we asked all said it was perfectly fine and therefore we headed on our way to Kupiansk, my body armoured friend reassured that this would be a tolerably safe journey.

It was safe in a kind of a way. The road has had the bridges blown up and blasted and the entirety of the city centre has been reduced to a pile of rubble and bricks by relentless Russian mortar. The roads are all destroyed because the shelling has been so intense and therefore you are basically driving around on gravel tracks full of craters and potholes. You drive up to the main municipal building on the waterfront which has been blown to pieces but defiantly flies both Ukrainian blue and yellow and Banderista red and blag flags. (As the regular reader of these diaries will know, Stepan Bandera was a controversial World War II era figure who advocated a particularly violent form of Ukrainian nationalism and was despised by the Soviet Union that represented the Russian national interest.) The Russians were on the other side of the river and a they were relentlessly lobbing in mortars into the city, amidst a constant sound of distinctive higher-pitched booms and bangs. Nevertheless a handful of Ukrainian soldiers stood on guard in sight of the Russian snipers, placing themselves under the trees so it would be difficult for the snipers to shoot them from across the river, and we had a chat with them about their duties. They seemed pretty bored.

As the booms and bangs continued, we walked up and down the promenade on the river and I couldn’t help noticing a couple drive hip to the riverfront and, in plain sight of video, start recording a TikTok video. They turned up the music emanating from their knackered old car, and a young lady got out of the car in a tight jogging suit and started dancing while the man videoed her for social media. She did a quick dance and a twirl for the Russians in the face of the snipers just a couple of hundred metres away. I suppose this is one way to have a Sunday afternoon out in a war zone: make a TikTok video in front of Russian snipers in Kupiansk, with mortar explosions in the background. The whole event had the atmosphere of a theatre of the absurd.

We strolled back down to the high street, everything all blown up and destroyed, with all the booms and bangs in the background, to visit the almost impeccable golden-dome church in the city centre that hadn’t been destroyed. I walked in, wearing my military fatigues, and crossed myself, and one of the old ladies in the church thanked me for everything I was doing for Ukraine and gave me an icon of St George slaying the dragon. I was truly touched by this outpouring of warmth and gratitude in a city with a reputation for its residents being pro-Russian. Well, not all of them are pro-Russian. In fact there are very few civilians left in the city at all: only a handful, running a modest market, where I bought a pair of cheap-price Russian-issue military trousers because my others had fallen to pieces amidst the pressures of tramping round different military landscapes over the last week. Where they get Russian issue military equipment from in Kupiansk I have no idea, but it’s available for sale along the front line in Ukraine.

We drove back over the railway lines, that have had concrete poured over them to make a makeshift bridge because the regular bridge has been blown up, and we left sad but defiant Kupiansk behind. It’s really a military garrison town now; there’s not much there left. The soldiers we talked to think there is no hope of the Russians attacking the Kharkiv region in this summer fighting season. They won’t be able to pontoon the river which looks pretty menacing, particularly once it starts raining and everything turns to mud and sludge. In the meantime those soldiers will just rest under those trees, banking on the fact that the Russian snipers don’t have the skills or just can’t be bothered to shoot them, and Kupiansk will remain quiet - apart from all the mortar attacks, of course, which are just background thrills for a TikTok video.


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