“It just looks silly, fooling around with a grenade.” An explosion at the village of Tonenkoye near the border with Ukraine as an encapsulation of the war
“It just looks silly, fooling around with a grenade.” An explosion at the village of Tonenkoye near the border with Ukraine as an encapsulation of the war
3 February 2023, 13:07

Former House of Culture in the village of Tonenkoye. Photo: Google Maps

Authorities in the Belgorod region did not provide any details when reporting on the fire at the former community centre in Tonenkoye village. They only stated that there were no casualties. The emergency services are on the scene, and residents are asked to remain calm. Later, it was revealed that the fire was caused by a munitions explosion at the community centre while the military were stationed there. Seven people were killed and four others are missing. Residents of Tonenkoye and the neighboring village of Pestunovo told Mediazona that the servicemen stationed there had purchased all the alcohol in the area and were harassing local men. They also revealed that they were using a wood oven to heat the ammunition warehouse.

Nikolai Nesterov, the head of Korocha district, was the first to report a fire at a former community centre in Tonenkoye village on 14 January. Early in the morning, he wrote on his VK page that no one was injured and residents of nearby houses were safely evacuated. Later that day, a photo report of his visit to Tonenkoye appeared on Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov’s Telegram channel. The governor mentioned that work was being done to repair the damage but did not provide any further details.

A day later, state news agencies TASS and RIA Novosti reported, citing emergency services, that the fire was caused by a munitions detonation. TASS reported ten casualties, while RIA Novosti reported three deaths and 13 injured. Neither agency mentioned that all victims were servicemen.

Baza, REN TV, and Telegram channel 112, known to have sources in state agencies, reported the incident with three deaths (ranging from ten to 16 injured). Baza claimed that all victims were conscripted men. According to 112, eight servicemen were missing and the explosion occurred after a staff sergeant picked up a grenade to “gain authority over his subordinates.”

On 17 January, Interfax reported that seven people were killed in the explosion, not three as previously reported. An anonymous source informed the agency that four missing persons were found dead, bringing the total number of casualties to seven. Four more people are still being searched for.

Neither Governor Gladkov nor Nesterov made further comment on the explosion in Tonenkoye.

“Your building is on fire”

Olga Pogorelova, a paramedic from Tonenkoye, told Mediazona that on the morning of 14th January, she heard several explosions, not just one. According to her, at half past four in the morning, all the residents of their khutor, around 70 people, were awakened by soldiers in military uniform.

“They knocked on our windows and woke us up, door-to-door,” Pogorelova says. “The servicemen themselves did it. I opened the window and asked what was happening. They told me, ‘Your building is on fire.’ That was it, and we started packing. We were behind the wall of our house when the explosions happened.”

The explosions were caused by the detonation of ammunition that the military had stored in the community centre. Pogorelova’s medical office was in the same building, but on the opposite side, and it was completely destroyed in the fire. She explains that an improvised “barracks” was located on the other side of the wall from her office.

“I saw the ammunition myself,” she says. “It was in the hallway, everything was lined up with wooden crates. Of course, we now know what was in them: grenades, firearms, assault rifles. They were thrown away and are still there [near the community centre],” she says.

Pogorelova adds that the barracks in the community centre was set up about a week before the explosion and that she was concerned about the constant smoke from the oven that penetrated into her office from behind the wall.

“50 people were behind the wall. Can you imagine? And they were burning wood there. The corridor, the smoke, the soot, and the smell were awful... And those walls! Those men...” she said, specifying that she did not know exactly how many mobilised men were living in the community centre. “The first day 50 of them came, then some more. I did not ask them. They had their own medic and did not come to the infirmary. Why would they come to me?”

No one asked for Pogorelova’s opinion during the placement of the mobilised men, and it never occurred to her to talk to their commanders or complain to her superiors about the weapons stored behind the wall. When telling the story, she is visibly nervous and says how relieved she is that none of the locals were hurt in the explosion. She does not know the exact number of soldiers who died that morning, but according to rumors, many of them “inhaled the smoke.”

“Who was I supposed to talk to?” Pogorelova fulminates. “They had a lot of bosses there, and who exactly should I have talked to? Can you imagine, they brought assault rifles, and nobody asked! That was their prerogative, not mine! I had nothing to do with them! And I am so glad that my folks were not affected. All my people are alive, and their people are their business... How many of them died there... How many were wounded... It’s their own fault.”

“The entire village will confirm that they were drunk”

According to Pogorelova, the community centre is located 15–20 meters away from the nearest houses. She has not received any reports of any damage to the properties of Tonenkoye residents in the fire, but she recounts that the windows in the cowshed on one of the plots were “simply bent.”

Elnur Rajapov lives in one of the closest houses to the building that was destroyed by fire. The villager admits that his house was damaged, but he does not wish to elaborate.

The head of the Belgorod region, Gladkov, came to visit the site and saw everything for himself but what do you journalists want?” Rajapov says evasively. “He is now distributing stuff, arranging for repairs, and so on! Will you repair it for me at your own expense? If so, then I’ll tell you what’s damaged!”

Rajapov mentions that on the night of the explosion, he was not at home as he was a guest at his sister’s birthday celebration. The next day, he says, the residents of nearby buildings “were given accommodation, a place to sleep, something to eat, and everything was fine.” Although Rajapov realizes he could have been killed, he speaks of the danger with a fatalistic attitude, saying, “It’s fate, no one knows what will happen and how it will happen. What is written by destiny is what we shall endure. As they say, God protects him who protects himself. Fear or not, it’s fate. I’m a kind of a religious man, so I don’t think too much about it. If it was meant to be, then it was meant to be.”

Anna Geokchaeva, a resident of the neighboring village of Pestunovo, states that the mobilized troops were stationed in the closed school building in her village on Orthodox Christmas Eve, just as they were in Tonenkoye. She explains that the soldiers frequently interacted with each other, and that they frequently went to the nearby village of Khmelevoye where they would buy all the alcohol in the stores and sometimes moonshine. “Men will be men,” she adds.

Half of the school building in Pestunovo burned down in November, according to Geokchaeva, and the remaining half was occupied by an estimated 30 soldiers who brought their own beds and mattresses.

Anna says that drunken soldiers often acted in a defiant manner. “They tried to threaten our local guys, told them: ‘We have a video of how we stabbed and killed the Ukrainians, how we fought in the war for you...’ The accusations were made. However, the entire village will confirm that they were drunk,” she says.

The residents of the neighbouring villages heard about the explosion on the same day, with people saying that private homes in Tonenkoye had been damaged. “The windows were blown out and some people’s fences and roofs were damaged,” Anna says. But the residents of Pestunovo were unable to reach their neighbors as a checkpoint had already been set up at the entrance to Tonenkoye.

According to Geokchaeva, among those guarding the entrance to the village were also mobilized from the burnt-out community centre, but they were reluctant to answer questions from locals. “Some of them said it was a prilet from Ukraine, then they said they started a fire, and then they said a grenade got opened... They didn’t have time to close it and the explosions started,” she recalls.

Here, Anna pauses and suddenly suggests that the military “could have been set up.” “Well, it just looks silly from the outside, grown-ups fooling around with a grenade and not having time to put the pin in?,” she says, starting to doubt. But then she agrees with the version about the grenade. “Well, yes... If they bought alcohol in front of my eyes... Most likely, they were just drunk and their drunkenness led them to it,” she concludes.

Editor: Dmitry Tkachev

Translator: Daria Fomina

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