“I felt shock for the first time during the war.” Residents of Russian city of Belgorod describe a week under shelling
Павел Васильев
“I felt shock for the first time during the war.” Residents of Russian city of Belgorod describe a week under shelling
3 January 2024, 20:59

Belgorod after the shelling, December 30, 2023. Photo: Reuters

On December 29, the Russian military launched a massive attack on Ukrainian cities, including Kyiv. On December 30, Ukrainian forces shelled the centre of Belgorod, the city in the vicinity of the border, killing 24 people, including four children, according to official Russian reports. The shelling continued into the new year, with local authorities reporting one more casualty. Authorities decided to evacuate 600 people from a Belgorod district due to an unexploded shell. Mediazona spoke to several residents of Belgorod about what happened in the city on the eve of the New Year and how they are living now, amidst constant bombardments.

“It feels like it’s only going to get worse.” Ivan, 28

I missed [the first bombardment on December 29] because I was in a shopping mall in the city centre and heard nothing. Only later, when I met friends, did they tell me that the explosions were quite audible in the city.

It’s important to understand that Belgorod is quite a small city. It’s about five kilometres this way, five kilometres that way. On the first day, I didn’t pay attention to where exactly the shrapnel was falling and didn’t take seriously what happened on the 29th.

This is the worst time since the beginning of the war. It’s never been like this before. The worst before was the shelling of Shebekino.

On the 30th, I was at home, thinking of going to the supermarket to stock up for New Year’s Eve. Then I started hearing explosions outside. It wasn’t just a single explosion, but a series. I got really scared, went out into the hallway where there are no windows. Everything inside was shaking, furniture was moving, windows were trembling. It was so loud, as if something was exploding right above my building. Later I found out that the explosions happened just a 10-minute walk away, near the Technological University.

For the first time during the war, I think, I felt shock. When you don’t know what to do. I talk to relatives in Kharkiv, and they’ve got used to explosions and noise every day. They’ve adapted to it in some crazy way. But here, it feels more like a terrorist attack, something exploded somewhere, before the holiday. And you don’t know if it’s going to happen again, whether it’s safe to leave the house or wait.

It would be understandable if something happened every day: you’d think, what must be, must be—and you go about your business. But here, you don’t know whether to wait it out or not. So you exist in this kind of uncertainty.

In the end, I hardly left home on December 30, only went to a nearby shop in the evening. The next day I went to the supermarket, a 20–25 minute walk. All the way, you’re looking for where to hide. You see cars along the way that can also explode easily from shrapnel. You don’t feel safe at all. That feeling remains: you don’t want to go outside unnecessarily, meet friends in this cafe we usually go to either.

I have this personal story: in April, I dreamed that the city centre was shelled. It was scary after that dream, and now, when I saw the footage [of the aftermath of the shelling], it was like something like that came true. And I still haven’t been to the city centre since the 30th.

A friend of mine left Belgorod to stay with her relatives on the morning of the 31st. Another friend went on vacation and is now thinking that if this doesn’t stop—his vacation is almost until the end of January—he won’t return to the city.

I was really in shock until the night of the 30th. I just wanted to lie down, sleep, and do nothing. And only by night did I start to feel life again, meeting relatives for the celebration.

I’ve decided to leave. To some extent, it’s indeed related to personal safety, because the noise that’s being created now is not like before—it’s much louder, more powerful, and more frequent than ever before.

The thing is, I work as a therapist and I work online, my clients are from other places. If I were working with local people, where would they go if I left? But I work with people who are far away, and they are worried and don’t feel like we can continue meeting as usual. How can I create a trusting environment if I have to sit tense all the time, waiting for something, and in case of an explosion, run and hide in the hallway? It’s not a working environment at all for my profession. I’m confused and now thinking about how and where to leave.

What’s the situation in the city? Everyone goes about their business. The next day, 31 December, they were already laying flowers. A friend of mine, who owns a tea club, decided not to close—his venue is in the basement, and he said people were hiding there that day, and he served them tea.

Yesterday, the mayor announced that the main shopping centres are closing for the next few days, and so are cinemas, so that people don’t go out unnecessarily.

The situation with bomb shelters is unclear. They’ve all been closed, designated people with keys are supposed to open them, or you need to get the keys from them. But, of course, the idea itself is absurd, that you can get into a shelter through some designated person. I’ve never been in a bomb shelter. And, for example, I can stay in my apartment in the corridor, or I need to go outside, run to the next building, not knowing whether the shelter is open or not.

Today [January 3], the shelling started at 5:30 am. The second round was at 6:30. After the second one, I realised I didn’t want to get up and run to the bathroom or corridor every time. So I laid blankets on the floor in the bathroom and slept there.

If you read the comments in local Telegram channels, people who are against the war are upset that they are affected. Ukraine is shooting at the civilian population, even though we, the civilians, are not participating in the war.

In general, the local authorities seem to be handling everything competently. There are some assistance centres, payments [to the affected], some kind of repairs are being paid for for businesses and all that.

My friends are very negative and pessimistic about the situation. They think it’s going to get worse. The mood is subdued, I would say. It’s unknown when this escalation will end, but there’s a feeling that it’s only going to get worse with time.

I don’t want to leave, but I need to—so I’m torn. I know I need to leave, and I’ve already decided to do it, but I really don’t want to leave friends and family behind. But everyone understands. The problem is that we don’t know if this will end in a week or in six months—or never. This uncertainty is the most stressful thing.

Belgorod after the shelling, December 30, 2023. Photo: Reuters

“The streets are empty, many are afraid to go out unnecessarily.” Anastasia, 32

I planned to celebrate the New Year with my family and have been 60 km from Belgorod since the 31st. It’s quiet here, but my heart is still not at ease. On December 30, I was in the city, fortunately at home. I live in a different district [further from the centre affected by the shelling that day]. It was very loud, the last bang made the windows shake.

Many acquaintances and some close friends have moved to other places. But I’m not planning to leave yet.

Fortunately, I wasn’t in the thick of it, in the immediate vicinity of the strikes or on the street during the shelling. My mind has gotten used to the loud sounds, but my body still reacts with an elevated heartbeat, with tension. When it’s very loud, I mechanically move to the bathroom, sit on the floor, unable to think, waiting for it all to end.

As I’ve been out of town for the last few days, I know about the situation from friends and acquaintances. The city is restless. The streets are empty, many stay at home and are afraid to go out unnecessarily. Despite the external events, I intend to return to the city tomorrow. Come what may.

“I kind of see everything that’s going on as something I can’t change. Just living my little life, trying to be creative. I’ve got a creative job, so there’s a lot of reflection—what if I’m doing something pointless.

December 31st, I was on a bus to the station, sirens blaring. Times like that, you get this anxious feeling, hoping the danger will pass. Everyone’s scared. We all want a peaceful sky, for this to be over soon. Hard to make future plans in such times.

“Great frustration sets in.” Irina, 23

December 30th, I was in a cafe on Kharkov Hill, a bit away from the centre. The windows rattled, but my survival instinct didn’t kick in to move away from them. I was in a relatively safe place.

Actually, here in Belgorod, instincts are pretty dulled. And it’s not just me, lots of people feel it. Like, my mum ran to the window to look through binoculars. You kind of freeze when it happens, time slows right down. You think, will the window blow out or not? You turn into some kind of philosopher, just watching it all. And it’s hard to react to the explosions and shelling. I moved a bit away from the window, but doubt it would’ve saved me from shrapnel.

I don’t plan to leave the city. It’s home, and I’ve got a life here. Changing it would be much more troublesome than staying. Sounds absurd, I know, like, you could just die, stupid. But you get used to everything, even this.

After the first shelling, a friend and I went into a church. Not because we’re religious, she just wanted to see, to go inside. And right after the shelling, the sirens started. It’s been like that for days. First the shots, then the sirens. What’s the point, no one can say.

Today [January 3], many aren’t working, but we are, our organization. I went back to work just for a day. Felt absurd getting ready in the morning. There were explosions around 6 am, the second ones. The first were around two or three in the morning, hardly got any sleep. Lying there till the last minute in the morning, thinking what an absurdity, going to work, keeping up some internal standards. Like, work matters, it’s important—when your room’s walls are facing the street. If something hits, no chance at all. And so, great frustration sets in. But still, I somehow shrugged off my worries, regained the strength, and left the house.

The city is half-empty. Usually, there are way more cars, more transport. Hardly anyone on public transport [now]. They’ve cut back services, some routes are diverted. Now, I don’t even know what to compare it to. Everyone’s panicking. At work, everyone pretends they’re so into it, doing something, but really—they’re all anxious about their families, the ones left at home. And all this feels so strange.

I don’t know what will happen today, or tomorrow. My colleague at work lives in a corridor, seriously. And she’s thinking of moving to St. Petersburg permanently. She’s scared, really scared, always has been. I’m somehow calmer about it, don’t know why, honestly.

I react unusually to all this. I don’t run to the basement, rarely move away from the windows, hoping on some kind of fate that I’ll be lucky. Honestly, that’s how I view death: if it’s meant for you, it’ll find you. And if not, then not.

I could be wrong. But still, I’m well aware and acknowledge that I’m unlikely to live differently. I just run to the corridor at most. And I’m definitely not going down to any basements with rats.

Editor: Egor Skovoroda

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