Ukrainian Civilians' Experience of ViolenceRoundup
tags: Russia, war, Ukraine, human rights
This article is based on interviews and research by the Reckoning Project, a multinational group of journalists and researchers collecting evidence of war crimes in Ukraine.
On the night of february 24, 2022, the sound of missiles jolted Viktor Marunyak awake. He saw flashes in the sky and billowing black smoke; then he got dressed and went to work. Marunyak is the mayor of Stara Zburjivka, a village just across the Dnipro River from Kherson, and he headed immediately to an emergency meeting with leaders of other nearby villages to discuss their options. They quickly realized that they were already too late to connect with the Ukrainian army. Their region was cut off. They were occupied.
Occupied. Marunyak had been expecting the war to break out, but he had no sense of what a Russian occupation of his village might mean. Like his colleagues, Marunyak is an elected official—genuinely elected, since 2006, under Ukrainian laws giving real power to local governments, not appointed following a falsified plebiscite, as a similar official might have been in the Soviet era or might be in modern Russia. That meant that when the occupation began, he felt an enormous responsibility to stay in Stara Zburjivka and help his constituents cope with a cascade of emergencies. “Already, within a few days, there were families lacking food,” he recalls. “There was no bread or flour, so I was trying to buy grain from the farmers … Many residents began contributing the food they could share, and so we created a fund, providing assistance on demand.”
Similar plans were made to locate and distribute medications. Because the Ukrainian police had ceased to function, citizens formed nighttime security patrols staffed with local volunteers. Marunyak prepared to negotiate with whoever the Russians sent to Stara Zburjivka. “I told people not to be afraid, saying, when the Russians would come, I’ll be the first to talk to them.”
The Russian soldiers who arrived in Kherson—like the Russian soldiers who occupied Bucha and Irpin, the Kharkiv region, Zaporizhzhya, or anywhere else in Ukraine—were not prepared to meet people like Marunyak. To the extent that the invaders had any understanding of where they were and what they were meant to be doing (some, initially, had none), they believed that they were entering Russian territory ruled by an insecure and unpopular Ukrainian elite. Their actions suggested that their immediate goal was to decapitate that elite: arrest them, deport them, kill them. They did not expect this to be difficult.
Their theory of occupation was not new. Soviet soldiers entering the territory of eastern Poland or the Baltic states during World War II also arrived with lists of the types of people they wanted to arrest. In May 1941, Stalin himself provided such a list for occupied Poland. To the Soviet dictator, anyone linked to the Polish state—police, army officers, leaders of political parties, civil servants, their families—was a “counter-revolutionary,” a “kulak,” a “bourgeois,” or, to put it more simply, an enemy to be eliminated.
Russia made similar lists before invading Ukraine a year ago, some of which have become known. Ukraine’s president, prime minister, and other leaders featured on them, as did well-known journalists and activists. But Russian soldiers were not prepared to encounter widespread resistance, and they certainly did not expect to find loyal, conscientious, popularly elected small-town and village mayors.
Perhaps that explains why Marunyak, age 60, was punished with such horrific cruelty after the Russians arrested him on March 21. Along with a few other local men, the Stara Zburjivka mayor was kept blindfolded and handcuffed for three days. Russian soldiers beat him. They gave him nothing to eat and little to drink. One time he was stripped naked and forced to stay in the cold for several hours. A gun was held to his head, and he was threatened with drowning. He was told that his wife and daughters would also be captured. Once, he said, the soldiers choked him until he lost consciousness. They kept demanding to know where he kept his weapons. Because Marunyak fit into no category that the Russians could recognize—perhaps even because his local patriotism and his civic-mindedness seemed strange to them—they decided he must be a secret member of a Ukrainian “sabotage group.” He was not. He had no weapons and no military skills.