By Tatiana Gomozova and Alexander Paramoshin
BELGOROD, Russia (Reuters) – A week after fleeing her home in southern Russia to escape cross-border shelling from Ukraine, Irina Shevtsova is adjusting to life as a refugee inside her own country.
Shevtsova is one of thousands of Russians who have abandoned their homes and taken shelter in Belgorod, the nearest big Russian city to the border with Ukraine.
They spend their time drinking coffee, lounging on beds in temporary shelters, picking through piles of donated clothing and wondering when they will be able to go home.
“It’s very scary, we’re frightened, we don’t believe in anything, lately we’ve stopped believing. We jump every time we hear a noise,” Shevtsova, 62, said. “Our children and old people are very scared.”
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The number of uprooted Russians is a tiny fraction of the millions of Ukrainians who have become refugees and seen their towns and cities destroyed in the conflict.
But more than 15 months after President Vladimir Putin sent his army into Ukraine, Belgorod and its surrounding region are feeling the blowback from Moscow’s “special military operation” more painfully than any other part of Russia.
In late May, two militia groups made up of Russians fighting on Ukraine’s side crossed over from Ukraine with armored vehicles in the biggest incursion into Russia since the conflict started, conducting two days of battles with Russian forces.
Russia said it killed more than 70 of them and pushed the rest back across the border. Ukraine said it had nothing to do with the attack, which it cast as an internal Russian strife.
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The raid prompted Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin to accuse the military establishment of “playing the fool” by failing to defend Belgorod, and to float the possibility that his Wagner fighters might come to the region’s aid.
Lyudmila Rumyantseva – who, like Shevtsova, fled the town of Shebekino close to the Ukraine border in early June – said help from Prigozhin or Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Russia’s southern Chechnya region who also controls his own army, might not go amiss.
“I think they have a stricter attitude, more responsible, probably… We’ll be glad to see any of them if they can just return our homes to us,” she said.
Sergei, 66, said he had fled Shebekino when soldiers told him to grab some clothes and leave with them if he wanted to stay alive. He said he had no doubt that Prigozhin’s Wagner group, which includes convicts recruited from Russian jails, would be up to the task.
“The Wagner guys, if they come, will do their job. They are prisoners. They are real people. Such people should be rewarded,” he said, before adding “that’s enough, otherwise they’ll put me in jail”.
On the surface, life in Belgorod appears largely normal in the warm early summer, with children riding scooters and toy cars in the city’s Victory Park while jaunty pop music blares from loudspeakers.
But reminders of the conflict are not far away. Signs directing people to the nearest shelters are a common sight. Military helicopters are occasionally seen overhead.
Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov felt the need to publish a video on Tuesday reassuring people that there was no enemy presence inside the region.
But his Telegram account every day this week has listed dozens of attacks on villages near the border from mortar rounds, artillery fire or bombs dropped from drones, inflicting no fatalities but causing damage to buildings, vehicles and infrastructure.
Reuters could not independently confirm the attacks. Ukraine does not comment on military operations outside its own borders.
Alexandra Bespalova, another uprooted resident of Shebekino, said she still supported Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, but that Russia needed to do something to protect its own territories.
“I always believed that we were right, that our government is right taking Luhansk, the Donbas region, our Russian people under its wing,” she said.
“But I also believed – and believe – that you have to defend yourself first.”
(Reporting by Reuters, writing by Mark Trevelyan; editing by Grant McCool)
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