- Kherson was occupied by Russia for more than eight months
- Suspicion runs deep after the Russians leave the city
- Some residents accuse them of collaboration during the occupation
- Ukraine has filed thousands of cases against the suspects
Kherson, Ukraine, May 18 (Reuters) – Valentina Haraz says she is not a traitor.
Yet his garden walls in the Ukrainian city of Kherson are covered in graffiti, marking him as a Russian collaborator. “Rushist” – the Ukrainian combination of Russian fascism – is painted in red paint. Accused “Zs” — symbols of support for Moscow’s war machine — are used liberally.
Fear and suspicion prevail on the streets of the southern port of Kherson, which was occupied by Russian troops for more than eight months before being driven out by Ukrainian forces in November. The city is now the focus of incessant Russian bombing.
Six months into the occupation, neighbors don’t trust neighbors. Traitors can be anywhere.
Haras, a district administrator, was knocked on his door on November 26 by four Ukrainian army soldiers, days after Russian troops left, and accused him of collaboration, a crime punishable by a maximum of 10-15 years in prison. They raided his home and seized his phone and computer, he added, citing complaints from neighbors that he had encouraged residents to surrender and take out Russian passports.
The 74-year-old was not arrested or charged with any crime but was questioned by police. He has denied all the charges against him and said he could not understand why he was labeled a collaborator, adding that he was happy when the Russians were kicked out.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” she said tearfully outside her home. “They didn’t find anything.”
Neighbor Irina Nechevilova gave a different account.
“He openly supported the Russians and told everyone that Russia was better, he felt terrible under the Ukrainian regime. This was not a silent confession,” Nesevilova said.
“People expected her to be picked up immediately. We wrote charges against her for months. But she didn’t and people were shocked.”
Police at the local station where she was questioned declined to comment on the case. Ukraine’s military did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Reuters could not independently verify Haraz’s or Nechevilova’s version of events.
As Russian forces retreat from territory they once occupied, accusations of collusion have become a part of daily life across Ukraine.
According to Oleksandr Musiyenko, a Kyiv-based military analyst, Russia has lost more than 40% of the territory it captured since launching a full-scale invasion in February last year, taking control of a fifth of the country, including Crimea.
More than 5,300 cooperation cases have been registered across the country, according to the Attorney General’s website. It was unclear what stage the cases were in and the attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Russia’s daily shelling
Tensions in Kherson are heightened by near-daily shelling of Russian troops stationed on opposite sides of the Dnipro River. Some families are divided, with members living on different sides of the river.
One day of particularly heavy shelling in early May killed at least 23 people in the city; Many windows are still boarded up and the buildings are partially damaged.
When the Russians captured Kherson, they held a referendum on whether the city and its territory should become part of Russia, which Moscow claimed received local support, but Kiev and the West dismissed the referendum as a sham.
In a snapshot of distrustful communities, Reuters spoke to five residents who they suspect knew or cooperated with the Russian occupiers.
Since the city was taken, 152 criminal cases related to cooperation have been sent to the courts, said Serhii Kalmikov, first deputy of the Kherson regional prosecutor. They have interacted with 162 people, including local legislators, police officers, doctors, businessmen and residents.
Kalmykov told Reuters that 14 people had been found guilty so far in the first cases brought to trial, including some who persuaded others to vote in the referendum.
Kherson — along with some other parts of the country — has no functioning courts because of the conflict, and the process of bringing people to trial is slow because trials must be held elsewhere, local officials said.
The cases seen so far may be the tip of the iceberg.
A spokesman for the SBU security service in the Kherson region said it had identified 1,147 people involved in organizing and conducting the referendum, without giving details of those cases.
Traitor or survivor?
If Ukraine’s promised counteroffensive pushes the Russians further back, many villages, towns and cities are likely to suffer, as Kherson enjoys today.
Cases of cooperation can point to the difficult choices people must make when trying to survive under occupation.
For example, according to the All-Ukrainian Agrarian Council lobby group, some farmers may be sued because they registered their farms under occupation to continue their businesses under Russian rules.
The Council cites the case of a farm owner who fled his farm in the Zaporizhia region after Russian forces occupied it. He left the business to his workers, who had to register with the Russians and obtain Russian passports.
Some lobby groups say the laws governing cooperation are vague and should be revised to reflect the reality of people trying to continue living while under occupation. Or, as the All-Ukrainian Agrarian Council put it, distinguish between “who is a traitor and who works for a living.”
Report by Elizabeth Piper; Additional reporting by Olena Harmash, Pavel Polityuk, Tom Balmforth, Dan Peleshchuk, Viktoriia Lakezina, and Stefaniia Bern; Editing by Mike Collette-White and Pravin Char
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