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Ukrainians struggle to restore social trust in liberated villages: NPR


A man removes pieces of glass from his shop on October 1 in Kupiansk, Ukraine, after the city was liberated from Russian occupation.

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Ukrainians struggle to restore social trust in liberated villages: NPR

A man removes pieces of glass from his shop on October 1 in Kupiansk, Ukraine, after the city was liberated from Russian occupation.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

KUPIANSK, Ukraine — Volodymyr Tsyba has been insulted.

Sipping homemade wine, Tsyba recounts how four intelligence agents showed up at his home near Kupyansk early last month, just days after the northeastern Ukrainian city was liberated from occupation Russian.

They were looking for Russian collaborators.

“‘Are you those people?” he says the officers asked him and his wife. “Take your things. Come with us.

The agents were part of Ukraine’s Security Service, known as the SBU. They had badges. They had weapons.

“It was scary,” says his wife Svitlana.

Ukrainians struggle to restore social trust in liberated villages: NPR

Volodymyr and Svitlana Tsyba speak at their home in Hrushivka, Ukraine on October 18. They say they were arrested by Ukrainian intelligence officials looking for Russian collaborators.

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Ukrainians struggle to restore social trust in liberated villages: NPR

Volodymyr and Svitlana Tsyba speak at their home in Hrushivka, Ukraine on October 18. They say they were arrested by Ukrainian intelligence officials looking for Russian collaborators.

Franco Ordonez/NPR

The officers took them to the police station, where they questioned the couple for two hours. They pressed Svitlana from his work as a clerk for the surrounding villages of Kupyansk.

They wanted to know why she continued to work for the Russians. She told them she didn’t feel like it. She said she was just continuing her work and helping her neighbors endure a very difficult reality.

As a clerk, she takes care of all the legal paperwork of civil life — wills, marriage certificates. But during the occupation, she also collected the names of qualified villagers who could receive Russian payments of 10,000 rubles, or just over $160.

“I understand that we probably should have realized with our actions…maybe by helping people, we were also helping the occupiers,” she says.

She doesn’t blame the SBU for interrogating her. They were doing their job, she said. And, she points out, they let her go. She says they told her they didn’t think she broke any laws.

But she does not understand why her neighbors – whom she says are trying to help – have denounced her as a collaborator. She said they asked to be included in the Russian payments.

“In our village, there was not a single person who did not take this money,” she says. “But I understand. People had to survive. I don’t blame anyone. But what am I guilty of?”

As Cities Recover From Occupation, Residents View Their Neighbors Differently

In recently liberated towns along the front lines of Ukraine’s war, authorities have focused on reaching survivors, documenting war crimes and beginning the process of rebuilding homes and buildings.

But another emerging challenge is how months of Russian occupation have torn the social fabric of these towns and villages.

The neighbors no longer know who to trust. They don’t know who was a collaborator.

Andriy Besedin, acting mayor of Kupyansk, calls it a “huge problem”.

His town was liberated on September 9 as part of the major Ukrainian counter-offensive across the east and south. It is a strategically important location along the Oskil River, with a bridge and a railway depot.

The residents went through a period of great turmoil.

Ukrainians struggle to restore social trust in liberated villages: NPR

Refugees flee across a destroyed bridge in Kupiansk on October 1.

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Ukrainians struggle to restore social trust in liberated villages: NPR

Refugees flee across a destroyed bridge in Kupiansk on October 1.

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First, the Russians invaded the city just days after the war started in February. Officials say Russian forces detained and tortured many residents.

During the occupation, people were just trying to survive. Over the months, resistance turned into adaptation.

Today, after more than six months of occupation, the Russians have disappeared. The Ukrainians regain control. And the inhabitants, once again, must adapt.

Besedin says some people feel betrayed by their neighbors and colleagues. Some of the smallest acts of cooperation with the Russian occupiers are interpreted as signs of collaboration.

Those convicted face up to 15 years in prison, based on new laws passed after the war began.

Schools and hospitals slow to heal

Other residents blame themselves for not resisting the Russians enough, Besedin said.

“It will take time,” he said. “People need to recharge psychologically. And we, as a government, need to provide them with the conditions so that they can understand that Ukraine cares about them.”

Ukrainians struggle to restore social trust in liberated villages: NPR

Andriy Besedin, the acting mayor of Kupiansk, discusses the village’s challenges outside the local hospital on October 18. He says mistrust is a huge problem that needs to be addressed immediately.

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Ukrainians struggle to restore social trust in liberated villages: NPR

Andriy Besedin, the acting mayor of Kupiansk, discusses the village’s challenges outside the local hospital on October 18. He says mistrust is a huge problem that needs to be addressed immediately.

Franco Ordonez/NPR

He notes that the challenge is particularly great in Ukrainian schools. Teachers who resisted the Russians are now refusing to work with colleagues who have accepted contracts to teach within the Russian education system.

Some of the teachers who took Russian posts now say they were unaware of the potential consequences and felt they were simply helping the children.

Tatiana Shmyhyrska, principal of the largest elementary school in the nearby village of Shevenchoke, acknowledges that there are different levels of cooperation, but says teachers who have traveled to Russia for training – and started the school year under the Russian system – should not be allowed to teach Ukrainian children.

And she is uncomfortable being asked by Ukrainian officials to collect information on possible collaborators.

“The situation is so disturbing because it feels like they’re trying to shift the blame to us,” she says.

There are similar challenges at Kupyansk hospital, where doctors have been pressured to treat Russian soldiers.

Dr Yevgeniy Sinko, the hospital’s chief medical officer, says he was held hostage and tortured by Russian forces after he refused to hand over the hospital to the Russians.

But he says some doctors have agreed to treat Russian soldiers. He feels that they should not be judged unfairly.

“According to the Geneva Convention, we have to treat them,” he says. “We are doctors here.”

Ukrainians struggle to restore social trust in liberated villages: NPR

Dr Yevgeniy Sinko inside his hospital ambulance in Kupiansk on October 18. He says he was held hostage for more than two months by Russian soldiers.

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Ukrainians struggle to restore social trust in liberated villages: NPR

Dr Yevgeniy Sinko inside his hospital ambulance in Kupiansk on October 18. He says he was held hostage for more than two months by Russian soldiers.

Franco Ordonez/NPR

Sitting at their kitchen table, Volodymyr and Svitlana Tsyba say they are ready to move on, but acknowledge that they are more reserved with their neighbors now than they were before the war.

“I just take it as another life situation,” Svitlana says.

Volodymyr is less circumspect. He insists he’s not one to hold grudges. But, he says, he has a good memory.

Now I know who I would go into battle with and who I wouldn’t,” he said. “Even among my friends.”

NPR News

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