Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Life near Russian-occupied nuclear plant: ‘I don’t know if tomorrow will come’

by Alexander QueryOctober 4, 2022 9:05 pm
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enerhodar_1_2Reports of Russian soldiers abducting and torturing employees up to the top management keep emerging in Enerhodar, the satellite city of the Zaporizhzhia plant. Workers at the plant put their life on the line to protect the plant's nuclear safety, but Russian occupation troops keep on abusing them. (Illustration: Karolina Gulshani)

Editor’s Note: The Kyiv Independent talked to residents who are still in Russian-occupied Enerhodar and those who recently left but still have family in the city. For their safety, we do not disclose their identities. 

When Russian soldiers captured Enerhodar, the satellite city of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in early March, it was a shock for Anastasiia, one of roughly 50,000 residents of the city.

"It was horrible to see them in the streets, but for the first two months, they behaved," she recalled in a conversation with the Kyiv Independent in September. 

Then the mass abductions and tortures began. 

"They torture both men and women," Anastasiia said. "They interrogate them and beat them up."

Anastasiia, who still lives in Enerhodar, says the city has turned into a living hell. She is friends with the nuclear plant workers and active citizens who participated in anti-occupation rallies. She says that those detained by Russian soldiers return from captivity “barely able to stand.” Some don't return at all.

"Taking your health is the minimum sentence (Russians give you), taking your life is the maximum," Anastasiia said.

Abductions and torture make it close to impossible for employees to work properly at the local nuclear plant – the biggest one in Europe – that has been a major component of Russia’s nuclear blackmail. Workers at the plant put their life on the line to avoid a nuclear catastrophe, but Russian occupation troops keep on abusing them. 

Abductions

Enerhodar nowadays resembles a ghost town, according to residents the Kyiv Independent spoke to.

Some estimate that roughly half of Enerhodar's 50,000 residents left after Russia captured the city on March 4. 

The remaining residents live in fear of persecution by Russian soldiers. Their most common practice is abduction.

"Many people simply disappear, and some of them are returned for a ransom," said Anastasiia, who remains in Enerhodar to be with her family who can’t leave the city. The ransom can reach up to Hr 50,000, roughly $1,350. 

It’s a lot of money for Enerhodar, a provincial city where nearly a quarter of the population work at the nuclear power plant. Before the war, the average salary in the region reached $600 a month. So when someone gets detained by Russian soldiers, the community chips in to pay the ransom. 

It's unclear to Anastasiia why the Russians persecute the locals. She sees no pattern in who they target. 

Their “protocol,” however, is always the same.

"They come at night, they take people to basements and take everything they want from the apartment, and then accuse these people of collaborating with the SBU (Ukraine's Security Service)," she said.

Those working at or near the nuclear plant often become victims of Russian soldiers' torture and abuse. Russians force them to continue to work without pay, food, or sleep, according to Dmytro Orlov, the mayor of Enerhodar. He was forced to flee the city.

"Now they take people directly from the nuclear plant, say that someone betrayed them, and throw them into basements," he said. 

Not everyone survives Russian abuse.

Andriy Honcharuk, a diver at the plant's spent fuel pool, was beaten to death on June 29 because he refused to dive into the pools to check "if Ukrainian partisans had hidden weapons there." He died after three days in a coma.

"It's simply unimaginable," Orlov said of Russian troops’ violence against the nuclear plant employees.The head of the nuclear power plant Ihor Murashov was luckier. He was abducted by Russian troops on Sept. 30, being pulled into a car in broad daylight – and was released four days later.

Andrii, a local business owner, witnessed Russians abducting locals in early July, right before he left. 

"Our neighbor was taken away. They didn't even try to hide it," he said. "And when we left, three weeks later, he was still kept in a basement somewhere." Andrii’s family and friends remain in the city.

Anastasiia had to be extremely cautious in communicating with the Kyiv Independent. According to her, Russian soldiers walk among locals dressed as civilians to spy on them.

"They walk around the city in disguise, listening to what people say," she said.

She said she never takes her phone with her when she goes out. "God forbid they take it to check (what's on it)!"

The sham referendums that Russia conducted on Sept. 23-27 in the occupied Ukrainian territories made residents’ life even worse, Anastasiia added. 

“They went from apartment to apartment, they forced people to vote,” she said. “They were catching people on the street, and they came to people’s workplaces. They pointed a machine gun at them and showed where to put a tick.”

Nuclear plant under threat

Abuses and the resulting stress of nuclear plant workers increases the risk of a nuclear disaster, according to the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

"Ukrainian staff operating the plant under Russian military occupation are under constant high stress and pressure, especially with the limited staff available," an IAEA report published on Sept. 6 said.

"This is not sustainable and could lead to increased human error with implications for nuclear safety."

Faltering maintenance could lead to the loss of cooling capacities, culminating in a meltdown of fuel inside an overheated reactor or cooling ponds for spent fuel rods — a scenario similar to the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

Read also: Occupied Ukrainian plant becomes epicenter of Russia's nuclear blackmail

Even the spent fuel would spew radioactive particles hundreds of kilometers from the reactor site across southern Ukraine and Russia. 

This is why some workers chose to stay despite the risks, Anastasiia said. 

"Someone needs to maintain the service at the plant," she said. 

While there are different groups of troops in Enerhodar, the ones in charge of the nuclear plant are reportedly Russian soldiers from the regular army.

Aggressive soldiers

State nuclear agency Energoatom and residents say that both the troops from the regular Russian army and the Kremlin's proxies in Russian-occupied Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts are participating in the persecution of locals in Enerhodar. 

Members of Russia's National Guard (Rosgvardia in Russian) were also spotted in the city. 

All these groups seem to act separately and don’t communicate with each other much, according to locals’ observations. 

Anastasiia believes that representatives of the FSB, Russia's Federal Security Service, are also in Enerhodar. 

According to locals’ testimonies, the first batch of Russians that arrived in Enerhodar in March weren't committing atrocities on a massive scale. Soon, a new group of Russian soldiers, police, and security service officers came – that’s when the situation got much worse. 

The rotation was initiated by the Russian commanders for several reasons. For one, Russian soldiers were "getting used" to the local population and showing compassion to the locals, Energoatom wrote. 

According to local media, looting got worse with every new rotation as soldiers who left the city broke into the apartments of evacuated people and stole their belongings. 

Enerhodar’s motley garrison

The Russian garrison in Enerhodar is a motley crew of soldiers from at least eight Russian units from all across Russia, according to the findings of Ukrainian open-source intelligence (OSINT) research group Molfar.

As of August, about 500 military personnel were stationed in the city alongside anti-aircraft systems and armored vehicles. 

According to Mayor Orlov, one identified soldier belonged to unit 3274 of the 94th division of Russia’s Interior Ministry. He came from Sarov, as did two other identified soldiers. 

One soldier belonging to unit 3473, from Zarechny, central Russia, was also spotted in the city. The 3473 unit includes soldiers who fought in Russia’s war in Chechnya in the early 2000s.

Another serviceman is known to belong to the 3662 unit of the 127th Specialized Motorized Regiment and comes from Sochi, Krasnodar Krai, in southern Russia. 

In August, there were reports that the commander of the 9332 unit stationed in Enerhodar is Colonel Vadim Klimenko, who officially heads the 7th military base, located in occupied Abkhazia. His wife and daughter allegedly live in Ukraine.

According to Ukrainian media StopCor, Alexey Reshetnev, the head of the 3424 unit of Russia’s National Guard from Dzerzhinsk, allegedly took part in the plant’s shelling in March. 

Sergei Dovgan, the commander of the 3377 unit from Zheleznogorsk, a town in Siberia, also allegedly took part in the plant’s shelling, according to Ukrainian media outlet Censor.net. 

The unit is part of the 556th National Guard’s Regiment. 

Yuri Lukachov, commander of the 3642 unit from Kalach-na-Donu, southern Russia, was also allegedly behind some shelling, alongside Muradkhan Akhmedkhanov, a major and a commander of a separate battalion, the 6913 unit of the Russian National Guard troops in Dagestan. 

enerhodar_illustration generalRussian troops in the city are led by Russian Major General Valery Vasiliev, who allegedly ordered to disperse a pro-Ukrainian rally on April 2 with machine guns, stun grenades, and tear gas. (Illustration: Karolina Gulshani)

The general

Russian troops in the city are led by Russian Major General Valery Vasiliev, OSINT group Molfar found.

According to Energoatom, Vasiliev gave the order to disperse a rally against the Russian occupation that locals held on April 2, using machine guns, stun grenades, and tear gas. Five days later, he replaced General Aleksey Dombrovsky, who had allegedly led the assault to capture the city in March.

The Russian Defense Ministry denied the information about Vasiliev’s participation in the war and claimed that, as of August, Vasiliev was in Uzbekistan.

Under Vasiliev's command, Russian troops regularly shell Nikopol, a city of 100,000 people located across the Dnipro River.

In mid-July, Russian forces increased the shelling of Nikopol, including from the territory of the nuclear plant in Enerhodar.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has repeatedly called for Russian military equipment to be withdrawn from the plant's territory.

Shellings

Controlling the city doesn't prevent Russians from shelling Enerhodar and its surroundings to put the blame on Ukraine.

"They accuse Ukraine of shelling, but I can see them shelling the city with mortars, tanks, and helicopters," Anastasia said.

"Our friends and relatives told us that the Russian troops were not even hiding when they shelled (Enerhodar)," Andrii added. 

On Sept. 6, blasts rang out, and power was cut in Enerhodar, leaving the residents without light and electricity. Some of the city's districts still face frequent blackouts.

Orlov said that some areas in Enerhodar are on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe. The same neighborhoods have been left without gas for several months.

Constant shelling adds "enormous pressure" on residents and employees of the plant who already face hardship, according to Anastasia. 

"They go to work under fire, and they can be targeted right at their workplace," she said.

Regardless of the shelling and the risks, Andrii's parents stayed behind to look after their small hardware store. 

"My parents are preparing for winter and repairing the stove in my grandparents' house because most likely there will be no heating there," he said. "But they are also thinking of leaving."

Anastasia is also faced with a tough choice. She doesn’t want to leave her parents alone in the city.

"Russians destroyed our lives, our dreams, and plans," she said. "I don't know if tomorrow is gonna come – but hope dies last. We are waiting for a miracle and believe in Ukraine’s Armed Forces.”

Enerhodar - carsTwo locals discuss on a bench behind damaged vehicles in Enerhodar, near Zaporizhzhia on Sept. 11, 2022. (Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Molfar, a Ukrainian open-source intelligence (OSINT) group, contributed to this report by identifying the Russian units and commanders who are the alleged perpetrators of Russia’s war crimes in occupied Enerhodar. 

____________________

Note from the author:

Hello, I'm Alexander Query, the author of this story. Enerhodar’s residents took a huge risk talking to us, as the Russians regularly check their phone – and the wrong call can land locals in a basement, if not worse. At the Kyiv Independent, we try to bring you the voices of people like this, with all security precautions taken. Consider supporting us for more about the life under Russia’s occupation.


Alexander Query
Alexander Query
Business reporter

Alexander Query is a business reporter at the Kyiv Independent. He is the former business editor at the Kyiv Post. He worked as a TV correspondent and an anchorman at UATV in Ukraine, and received a BA in modern literature from La Sorbonne, in Paris.

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