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A bitter truth of the war in Ukraine is that Russia's invading troops have allies

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

One of the bitter truths of the war in Ukraine is that Russia's invading troops have allies there in Ukraine. They're a small minority of the population, but their impact can be deadly. NPR's Joanna Kakissis brings us this story of what authorities say was collaboration in a small village in eastern Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRYING)

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Talk of betrayal started right after the missile attack, and it got louder with each funeral. There were so many funerals, sometimes five or six a day. At this one, Valentyna Kozyr (ph) weeps over the coffin of her 8-year-old grandson, Ivan.

VALENTYNA KOZYR: (Through interpreter) He was such a good little boy. He did his homework. He was kind. My son died, and my daughter-in-law is in the hospital. We hear it's someone local who did this.

KAKISSIS: Before the attack, about 340 people lived in Hroza. It seems like a peaceful hamlet surrounded by tall stocks of wheat with geese and quacking ducks in the yards. Serhii Starikov, the head of the local administration, believed Hroza was a close-knit place.

SERHII STARIKOV: (Through interpreter) The locals were self-starters. They were active in sports and active in public life. They did a lot for their village.

KAKISSIS: But he says, like many villages close to the Russian border, loyalties were mixed. And Lyubov Pletinka agrees.

LYUBOV PLETINKA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: She's in her 60s, bundled in a puffy purple jacket. She sits on a wooden bench where she used to greet her neighbors. Not all were Ukrainian patriots.

PLETINKA: (Through interpreter) They didn't greet us. They just passed by. They were just waiting for the Russians to come to the village.

KAKISSIS: And the Russians did. They occupied Hroza in early 2022. Pletinka says two local policemen, brothers Volodymyr and Dmytro Mamon, went to work for the Russian occupiers. They arrested her son for his pro-Ukrainian views.

PLETINKA: (Through interpreter) He was beaten for three days. They put a bag over his head, tied him up and locked him up.

KAKISSIS: When Ukraine retook the village last fall, the Mamon brothers fled to Russia, and Hroza began to honor its defenders, including a soldier killed in action in eastern Ukraine. His family decided to rebury him at home this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARTEM DEKHTIARENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: Artem Dekhtiarenko, a spokesman for Ukraine's security services, said in a video statement that the Mamon brothers corresponded with villagers via text messages. That's how they found out that the soldier's family was holding a reception at Hroza's cafe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEKHTIARENKO: (Through interpreter) Having found out the exact address and time of the event, Volodymyr Mamon passed on this information to the Russians.

KAKISSIS: This funeral was set for October 5. Zhenia Pyrozhok's parents decided to go.

ZHENIA PYROZHOK: (Through interpreter) I stayed at home. I knew they planned to go to the cemetery, but not to the memorial gathering at the cafe afterwards. But they probably thought, what's another half hour? Let's go honor him.

KAKISSIS: Half of the village was at this cafe when Russia hit it with a powerful Iskander missile.

KAKISSIS: Vassily Nebenzia, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, claimed that Moscow had wiped out neo-Nazis that day. Zhenia Pyrozhok says that in fact, the Russians killed 59 civilians. His two brothers found the bodies of their elderly parents in the rubble.

PYROZHOK: (Through interpreter) My parents were retired. They took care of their farm, and they milked cows. We liked keeping them company, driving them around.

KAKISSIS: Ukraine's security services have named the Mamon brothers as suspects, accused of high treason. They believe an accomplice in Hroza is still at large.

IHOR KOVALYK: (Singing in non-English language).

KAKISSIS: Rain has washed away the blood from the cafe's remains. The only thing that's grown in Hroza is the cemetery. There are dozens of new graves. Father Ihor Kovalyk, a military chaplain, came from the front line to help bury the dead. He says villagers ask him how they can ever forgive the neighbors who betrayed them.

KOVALYK: (Through interpreter) Of course, as a Christian, as a priest, I must advise them to forgive. But I wouldn't know what to do if I were in their place instead.

KAKISSIS: There are some things, he says, that cannot be forgiven.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Hroza, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joanna Kakissis
Joanna Kakissis is an international correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she leads NPR's bureau and coverage of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.