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'They didn't understand anything, but just spoiled everyone's lives'

How Russian invaders unleashed violence on small-town residents

Ben Shmulevitch; The Reckoning Project; Alexander Nemenov / AFP / Getty; John Moore / Getty; Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

On the night of February 24, 2022, the sound of missiles jolted Viktor Marunyak awake. He saw flashes in the sky and billowing black smoke; then he got dressed and went to work. Marunyak is the mayor of Stara Zburjivka, a village just across the Dnipro River from Kherson, and he headed immediately to an emergency meeting with leaders of other nearby villages to discuss their options. They quickly realized that they were already too late to connect with the Ukrainian army. Their region was cut off. They were occupied.

Occupied. Marunyak had been expecting the war to break out, but he had no sense of what a Russian occupation of his village might mean. Like his colleagues, Marunyak is an elected official—genuinely elected, since 2006, under Ukrainian laws giving real power to local governments, not appointed following a falsified plebiscite, as a similar official might have been in the Soviet era or might be in modern Russia. That meant that when the occupation began, he felt an enormous responsibility to stay in Stara Zburjivka and help his constituents cope with a cascade of emergencies. “Already, within a few days, there were families lacking food,” he recalls. “There was no bread or flour, so I was trying to buy grain from the farmers … Many residents began contributing the food they could share, and so we created a fund, providing assistance on demand.”

Similar plans were made to locate and distribute medications. Because the Ukrainian police had ceased to function, citizens formed nighttime security patrols staffed with local volunteers. Marunyak prepared to negotiate with whoever the Russians sent to Stara Zburjivka. “I told people not to be afraid, saying, when the Russians would come, I’ll be the first to talk to them.”

He was. And he paid a horrific price for it.

Read the full story in the Atlantic here.

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