war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

‘Back in the day Shoygu and I saved Neftegorsk after an earthquake and now he turns Mariupol into it’

Taras Zozulinsky
A resident of Sumy, Yevgen Prokopenko, a former military, formerly a Russian officer. He is asking the Minister of Defence of RF, Shoygu, whom he used to know personally: "What happened to you? What are you doing?".  Interview prepared by a journalist from Lviv, Taras Zozulinsky.

A resident of Sumy, Yevgen Prokopenko, a former military, formerly a Russian officer. He is asking the Minister of Defence of RF, Shoygu, whom he used to know personally: "What happened to you? What are you doing?".  Interview prepared by a journalist from Lviv, Taras Zozulinsky.

– I am 49 years old, I was born in Romny, Sumy oblast. I was studying there. Graduated from a military school in the Saratov region. Served in the Far East, in the Khabarovsk Territory. And sad as it may sound, I am a former Russian officer. I will never be proud of that anymore.

I served in Russia, in MoE. In the Far East. And the first thing that I would like to say is –  it gnaws at me  –  I knew Sergey Kuzhugetovych Shoygu personally. And while I knew him, I was proud of that man, until a certain point.

I just want to ask: what happened to you? Look in the mirror and remember a person that you used to be! What are you doing now? This is the complete opposite of the man I once knew, and with whom in Neftegorsk on Sakhalin we saved the entire city (after the earthquake – ed.). And now you did to Mariupol what we were saving that city from. With your hands, your power. Let him think about it, just think about it. 

... After being dismissed from the Russian army I arrived to Ukraine. Again – Why Ukraine? I had a choice, either remain in Russia –  in any city. or Ukraine. 

And an important factor was that my parents remained here. And that there was Chechnya already. And one of the reasons I retired from the army was that they wanted to send us there. And I did not want to go there. I did not understand why. And it was one of the reasons why I left.

 – Did you have assumptions about the full-scale war?

– If I was told many years ago that Russia would wage war against Ukraine... I always believed that Ukraine is the most peaceful country, and that if a war starts anywhere, it won’t start in Ukraine. 

After return to Ukraine I started to turn Ukrainian, but not 100 percent - I won’t lie. Up to a certain point. That point happened on February 24, 2022.

I was a man of two countries – roughly speaking. So I was Russian-speaking, my wife was from Cherkasy oblast, Ukrainian-speaking. My son speaks both languages. Reads both languages. Talks to dad in Russian, to mom in Ukrainian. There were never any issues with that.

I lived in Ukraine for dozens of years. My work trips took me to Lviv, I visited almost all corners of Ukraine. And the Russian language never obstructed me, and nobody ever told me anything on that topic.

Lately my wife and I lived in two cities – my wife and son in Kyiv – where we lived for many years. And I lived mostly in Sumy oblast, because I have troubles with my parents. My mother died, my father had a hypertensive crisis and a stroke. That is, I spent more time with my father. 

On February 23 my family arrived to me. 

Nothing predicted a woe. Although again, when my father and I were sitting on February 23 and discussing the gathering of troops, all that, and that noise, neither me, nor the people we talked to about this, nobody could even imagine. Everybody thought that it was just the clanging of arms. And it will all end later.

– The first day of aggression in February. What was it for your relatives?

– On February 24 – on the first day of the war – my son who was playing with kids in the yard ran to me and said: dad, there are tanks moving through the city. 

I did not believe. And when we left the yard, and there was that Russian line, we did not have to think long whom it belongs to.

That is, there were numbers of the Russian military bases on the vehicles, guys in Kamaz trucks. There were boys – simply boys. He shouldn’t tell that there were no conscripts. There were full trucks of young soldiers. And of course, it is very real to tell the Russian language from Ukrainian, even surzhyk, And those lines were coming. Good lines, too.

Well, on that moment I personally understood that this is a full-scale war. It came from clanging to occupation. I know what the Russian army is, not from rumors. And I was on military record in Borodyanka, in Kyiv oblast. Accordingly, I gathered my family. The only problem was my father. I couldn’t transport him, and he was almost 80 years old. My father said he won’t go anywhere. I asked my neighbors to look after him.

I took my family and we left. First, we have a house near Poltava, we arrived there, literally spent a day there. and when we realized that the bombing has started, the shooting, I told my wife: we are going to Kyiv and then according to the situation. I will go to Borodyanka and renew my position in the military. I am a military person – why hided. I was prepared for this.

And really, I am Ukrainian, a Ukrainian national, and Ukrainian in soul. And all my family is here.

– You spent the next days of the war in the capital. How did they pass? Have you seen the war crimes?

– We live in Kyiv, near Zhulyany airfield. Closer to the circuit road. At home we had a cellar like this, in a room. Small, shallow. So, strangely enough, my whole family managed to fit in that cellar. Although before a cat would barely fit there. And we were sitting there for almost five days. My wife and child spent five days in the cellar. Literally. Literally on the second day the windows in our house shattered. Because when there was the first missile strike on Kyiv, a tall building was cut. It was hit in Zhulyany. Those two rockets have flown over our building, I don’t know, maybe 30 meters above it. They ruined seven floors. Two missile strikes destroyed seven floors of a building. In a building with 23 floors. From the eleventh to the nineteenth. And when those missiles flew – not when they hit, when they flew – the windows were shattered in our house.

Then the bombing started first far away, then closer and closer. Later it all went more serious, our house was shaking. And everything else. I couldn’t get to Borodyanka, because those orcs stayed there already. And then I saw what they did to Borodyanka – Neither the military registration office nor the town remained.

... There was bombing, there were air fights – we saw them – we went outside. By the way, we saw the “Ghost of Kyiv”. That ace of ours. Well, in action. Since Vasylkiv is not far and there was that air fight. Within Kyiv and beyond the circuit road. But it was all within Kyiv. We have seen the explosions, seen the ballistic missiles shooting, our boys shooting them down. But again, to shoot a missile down is only half of the job. There are fragments that are also damaging. There were Grads, too. Thank God – I say – they hit somewhere, did not make it to us.

There was an explosion when in Vasylkiv they “hit” an oil base. I went to smoke in the night – I didn’t need light. So, there distance from our house to the oil base is about 30 kilometers – and the sky was glowing, like on a summer morning. Bright heat. And it was burning the entire night. It was really scary. My son really spent five or six days without changing clothes, undressing, etc. He lived in the cellar. And my wife almost crawled to avoid lifting her head, somehow managed to cook some crackers. And we gave them to the child.

And he was sitting in the cellar, and those explosions really caused the floor to rise. It was shaking. And the scariest part for me, a living everyday human, was that on the seventh or eighth day my son only took a cup of water. And I won’t forget that day, because I saw how the water was pouring from the cup. My son’s hands were trembling. And he didn’t even notice it. I ask him – son, what’s happening, and he cannot answer. Both his hands were paralyzed, like it happens with sick people.

And that was a breaking moment. During this time, my wife had two nervous breakdowns - each person survives in their own way. Someone within, some in other ways. Meaning, it is all scary. The night shooting, the sub-machine gun sounds. My wife learned to tell what shoots. She learned to tell where the planes work. By sounds. To be honest, we lived by the sounds, not sirens.  It boomed far away, so we can leave to the shop. The volunteer guys arrived, gave two loaves of bread. Once in three days. So we left, took two loaves, while you go to the house along the street, and there are old men and women who don’t leave the house at all, who remained home. So, many people left, many people stayed. And if you go home and have a quarter of a loaf of bread – it is good. We gave it away. Nobody thought about that, there was nothing like this.

– How did you decide to leave Kyiv? How difficult was it to leave?

– When my son’s hands began shaking and I saw that my wife was “on edge”, I went to the railroad station. There we entered the first train and there was so many people there that we sat like fish in a barrel. That’s how it was. So, we didn’t know where to go. There was only the train and they said – to the West. And people with children, dogs and cats, wearing whatever they could. The only thing is, it was humane. That is, everyone understood that the woe is common. 

I will tell you honestly, never in my life have I seen the 16-car trains. Meaning, those two trains were united to bring as many people out as possible. And I spent 11 hours on the way to Lviv in that train standing on one foot. Because there were children, five, nine year old, they were lying in the passageways, they were laid down everywhere. The women let the men sit on their knees, I am telling the truth. Some of the men were disabled, some had something else.

In all those eleven hours our train only stopped once – a woman in one of the cars became sick because of all this crowd. The train was stopped to simply bring her out. And in the process, while we were taking the train, we did not get to Fastov, it is not far from Kyiv – a girl was sitting in a car and making selfies. And on that moment – it was night –  and on that moment a missile really flew past the train’s windows. They were “slamming” the train specifically. And it was seen that they understood – some kind of train is coming. 

– You’ve got many acquaintances and relatives in Kharkiv, in Sumy oblast. Have they told you about the crimes committed by Russians? 

– They’ve done a lot of bad things outside of the city. As far as I know, as my father told, they ruined the elevator. Where the grain is. Excuse me, but it is shitty behavior. 

As for Kharkiv, I can say that back in the day I worked in Kharkiv. I have many friends there on Kholodna Gora. I used to work in Ecopark, in a bar, as a cook. The boys who worked with me – two of them died. There, in Ecopark. The Russians destroyed the Ecopark to the ground. A question – what were the animals guilty of? People from Bryansk and from entire Ukraine used to arrive to visit the Ecopark. It was a free park for people, for children – it was very pretty and interesting. I really saw millions of people who arrived by buses. Both ours and from Russia. This Ecopark did nothing bad. Add to this – it was outside of the city. It was located in the green zone – it was a zone of rest. They bombed it to pieces. Simply. With people, with animals. 

 – How do your acquaintances from Russia treat the Russian aggression?

– I will tell you about two people now. A story about two of my acquaintances. One is from Kharkiv. He spent 57 years in Kharkiv. Never left. He lived there, had a family. Last May his wife died. He is 57 years old. We phoned him, talked. He relocated there (to Russia – ed.), began to record the citizenship, but the fact is, his friends, namely me, remained here. 

When it all began, about a week later, I called him. I said, Vlad, you see what they do to your Kharkiv. I clarify, the man lived in Russia for nine months. And he tells me – those are your Banderas who do this.

I expected to hear anything but that phrase. I said, “Listen, Vlad, you spent your entire life in Kharkiv. Your Kharkiv is being leveled! In fifty years of your life, have you seen at least one Bandera that you are naming? There? And now you are saying this?”

And he tells me – you don’t understand a thing, I lived here a bit and my eyes are now “open”. It’s a person who lived there for nine months. Nine months and his brains have turned off.

And the second one, with whom I served, with whom I attended the same school, here, in Ukraine. He studied in Kharkiv, at the military missile school. Yes. He served in Russia, etc. The man survived Chechnya, lost a hand, saw what our – now their – soldiers can do. And the same was in Chechnya – mostly. Everyone saw and discussed it. I phoned him and say, Lyosha, what’s going on. And he is giving me mostly the same phrase. A man from Kharkiv, but the phrase is the same: “You wanted to attack us. Anyway, what are you talking about – what Kyiv, what Kharkiv, what fatherland?”.

He, too - his father was once a commander in the Romny division. He was a commander. There was a division in Romny. Then it was dismissed. And he spent his entire childhood there. We know each other since we were young. And he visited my family, my wife, with his family, even the last year. We were visiting the sea, vacationing. Together. And I asked him, listen, in all those years you lived here, have you seen the Banderas? You went with us to Odesa for vacation, tell me, where have you seen them. What are you blabbering about? He arrived with Moscow accent and his wife is from Moscow. I ask, has anybody persecuted you here or what. I asked him, have you heard even one Ukrainian word from me? There, in Moscow, when I visited you, or here in Ukraine? And he replied “You don’t understand a thing, our guys are saving you”.

And that’s it – I’m telling you – I made two calls and that’s it. What’s the point? And those are people who have at least been here. They are like this. What’s to say about the people in Russia who only saw Ukraine on the TV. To change their mind you may need to arrange a tour to Mariupol. A guided one. Let them come to Mariupol. To the sea. Under their own Grads. An hour will be enough. And then send that delegation back to Russia. Then their eyes will “open” That’s my opinion.

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