A reporter in Kharkiv joins the Ukrainian Special Forces patrolling the streets in search of pro-Russian saboteurs. But the military police teams also have to deal with those violating the curfew, which can become a deadly offense during war.
KHARKIV — The appointment is set at 10.30 p.m. in one of the operational centers of the national police. The special teams begin patrolling Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city, before midnight — in the darkness brought on by curfews and blackouts for more than 40 days now.
The goal: to identify anyone wandering around the city without permission — looters, vagrants, and saboteurs in particular. The latter are agents recruited by Moscow to facilitate attacks with drones, missiles and artillery. They're a real thorn in the side for the Ukrainians who, at night, engage in a city-wide hunt to drive out anyone who may represent a danger to the city's security.
In the control room of the "special investigation unit" are a handful of men wearing blue bullet-proof vests and balaclavas. With them are several military men, who act as a link with the army to coordinate operations.
Empty, dark streets
"Saboteur activity has been notable since the early days of the war," explains one of the hooded agents.
Next to him is a colleague of lean build, from Azerbaijan. "I'm from Baku, but I've been working with the Ukrainian police for a long time — this is also our war," he says, confirming the amity between the two countries. Azerbaijanis were also present on Kyiv's fronts, engaged in fighting side by side with Volodymyr Zelensky's forces.
"Let's go," orders the patrol leader while the others position themselves in three cars. The first car puts on the flashing lights, the others follow at close range. Kharkiv is a ghostly city, empty but not completely, with civilians holed up in houses or shelters from which no sign of life shines through. Only the stars of this clear night's sky, a sign of the first days of spring, make it possible to get one's bearings.
The cars proceed slowly, the men scanning the maps on their cell phones. The sign of a vending machine, a rare oasis of light, casts a shadow. The agents suddenly accelerate, get out of their cars and divide into two groups to take on the sides of a structure that has abandoned for over a month.
The Kalashnikovs are loaded: "Don't move! On your knees! Face down!" A man is brought into the back of the van, behind bars, ordered to keep his hands on his head. By violating the curfew, he has become a potential enemy.
"The saboteurs' targets are strategic infrastructure. They also gather information for the Russians about what's going on in the city, where the Ukrainian military and police are, but also point out civilian targets, for example schools," explains another policeman who speaks in fluent French.
It's often the citizens who help us, their reports are priceless.
Targets are flagged with electronic devices or by traditional methods, perhaps marking them so they may be located by drones. To date, 26 of these saboteurs have been captured, says the Azerbaijani officer.
This is a short stop. A call came in about suspicious movement in an apartment building. "It's often the citizens who help us, their reports are priceless," says one of the agents. Information also comes from intelligence or military counterintelligence, or by interrogating prisoners.
Ukrainian police member patrolling an abandoned building in Kharkiv
Forbidden in wartime
The incursion into the Soviet-style building is a quick one: The men split up, seven of them climbing at a brisk pace, three remaining downstairs under the astonished gaze of some of the tenants who begin to gather.
They knock on the iron door with the butt of their rifles, once, twice, three times, saying they will break in if the door is not opened. The reticence lasts a few seconds, the agents enter with their AK-47s.
Inside the house of just 20 square meters there are about ten teen boys who end up face down on the ground. The apartment is bare, windows sealed with adhesive tape, alcohol bottles everywhere — they are forbidden in wartime.
The boys are taken outside, placed with their faces to the wall, hands on their heads and legs spread, interrogated one by one.
One of the soldiers goes through them whispering something in their ears, before they are taken away by the neck. They don't look like saboteurs, but in wartime, alcohol and gatherings are considered major offenses because they endanger the rest of the community.
Lights and noise can make an apartment building an easy target.
Some of them reportedly assaulted the neighbors who had been begging them to stop, because lights and noise can make an apartment building an easy target. Some 1,200 apartment buildings in Kharkiv have been damaged by Russian bombs.
In war, any violation of rules takes on outsized proportions. "Every day could be the decisive one for us who are here to defend Ukraine — the situation is critical," says one of the soldiers. "And it could be even more critical if the disengagement from Kyiv results in a new offensive on Kharkiv. It is intolerable that boys like these put in danger the community while their peers are at the front as volunteers or fighters."
Normal young people doing what young people do has become a mortal danger for their neighbors. War amplifies everything, where teenaged impudence can turn into an act of sabotage.
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