The town of Starobilsk in Luhansk Oblast has been under Russian occupation for more than a month, – with the Russian invaders declaring they had "joined" the settlement to Russia’s sham Luhansk People's Republic.
According to a local resident, the invaders intimidate local residents, search their homes, and rob government institutions.
The town of Starobilsk has been under the control of the Russian army since March 2, 2022. Online propaganda outlets claim that town has been "liberated" from the "Ukrainian military and nationalists."
Russian proxy forces are rebranding the town as part of the Luhansk People's Republic or LPR.
For example, in Starobilsk, the occupiers opened a "State Bank of LPR" in place of the Ukrainian state bank Oschadbank, and a "Post of LPR" instead of the Ukrainian state postal service Ukrposhta.
They also plan to introduce local mobile operator Lugakom instead of Ukrainian mobile operators. In addition, in mid-March, they launched a train from Starobilsk to the occupied city of Luhansk.
NV journalist Oleksandra Horchynska spoke with a female native of Starobilsk who agreed to talk about life in the town. She has left the town, but keeps in touch with relatives who remain there. For security reasons, the woman did not disclose her name.
Here is her story.
Starobilsk, as well as other settlements in the neighborhood, fully felt the arrival of the Russian military on the first day of war, Feb. 24. Fierce fighting took place in the town on Feb. 26-27, causing many people to hide in bomb shelters. They could not leave them for several days due to heavy shelling. So there was no talk of leaving the town – it was just impossible.
Later, when people began to leave the bomb shelters, it turned out that the town had already been occupied by the Russian army. While earlier, when the war began in the Donbas in 2014-2015, Russia denied that its military were there, now they were not hiding their presence. It was the Russian military, with chevrons, with identification marks. And now they believe that they have "joined" Starobilsk to the sham statelet the LPR.
Russian flags are hoisted throughout the town. The local population is required to change all Ukrainian documents to LPR documents, as well as pay taxes to the LPR. But the truth is that people do not want to be part of the LPR. Many people refuse to work for the new "government" and retire so as not to do so.
A so-called "punitive police" force has been established in the town, which detains and interrogates local residents.
The locals also receive pensions in rubles – about RUB 7,500 ($74) per person. The Ukrainian national currency, the hryvnia, is still in circulation in the town, but, as far as I understand, they plan to abandon it soon and transfer everything to the ruble.
Prices for food and other goods have increased significantly in local stores, but so far they seem to have everything. I don't know where the foodstuffs will be delivered later, when these stocks run out – obviously not from territories controlled by Ukraine.
Residents of occupied Starobilsk are not allowed to enter the territory controlled by the Ukrainian authorities, the invaders stop them at checkpoints. But people can travel, for example, to Luhansk or Russia. I also know that people from other cities nearby, such as Lysychansk and Rubizhne, were brought to Starobilsk. They were taken in trucks, but I don't know whether they came there voluntarily or forcibly.
The Russian military conducts raids in houses and various government institutions. These raids take place in various ways: sometimes they can just break into someone's house, I know cases when they broke into the houses of the elderly. They laid them on the floor, face down, and, in fact, then just robbed the house under the guise of conducting "searches." They may also come under the pretext that someone in the family is related to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. I know a case when they came to a woman, robbed her house under the pretext of such searches, and then noticed that she had a jewelry chain and also took it away. That is, they take away everything they see. Instead, they gave this woman some a dry ration pack that expired in 2015 – it's unclear why.
One family was in the apartment. There was no light throughout the house at this time. Suddenly, they heard a rustle at the front door, someone was trying to open the apartment with a key. It turned out that these were looters who thought that if it was dark in the apartment, so no one was there, and wanted to rob it. But when they saw that there were people inside, they left.
The invaders also came to one man allegedly to "search" the warehouse where he works (he was engaged in the sale of auto parts). The reason for the "search" was that the warehouse works according to Ukrainian documents, and it is necessary to re-register everything according to the documents of the so-called LPR. The warehouse was sealed, and when the man came to see what was there, he noticed that some spare parts had disappeared.
The local polyclinic in Starobilsk now works "manually." The fact is that all the buildings under the control of the Russian army were robbed: the equipment from various institutions is sent directly to Russia. That's why all the computers were taken away from the polyclinic, while the staff has to keep all the documentation in the old way, manually.
The local population in Starobilsk did not want and does not want to "join" Russia or the so-called LPR. Everyone is outraged, but they cannot protest in public because it is dangerous.
Once the locals organized a pro-Ukrainian rally. It was held, but after that they were arrested. The participants of this rally were absent for three days, but later returned, all beaten. The invaders also threatened that those who attend such rallies would not be able to find work in the so-called LPR.
Many people go out without mobile phones, because armed people, the Russian military can approach them at any time and demand their mobile phone. They check if there are Ukrainian symbols, a flag, something like that on the avatar, they check social networks, they can read private messages. If they find something they think is "wrong," you will have problems: at best, they will take away your mobile phone, at worst, they may beat you or take away for a few days.
It is not true if people write that the local population greeted the Russian military "with flowers." People are very scared, they are intimidated. Yes, there was a moment when there were talks about evacuation and some even tried to leave, but these columns were shelled, civilians were simply killed. So the rest have decided not to even try to leave the city.
There are many destroyed buildings, houses, high-rise buildings in the town. The Russians are forcing people to say on camera that Russia has allegedly donated $10,000 to rebuild the bombed-out houses, they are pressuring people morally, forcing them to say so. In fact, there is no money.
Everything that happens there is coercion, under the barrel of a gun, through beating, blackmail and threats. And almost no one writes about it, does not shoot stories – the media pays little attention to the situation in settlements such as Starobilsk, although terrible things happen there. People are like in prison there. They are prisoners who are openly bullied. They do not have any levers of pressure on the invaders.