1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

How Belgorod has suffered from Ukraine's retaliation strikes

Alexey Strelnikov
January 9, 2024

For almost two weeks, the Russian border town of Belgorod has been shelled by the Ukrainian army on a daily basis. Dozens of people have died or suffered injuries. DW spoke with some of Belgorod's residents.

Two firefighters putting out a blaze after a car was set on fire by shelling
Firefighters have their work cut out for them in BelgorodImage: Russia Emergency Situations Ministry via Telegram/AP/picture alliance

Russian authorities have evacuated the first 300 Belgorod residents to neighboring locations, after repeated Ukrainian shelling of the town. Belgorod, situated at the Russian-Ukrainian border and home to some 350,000 residents, has been the target of Ukrainian attacks for approximately two weeks almost on a daily basis, as a response to increased Russian shelling of targets in Ukraine.

The most intense missile attacks up to now took place on December 30, 2023, targeting the center of Belgorod. That day's attacks killed 25 people, including four children; more than 100 other people were injured. Moscow emphasizes that there had been no military targets in the center of Belgorod and that this had been a deliberate assault on civilian infrastructure.

A view of destroyed buildings in Belgorod
Ukrainian strikes wreaked havoc on Belgorod at the end of December 2023Image: Pavel Kolyadin/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

According to media reports, however, the Ukrainian military has unofficially declared that the attack had indeed been directed at Russian military facilities, but due to a "fatal mistake" during the operation of the Russian air defense system, shrapnel had rained down on the center of Belgorod.

Residents taken by surprise

One day earlier, on December 29, ten Ukrainian regions had been exposed to an extensive Russian missile attack during which, according to Ukrainian authorities, more than 40 people were killed and at least 150 injured. Since the beginning of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Ukrainian cities have been suffering artillery, missile and drone attacks almost daily.

The shelling of Belgorod by Ukraine's army had come as a complete surprise to many of the city's residents, 24-year-old "Christina" (who prefers not to disclose her real name) tells DW.

View of an apartment building damaged by a Ukrainian military strike
This apartment building in Belgorod was damaged at the end of DecemberImage: Pavel Kolyadin/ITAR-TASS/IMAGO

Prior to the December 30 attack, only the outskirts of the administrative center of the eponymous Belgorod oblast had been hit at best, Christina remembers. Although her apartment is in the center of town, the building had been spared during the December 30 bombing, in contrast to the house next door, which was hit by a sizeable quantity of shrapnel.

Since then, her hometown has been shelled from Ukraine almost daily, laments the Belgorod resident. Grenades and shrapnel had hit various parts of the town, and explosions could be heard in her flat as well. When that happened, Christina said, she would hide away in the bathroom, together with her mother and her younger sister. On a number of occasions, the family had even withdrawn to the basement shelter.

"But I didn't want to go myself. I think it's better to die instantly than to be buried under the rubble of the house," she said.

A view of a car damaged in a shelling attack
The shelling of Belgorod severely damaged not just buildings and infrastructure, but cars, too.Image: Press Office Of The Belgorod Reg/picture alliance

Mostly, there was no time to head for the basement anyway, because sirens wailed only after the shelling, Christina complained. In addition, the city was having trouble with emergency shelters. On social media, citizens had posted photographs of some shelters which had remained shut even after the shelling on December 30. One year ago, local authorities had said that 1,700 emergency shelters were ready for use.

'Grieving silence'

"The city was plunged into a grieving silence," Christina said about the current mood in Belgorod. "The streets are not exactly overcrowded. The three largest shopping centers are not operational anymore. There is now fewer public transport. All events have been canceled."

First-aid courses, by contrast, were well attended.

As a volunteer, 20-year-old student Roman Yefimov helps the victims of Ukrainian shelling. Yefimov's job is to sort and deliver relief supplies. He told DW that he himself rarely found the courage to go out into the streets.

Still, he will not leave Belgorod because there is "nowhere you can go."

Christina's family will not leave town either, because she has to take care of her older grandmother. 

"She's not going out anymore," Christina says. "We can't leave her here on her own."

A view of volunteers and residents clearing the debris of an apartment building in Kyiv that was destroyed in a Russian attack
Kyiv has seen countless airstrikes as well, leading to volunteers clearing away to debris like here on January 3, 2024.Image: Efrem Lukatsky/AP/picture alliance

Tickets to Moscow are sold out

Most of Belgorod's residents spent the winter holidays at home. Some thought of leaving; tickets for trains to Moscow, however, were quickly sold out during the first days of January. Small villages on the outskirts of the town are considered to be safe havens.

"But how many more bombardments will there be?", asked one of the residents while talking to DW.

On social networks, users discuss the reasons behind Ukraine's shelling of the city. In a group called "In Belgorod" on Russian social networking service VKontakte (VK), some demand an end of the so-called "special military operation," as the war in Ukraine is officially called in Russia. Others criticize the Kremlin for not declaring national mourning after the December 30 attack.

Calls for retaliation

More frequent though are calls for "retaliation", for the "seizure of Kharkiv" and for the shelling of Ukrainian cities as a response.

"Kyiv, here we come!" a female user wrote in the chat.

"That's what Belgorod gets in return for six Ukrainian cities shelled on December 29," another user retorted.

Belgorod resident Christina told DW that one of her acquaintances had sent her a photo from the front line. It showed how the Russian military signs grenades with the words "For Victoria Potryasayeva" (a mother of two small children who were killed in the shelling of Belgorod, the ed.).

Christina has noticed resentment on both sides, among Russians and Ukrainians alike. 

"I used to have really nice, liberal-minded friends," Christina said. "But even among them, there are some who eventually say: 'Go ahead and bombard them, so that we don't get shelled.' That hurts, it's very acrimonious and painful."

Russia launches air strikes on Ukraine

This article was originally written in German.