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A Russian missile killed 59 Ukrainian villagers — and divided the survivors

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HROZA, Ukraine — A banner at the bus stop outside this grieving village in northeast Ukraine delivers a verdict — and a warning to would-be Russian informants.

“KILLERS HAVE A NAME,” it reads. “KILLED 59 FELLOW VILLAGERS FOR RUSSIAN MONEY.”

Photos show a victim’s limp, dirt-caked hands next to a portrait of former local police officer Volodymyr Mamon, the word “traitor” stamped in bright red letters across his face.

Ukraine’s security services have accused Mamon and his younger brother, Dmytro, who both fled to Russia in 2022, of coordinating a Russian missile strike last October on a cafe hosting a funeral reception in Hroza, their hometown, killing 59 — about one-fifth of the population.

Last week, Ukrainian authorities also charged the younger Mamon brother with treason for voluntarily working for Russian forces when they occupied Hroza and the surrounding area.

Two years into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the case illustrates the many obstacles Ukrainian officials face in trying to prosecute alleged traitors and seek justice for apparent war crimes, particularly in front-line villages where loyalties are often mixed and residents live under ongoing risk of Russian reoccupation.

It also demonstrates the difficult task of rebuilding a traumatized community where the truth depends on whom you ask.

With the Mamon brothers now in Russia, it is unlikely either will face trial. Even naming them as the alleged informants behind the strike caused a split in Hroza, bringing closure to some and discomfort to others. It has also triggered fear among some residents that if Russian forces do return, so might the brothers — speaking out against them now could have a cost later.

In Hroza, where several residents said half the population once harbored pro-Russian views, the October attack reopened wounds and suspicions that had festered during months of occupation in early 2022.

“The village is divided,” said Lyuba Pletinka, 61, who lives across from the strike site.

In interviews, residents described how relatives and friends who once shared lives now suspect each other of Russian sympathies or ongoing collaboration. Locals avoid gathering in crowds. Jealousies have emerged over aid distribution. And accusations have surfaced that with many village leaders killed in the strike, pro-Russian residents have now taken charge.

Some in Hroza are reluctant to believe that the Mamon brothers were behind the strike. Others feel vindicated now that men they reviled for working with the Russians during occupation have been formally outed as traitors.

Rumors are still whispered that maybe it was someone else, or that a GPS had been placed on a trash can at the cafe to help direct the strike, or that Russians launched the missile because they saw too many cellphones active in one place.

Ukraine’s state security service, the SBU, said the attack was premeditated by the brothers, who maintained contact with their former neighbors on messaging apps and learned about the funeral for Andriy Kozyr, a soldier who was killed at the start of the war and was being reburied at home. They then allegedly shared coordinates with Russian forces, who targeted the cafe where the funeral reception was being held with an Iskander missile, killing most of Kozyr’s friends and relatives. Russia later falsely claimed that the strike targeted a gathering of high-profile troops.

“The two brothers definitely worked for Russia. They tortured some people here,” said Pletinka. “I’m 100 percent sure” they were behind the strike, she said. She also believes they are linked to the jailing of her son, a Ukrainian soldier who was held as a prisoner of war during occupation.

Others aren’t so certain.

“I knew the brothers worked for the Russians,” said Lyuba Savchenko, 64, whose sister, cousins and friends were killed in the strike. But, she added, “I’m not the one to blame anyone.”

“In my head I do realize they might have been the ones who did it, but my heart doesn’t want to believe it,” said Valeriy Kozyr, 62, whose daughter, Olha, and son-in-law, Anatoly Pantaleev, were killed alongside Anatoly’s parents, Valeriy and Iryna, in the strike. (Despite sharing a last name, Valeriy is not a close relative of Andriy Kozyr, the soldier whose funeral was targeted.)

“If they did it, they were friendly to the people they killed,” Valeriy said. “They looked in their eyes and put a knife in their back.”

Valeriy and his wife, Lyuba, are now caring for three of their orphaned grandchildren: Nastya, 10, Dima, 15, and Daryna, 17. They are also helping coordinate humanitarian aid handouts — a task once carried out by neighbors who died in the strike.

But their family’s tragedy has not protected them from suspicions over their own loyalties. Several neighbors said that Russia supporters were among those killed in the attack and that Valeriy and Lyuba had aided Russian troops during occupation.

When Ukrainian forces advanced on then-occupied Hroza in September 2022, Valeriy and Lyuba were among the residents who fled to the other side — driving north over the Russian border. In a lengthy interview with The Washington Post, neither initially disclosed that they had fled to Russia or that they have a fourth, adult grandson who also evacuated to Russia in 2022 but has not returned.

In Hroza, such transgressions are now enough to fuel serious distrust — even against those who lost relatives at Russia’s hand.

Some neighbors suggested the couple is now covering up their ties to Russia and to their grandson — claims that Valeriy vehemently denied. He said he had already been interviewed by SBU agents and cleared of any wrongdoing. When he briefly traveled to Russia, he said, he was only thinking about fleeing the front line. He did not mention his grandson in Russia to visiting journalists, he said, because he did not want to “overshadow the tragedy my kids suffered.”

“Even in friendly communities, everyone will speculate and feel like they’re Sherlock Holmes,” he said.

Valentina Kozyr, who also lives in the village and is the aunt of the soldier who was being buried the day the strike occurred, remains unconvinced.

“If you’re not responsible for any mistakes, then why are you running to Russia and hiding?” she asked. “A lot of people in the village are saying, ‘They had four grandchildren, then it became three.’”

Valentina’s husband, Anatoly; daughter, Olha; and 8-year-old grandson, Ivan, were all killed in the October strike, along with many other relatives. Olha’s son, her 14-year-old grandson, Vlad, now lives with her. His life, he said, has become “boring and sad.”

In their living room, where the coffee table is now a shrine to the dead, Vlad sifted through a cupboard holding his mother’s belongings — including her wallet and damaged phone, found at the strike site.

He said he blames “the people who are collaborators and still speak to people in Russia” for her death.

The family tragedy has sharpened Valentina’s sword against possible traitors. If Russian troops come back, she said, she will flee, knowing that “people in the village would just point fingers” at those who helped Ukraine after liberation.

Before the war, she said, Hroza was “not divided politically.” The Pantaleevs, the in-laws of Valeriy and Lyuba’s daughter, were her daughter’s godparents.

But soon after Russian forces took over, she said, “you could tell people had switched sides.” After the October strike, distrust worsened. Now, she said, she is “furious that pro-Russians are running the show.”

On a recent morning, Valeriy and Lyuba stood in the community center, handing out boxes of humanitarian aid delivered to the village each month — the only time neighbors now gather.

Within the crowd of residents chatting as they waited for their boxes of cooking oil and sugar, distrust simmered.

People who supported Russia are now “the first ones at the humanitarian aid” station, Pletinka said.

Grief is now what links residents of Hroza to one another.

“No one goes in the streets,” said Dima Berezanets, 16, who visited the center with a sled to drag his haul home. He lives near the strike site and lost neighbors in the attack. “Maybe people are just scared and traumatized by the experience.”

“The people who were the heart of the community were killed,” Valeriy said.

Like their grandchildren, Lyuba added, “the town is now an orphan.”

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