VILKHIVKA, Ukraine — Mykola Riiako was digging through the debris of his war-damaged house when he paused to confess to a reporter.
He was a partisan, he admitted.
Pushing 70, Riiako said that when the Russians crossed the border in February, he tried to enlist in the Ukrainian defence forces.
But they would not take him, claiming he was too old, so he found another way to fight the Russian soldiers occupying his village.
A former Soviet Army mine specialist, he stole weapons from Russians and passed them to the Ukrainian military.
He wasn’t afraid of getting caught.
“What for, afraid? Why should I be afraid of them? Afraid of what?”
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Russian forces are facing increasing resistance in occupied parts of Ukraine. Guerrilla attacks and small acts of rebellion suggest an insurgency is developing as Russia’s expansionist war hits the four-month mark.
The southern cities of Melitopol and Kherson have seen bombings, the assassination of a Russian-installed official and the reported killing of Russian soldiers with poisoned pies.
Attributed to an emerging underground resistance, the events are making life more difficult for Russian forces and challenging their claim to be liberating Ukrainians.
Ukraine is encouraging civilians to undermine the Russian occupation. A government website offers instructions on everything from how to be a saboteur to how to drive Russian tanks.
“You, as a civil person in occupation, can not only organize and take part in acts of sabotage against the occupiers but also for the opportunity to help active groups move against your city,” it reads.
Riiako, on the other hand, didn’t need a website to tell him what to do.
Having served in the Soviet military before becoming a builder in Vilkhivka, a village east of Kharkiv, he was familiar with the tools of war.
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His underground campaign began when he was in his car at a checkpoint and noticed the Russians were using a vehicle as a portable armoury.
“It was a lot of weapons,” he said.
When nobody was looking, he tossed a few anti-tank mines into his car and drove off.
Over the next weeks, he did the same thing again and again, storing the cache at home until he had accumulated 36 anti-tank mines and 2,500 rounds of heavy machine gun ammunition.
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He dismissed the suggestion he was a hero.
“I didn’t do it for a medal,” he said.
“To kill them,” he said.
A month after the Russians arrived, the Ukrainian defence forces began a counter-offensive to push them out of Vilkhivka.
Amid the battle, a Russian rocket ploughed down Ukrainian Street and exploded in front of Riiako’s bungalow.
“It was 6:15 in the morning. At that moment exactly my watch stopped,” Riiako said.
The blast left him deafened and concussed. His home was damaged beyond repair. His car was flattened.
The next morning, the Russians began preparing their retreat and rounded up the villagers to use as human shields, he said.
The soldiers collected everyone’s passports and phones and told them to prepare to be taken to Russia by vehicle.
“We are liberating you,” the Russians explained, but Riiako wasn’t having it. “I said from what? Look what you did to my house.”
He refused to leave the village but the shelling continued and he hid in a basement until he was evacuated to Kharkiv.
Now he lives with his wife in an apartment in the city and hopes to join a friend in Portugal. He thinks he will find work there as a builder.
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Returning to his wrecked home in Vilkhivka to find his tools, he waded into the mess that used to be his garage, laughing at the metal pancake that was once his car.
He said he had been saving for a new car but instead used the money to buy a drone for the Ukrainian armed forces.
His eyes teared up, but he said not to pay attention — he wasn’t crying it was just the lingering impact of his concussion.
He can’t fathom how the Russians claim they came to liberate Ukrainians.
“From what? From what they did to my house? I lived a good life. I worked,” he said.
“I had everything.”
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