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Nazis massacred his Ukrainian village in World War II. He fears Russia now.

KOPYSHCHE, Ukraine — Fedir Bovkun narrowly escaped death when German soldiers massacred hundreds of people during World War II here along the border with Belarus.

Bovkun was 6 years old when Germans herded villagers into a barn and set it on fire fas reprisal for attacks by Ukrainian partisans. Though several of Bovkun’s family members perished, he and his mother scrambled through the flames and hid in a nearby rye field.

His wife, Maria, also survived the July 1943 massacre. She was then only 2 years old, however, and so remembers only stories of how an aunt grabbed her and fled into the forest.

Now, the Bovkuns fear a military attack again, this time from Russia and Wagner Group mercenaries who relocated to Belarus, whose border is less than two miles from their village. Saturday’s deadly missile strike on a theater in Chernihiv was a reminder that even relatively quiet areas along Ukraine’s northern border, and elsewhere, are vulnerable to Russian attack at any time.

“We already know the feeling of such an ordeal,” Fedir Bovkun, 86, said during a lengthy interview, together with his wife, in their home last month. “We’ve been through war, come through it with barely the clothes on our back. We don’t want any of it. We’re afraid — because it’s war.”

Fedir Bovkun narrowly escaped death at the hands of Nazis during World War II, when German soldiers killed hundreds in his Ukrainian village. (Video: Fredrick Kunkle | Translation by Anastacia Galouchka and Sergii Mukaieliants)

The Bovkuns are rare survivors, their lives bookended by two brutal wars on Ukrainian soil. More than 8 million Ukrainians died in World War II, many under German occupation after Hitler unleashed his blitzkrieg, or lightning war, against the Soviet Union in June 1941.

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, combined military casualties have reached more than 360,000, according to an assessment released by the White House in May.

Civilian casualties in Ukraine have surpassed 26,000, including 9,400 dead and more than 16,600 injured, according to United Nations data through July 30.

Besides living through two major wars, the Bovkuns have withstood other hardships as well, including life on a Soviet collective farm under Stalinist rule. Maria, who was an only child during World War II, lost a younger brother to a farming accident. The Bovkuns’ only daughter died of illness.

Their two surviving sons, who emigrated to the United States years ago, have urged them to leave Ukraine. But neither is up for such a voyage.

A soldier’s funeral in a tiny Ukrainian village highlights the war’s massive toll

Kopyshche, the village where they have spent most of their lives, is their home. The place is surrounded on three sides by the Belarusian border and dense forest, in a region where families from the two countries had long intermingled their languages, lives and their businesses.

When Russian forces poured into Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, some the village’s roughly 1,000 residents fled into the forest — just as their predecessors had done more than seven decades earlier.

On July 13, 1943, German occupiers killed 2,887 villagers, including 1,347 children, according to the Kopyshche Village History Museum’s Facebook page and other historical sources. The museum says Germans also razed 570 homes to the ground in retaliation for partisan attacks. On the eve of World War II, the village’s population stood at about 3,000.

Under German occupation, the area seethed with partisan activity. Two of Fedir’s five brothers fought in their ranks, he said, including one who joined “the Banderites,” a group of ultraright nationalist guerrillas led by Stepan Bandera.

“The Germans were less afraid of the front line than they were of the partisans,” Fedir said.

Fedir, who was one of seven children, has vivid memories of the day Germans nearly wiped out the village. Well before dawn on July 13, 1943, German soldiers began rounding up villagers, including his mother, a brother and two sisters, Fedir said. One of his two sisters, who had moved home after her husband departed for military service, was led away with her two young children.

“They rounded us up, herded everyone toward the barn, where there were already others,” Fedir recalled. “As we approached the barn, there’s already noise coming from inside, screams and crying.”

An elderly villager, trapped inside, shouted that they had to break down the doors or be burned alive, Fedir recalled.

“And they had already ignited the barn and surrounded it so no one could get out,” he said.

As villagers managed to smash out a door, Fedir climbed out and ran. One of his sisters also broke free but was gunned down less than 300 feet from the barn, he said. Other family members trapped inside, including two young cousins, perished in the flames.

But his mother, Pelagia, also escaped, along with a boy about his age. They ran into a nearby rye field, running and ducking through grain that stood high enough to harvest. They lay in the field as Germans, some on horseback, pursued and shot other villagers who had escaped, Fedir said. Later, he and his mother slipped into the forest.

Ukrainian Maria Bovkun fears a military attack from Russia and Wagner Group mercenaries who have relocated to Belarus, whose border is less than two miles away. (Video: Fredrick Kunkle | Translation by Anastacia Galouchka and Sergii Mukaieliants)

Fedir’s father also survived, with a curious twist. Having been too old to serve in the Soviet army or with partisans, he had been grazing cows outside the village, Fedir said. But his father also had forewarning of the atrocity.

One of Fedir’s brothers in the partisans had learned that their village and two others were targeted for extermination. Written orders had been found in a dead German officer’s satchel, Fedir said, and his brother got the warning to their father. But with the village already surrounded, Fedir’s father felt it was too dangerous to return and so remained in the forest while the village burned.

Maria Bovkun’s father escaped the mass reprisal because he had been fighting with the partisans, she said. She is not sure how her mother survived. Her mother may have been spared because she, too, was grazing the cows outside the village that morning, Maria said.

But Maria is alive only because a quick-thinking aunt living with her family at the time heard the roundup as it was getting underway, Maria said. The aunt snatched up her daughter and Maria — all of them barely dressed — and fled into the forest.

With Wagner mercenaries in Belarus, tension grows along Ukraine’s northern border

After the war, Fedir and Maria lived on a kolkhoz, or Soviet collective farm. Work on the farm was hard, and Soviet life in general was repressive under Stalin and the Communist Party.

“People were scared of the party as much as the war,” Fedir said.

Fedir, who drove a tractor and performed other tasks, ruptured two disks in his back that still cause intense pain. His daily pay was five kopecks or 200 grams of bread, and his clothing was filled with patches and holes, he said. Yet no one dared complain.

“You could never say you live a bad life the way you live — even if you don’t have any clothes or shoes — but you have to stay quiet because it’s the collective farm,” Fedir said.

The threat of punishment was also omnipresent, even for the smallest infractions, he said. People who gathered corn that had been left behind in the fields after harvest for themselves risked jail.

Young Ukrainian soldiers who grew up with the Russian-Ukrainian war are now on its front lines

“It’s just a corn ear. It fell on the ground. But you can’t take it,” he said.

Fedir traveled after the war, living for a time in the Caucasus, but Maria never left the region, they said. The couple married in 1961. Even just visiting their sons in the United States is tough.

“You have to fly 10 hours in a plane and then drive 10 more hours to their house,” Maria said. She said it is also difficult for their sons to visit, too, because they have large families.

Yet, they worry about a Russian attack, particularly since Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s Wagner Group fighters relocated to Belarus soon after an aborted mutiny against Russia’s military leadership in June. Wagner’s presence has led Ukraine and Poland to strengthen their border defenses.

“I’m afraid,” Maria said. “I’m afraid to lie down to sleep, thinking should I get up again or lie there, because the rockets are flying and could hit the house and you’d perish.”

Anastacia Galouchka in Kyiv, Heidi Levine in Kopyshche, and Magda Jean-Louis in Washington contributed to this report.

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