The lost bombs of World War II that the Dnieper concealed | International

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Covered with rust and caramels, it rests among the sand on the banks of the Dnieper River, shaken by a slight swell. At first glance, it does not look like a FAP-50 bomb from a World War II German plane, as detailed by Ruslan Anikalov, head of the bomb squad in the city of Zaporizhia (southern Ukraine) who came to remove it. "There is no doubt," he says after confirming what weapons it is. To transport it, they resort to a military canvas stretcher like those used to remove the wounded from the war front. The two men who carry the device, weighing about 40 kilos, have to make a stop on the way to the truck in which they load it. On the same beach, a hundred meters away, a family does not take their eyes off the fishing rod. A little inland, a group of people waits for the charcoal flame to go out before they start putting meat on the barbecue.

The destruction on June 6 of the Nova Kakhovka dam, some 200 kilometers downstream from the city of Zaporizhia, not only killed several dozen people. Only in the area under Ukrainian control the fatalities amounted to 29, Interior Minister Igor Klimenko announced last Thursday. The explosion of this infrastructure also lowered the water level, to such an extent that dozens of bombs like the FAP-50 that they had been carrying hidden since that armed conflict, which took place between 1939 and 1945, have appeared. Throughout these weeks, the security forces in Zaporizhia have received "an average of two or three warnings every day from citizens who come across these weapons while taking walks or fishing on the shore," explains Anikalov. The order, he adds, is not to touch them because they are potentially dangerous, although he admits that it is difficult for them to explode without being handled. In fact, the fate of all of them is to be detonated and destroyed.

“After World War II, those bombs stayed there without exploding under water. Think about the years 1943 and 1944, without the necessary equipment to locate them, divers… when everything was destroyed,” says historian Svitlana Volodimorivna, an employee of the Zaporizhia Regional Museum. “It's a problem that has been submerged under water all these years,” she concludes. Volodimorivna explains that the Germans tried to profit from the large hydroelectric plant, as well as the metallurgical factories of Zaporizhia, which is why they did not initially bomb the city. “But when they withdrew, in 1943, they destroyed everything at once. At that time it was normal both in our ranks and in the German ranks to fire artillery or bomb from the air shells that fell, but did not explode, ”she adds.

Emergency services remove a bomb from the Dineper River near the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia.Luis Vega

About twenty kilometers from Zaporizhia, at another point of the river where another bomb was found, these days human bones have also appeared that the emergency services —showing the photos to EL PAÍS— do not know if they belong to soldiers from the Soviet or Nazi army who fought in the area. It is easy to check the effects of the lowering of the water in the area. The river has a kind of new beach as it passes through the city that has become an attraction for the inhabitants. It is not an excessively pleasant place because instead of sand the ground is made up of mud and some large drainage pipes are visible. Next to them, the library card of a kid that expired a decade ago.

"I have never seen the river in such a terrible state," laments Grigori Markov, 76, as he inspects the area in surprise with his grandson. "I see this that our siblings [en referencia a los rusos] and I have to feel offended, insulted and hurt. People used to come here to relax, to fish, and look what it has become, the rocks sticking out there, which impede navigability”, he comments as he turns around his waist contemplating the large portion of land that appears in the air.

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Remains of an Iranian-made drone bomb launched by Russia against Zaporizhia last February on display at the Regional Museum.
Remains of an Iranian-made drone bomb launched by Russia against Zaporizhia last February on display at the Regional Museum.Luis Vega

As part of that battle that Zaporizhia experienced during World War II, local troops, in an action similar to that of Nova Kakhovka today, blew up the large dam built on the Dnieper. Tens of thousands of people, up to 100,000, according to some sources, died in that operation carried out on August 18, 1941. According to Svitlana Volodimorivna, “everything was flooded, including part of the ammunition. Many projectiles were submerged after the detonation of the DniproHES”, as the hydroelectric station is known today, the largest in Ukraine and one of the largest in Europe.

It was Josef Stalin who called on his secret agents from the NKDV —later the KGB— to blow up the dam to stop the Nazi advance. “There was an order from Stalin to destroy everything, as he himself wrote then, whether they were bread granaries or factories. Everything had to be destroyed. That was the politics of a mental patient like him. There is much evidence of this in the history of Russia and for which it is not possible to find a human explanation”, affirms the expert.

The recent destruction of Nova Kakhovka was not as deadly as that of 82 years ago. But it does seem similar in that the current one has also dangerously moved the placement of explosives in the minefields in an area in which the Dnieper separates the positions of the two armies. In fact, the Nova Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric station facilities were in the hands of the invading troops and the available data suggests that the destruction was caused by explosives planted by the Russians.

Grigori Markov, 76, visits with one of his grandsons the land that emerged on the banks of the Dnieper River in Zaporizhia after the drop in water due to the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam in June.
Grigori Markov, 76, visits with one of his grandsons the land that emerged on the banks of the Dnieper River in Zaporizhia after the drop in water due to the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam in June.Luis Vega

At the headquarters of the Zaporizhia Regional Museum, they are not interested in the fate of the findings that war archeology has brought to light these days due to the descent of the Dnieper riverbed. They are more concerned about the heritage of its permanent collection. In fact, a significant part of the pieces have not been on display for months, as they were removed and moved to safe places for fear that the Russians would occupy the city, explains Irina Anatolivna, an employee of the exhibition.

It would not be the first time that invaders have attacked museums and galleries or simply destroyed them. Until the end of 2022, more than 1,100 elements of Ukraine's cultural heritage - architecture, museums, schools, universities or cultural centers - had been damaged and more than 400 destroyed, according to the Ministry of Culture. In Kherson, the result of the occupation meant, among many other tragedies, the looting of the two great museums in this southern city that the local army liberated last November.

Russian army food ration package on display at the Zaporizhia Regional Museum.
Russian army food ration package on display at the Zaporizhia Regional Museum. Luis Vega

Irina Anatolivna opens, however, the lock of a room that shows the history of Ukraine from its independence from the USSR, in 1991, until today, almost literally. It is surprising to see a space that is more than alive, since only a few weeks ago part of an S-300 missile launched by the Russians last May was placed on the town of Vilniansk, on the outskirts of the regional capital. "The children find it funny because it looks like a washing machine," says the museum worker.

There are also tributes to those who fell during the current Russian invasion or during the Maidan revolution in 2014, weapons intervened with paintings by local artists. A few meters above the ground lie the remains of an Iranian-made drone launched on February 10 against the DniproHES hydroelectric facilities. "Look how cynical," Anatolivna points out, pointing to the message that the Russians left written in black marker next to one of the wings of the device: "Let's turn on the lights."

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