VLACHOVICE-VRBETICE, Czech Republic – For almost a century, residents have been amazed at the strange comings and goings in a closed-off camp surrounded by barbed wire and dotted with signs on the edge of their village.
The armies of Czechoslovakia, National Socialist Germany, the Soviet Union and the Czech Republic used the 840 hectare property over the decades and deterred intruders with watch dogs and armed patrols.
When the professional soldiers withdrew in 2006, the secret activities became even more shady. Dozens of weapons depots hidden among the trees have been taken over by arms dealers, a rocket fuel company, and other private companies.
Then in October 2014 came the biggest mystery of all.
A huge explosion ripped through Depot No. 16, knocking farmers to the ground in nearby fields and raining dangerous debris on the area.
The explosion set the stage for an international espionage thriller that further upsets Russia’s relations with the West: Who was behind the explosion that killed two Czech workers, and what was the motive?
This astonishing claim sparked a diplomatic turmoil which in recent weeks has resulted in the displacement of nearly 100 Russian and Czech diplomats from Prague and Moscow and brought relations between the two countries to the lowest level since the end of the Cold War.
The villagers, who are more focused on local property values than geopolitics, just want things to stop blowing up.
Vojtech Simonik, holding a piece of splinter that landed in his garden in 2014, said he “felt no relief, just shock and astonishment” when he saw the Czech Prime Minister talk about Russia’s role on television.
The announcement “caused a stir here,” said Simonik, who worked in the camp for a while and dismantled artillery shells. “After seven years of silence, all arguments start again.”
The fenced-in property where the explosions took place winds around the edge of two small neighboring villages with around 1,500 inhabitants – Vlachovice (pronounced VLAKH-o-vee-tseh), the larger settlement, and Vrbetice (pronounced VR-byet-tee) – tseh), just a few houses and a side street that leads to the main entrance of the former military camp.
Vlachovice Mayor Zdenek Hovezak said he had long wanted to know what was going on in the camp but got stuck because everyone there, including the villagers hired for cleaning and other tasks, had to sign agreements in which they were obliged to maintain secrecy.
“Little did I know there were so many explosives near our village,” said Hovezak, who had just been elected and was about to take office when the explosion occurred in October.
The Military Technical Institute, a government agency that has managed the site since the Czech Army withdrew, is currently examining what to do with the property, but insists that it will not be re-used to store explosives for military or private purposes becomes company.
Rostislav Kassa, a local contractor, said he didn’t care if Russia was responsible for the demolition of the site – although he firmly believes it – but he’s angry that the Czech authorities are making efforts to raise the alarm years before hit, ignored explosions.
Troubled by reports that a rocket fuel company had rented space in the warehouse, he launched a petition in 2009 warning of a possible environmental disaster. Most residents signed, he said, but his complaints to the Department of Defense went unheeded.
“It doesn’t really matter who blew it up,” he said. “The main problem is that our government is allowing this.” His own theory is that Russia wanted to cut off its rocket fuel supply to NATO forces and not, as is commonly believed, wanted to blow up weapons for Ukraine.
Ales Lysacek, head of the village’s volunteer fire department, recalled being called to the camp that day in October 2014 after a fire broke out there. He was ordered to come back by the police guarding the entrance and a few minutes later, after a series of small explosions, a gigantic explosion sent a shock wave that knocked him and his men off their feet.
“We had no idea what was in all the depots,” said Mr Lysacek. No one had ever thought of telling the local firefighters about the potential danger. Officials later assured villagers that the explosions were an accident, but Mr. Lysacek said, “Nobody here really believed them.”
After the 2014 explosions, it took pyrotechnic experts six years to search the warehouse and surrounding village land for unexploded ammunition and other hazardous waste.
The arduous clean-up operation, during which roads were often blocked and villagers repeatedly evacuated from their homes for safety reasons, only ended last October.
Mr Hovezak, the mayor, was amazed, like most villagers, when he told Prime Minister Andrei Babis at a nightly press conference last month that the big 2014 explosion on their doorstep was the work of Russian military intelligence known as the GRU
“I was completely shocked,” said the mayor. “Nobody here has ever imagined that Russian agents could be involved.”
That they were, at least after years of investigation by the Czech police and security services, only raised questions about what was really going on in the camp and the suspicion among locals that they were only told half the truth.
Mr Simonik, who found the splinter in his garden, said he wasn’t entirely convinced that Russia was to blame, but he never believed the explosion was just an accident. “I definitely think it didn’t explode on its own,” he said. “It was triggered by someone.”
Who this could be is a question that in the past and present of Russia, whose troops invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 to overthrow their reform-oriented communist leadership, has reopened old cracks across the country, but still for defeat by some Czechs is held responsible against Nazi Germany.
“The older generation remembers how the Russians liberated us from Hitler, while others remember the year 1968 when they invaded us,” said Ladislav Obadal, the deputy mayor of Vlachovice. “But hardly anyone has a good word for the Russians now.”
Except for President Milos Zeman, a frequent visitor to Moscow who was recently on TV to contradict the government’s report on the explosions. The explosions may have been an accident – sabotage by Russian spies was just one of two plausible theories.
Mr. Zeman’s testimony sparked protests among Czechs in Prague, who for a long time considered him far too friendly to Russia. It was also received with anger by the residents of Vlachovice-Vrbetice, who believe Moscow should compensate the villages for any physical and psychological damage, a demand the mayor backed if Russia’s role is proven.
Jaroslav Kassa, 70, the father of the local contractor who said his disaster warnings were ignored, is undoubtedly to blame for the Kremlin.
“Of course the Russians did,” said Kassa, noting that the Russian military would have detailed plans for the sprawling facility from the time the Soviet Army used it after the 1968 invasion.
His views have led to disputes with his neighbor Jozef Svehlak, 74. Mr Svehlak, remembering how he knew and liked a former Soviet commander in the camp, said he had never heard of Russian spies in the region in the 1970s, only western ones during the Cold War.
Half a century later, the fact that spies are supposed to be running around again is a measure of how suspicions of the Cold War are rising in this remote eastern corner of the Czech Republic.
“It’s fun to see James Bond in films,” said another of Mr Kassa’s son Jaroslav. “But we don’t want him to hide behind our hill.”