VLAČOVICE-VRBETICE, Czech Republic – For almost a century, locals have been amazed by strange arrivals and departures to a sealed camp lined with barbed wire and dotted with inscriptions on the edge of their village.
The armies of Czechoslovakia, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the Czech Republic used the 840-acre estate for decades, deterring passersby from guard dogs and armed patrols.
When professional soldiers withdrew in 2006, covert activities became even more shadowy. Dozens of weapons depots hidden among the trees have been taken over by arms dealers, a rocket fuel processing company and other private businesses.
Then, in October 2014, came the greatest mystery of all.
A huge explosion broke warehouse No. 16, knocking farmers in nearby fields to the ground and sending dangerous debris falling in the rain around the area.
The explosion created the stage for an international spy thriller that further strained Russia’s relations with the West: Who was behind the explosion, which killed two Czech workers, and what was the motive?
That startling claim has sparked a diplomatic upheaval that has led to the expulsion of nearly 100 Russian and Czech diplomats from Prague and Moscow in recent weeks and pushed relations between the two countries to their lowest level since the end of the Cold War.
The villagers, more focused on local property values than on geopolitics, just want things to stop blowing.
Holding a piece of shrapnel that landed in his garden in 2014, Vojtech Simonik said that he “did not feel relief, only shock and amazement” when he watched the Czech Prime Minister discuss the role of Russia on television.
The statement “made a real noise here,” said Mr. Simonik, who worked at the camp for a time dismantling artillery shells. “After seven years of silence, all arguments are re-launched.”
The fenced property where the explosions took place is bordered by two small neighboring villages with about 1,500 inhabitants – Vlachovice (pronounced VLAKH-o-vee-tseh), a larger settlement and Vrbetice (pronounced VR-byet-tee -tseh), only several houses and a side road leading to the main entrance to the former military camp.
The mayor of Vlachovica, Zdenek Hovezak, said he had long wanted to know what was going on at the camp, but got nowhere because all employees there, including peasants hired to clean and perform other tasks, had to sign agreements swearing in secrecy.
“I had no idea that such a large amount of explosives was so close to our village,” said Mr. Hovezak, who had just been elected and was due to take office when the October explosion occurred.
The Military Technical Institute, the state body that has been managing the construction site since the Czech army pulled it out, says it is now reconsidering what to do with the property, but insists it will no longer be used to store explosives for either the military or private users.
Rostislav Kassa, a local builder, said he didn’t really care if Russia was to blame for blowing up the place – although he firmly believes it was – but he was angry that Czech authorities had ignored his effort to sound the alarm years ago.
Disturbed by reports that the rocket fuel company had rented space in the camp, he launched a petition in 2009 warning of a potential environmental disaster. Most residents signed it, he said, but his complaints to the Ministry of Defense went unheeded.
“It doesn’t really matter who blew it up,” he said. “The main issue is that our government has allowed it.” His own theory is that Russia wanted to disrupt the supply of missile fuel to NATO forces, and not, as is commonly believed, to blow up weapons intended for Ukraine.
Ales Lysacek, the head of the volunteer fire brigade in the village, recalled that he was called to the camp that day in October 2014 after a fire broke out there. Police officers guarding his entrance ordered him back, and a few minutes later, after a series of small explosions, a giant explosion sent a shock wave that knocked him and his men off their feet.
“We had no idea what was in all the depots,” Mr. Lysacek said. No one ever thought to tell local firefighters the potential danger. Officials later assured villagers that the explosions were an accident, but, Mr. Lysacek said, “no one here really believed them.”
After the explosions in 2014, it took six years for pyrotechnic experts to search the camp and the rural land around it due to unexploded ordnance and other hazardous waste.
The arduous cleaning process, during which roads were often closed and villagers repeatedly evacuated from their homes for security reasons, was completed only last October.
Mr. Hovezak, the mayor, was stunned, as were most villagers, when Prime Minister Andrei Babish told a late-night press conference last month that a huge explosion on their doorstep was the work of a Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU.
“I was in complete shock,” the mayor said. “No one here even suspected that Russian agents might be involved.”
That they were, at least according to a multi-year investigation by the Czech police and security services, asked only more questions about what was really going on in the camp and the suspicions of the locals that only half of the story had been told to them.
Mr Simonik, who found a piece of shrapnel in his yard, said he was not entirely convinced that Russia was to blame, but that he never believed the explosion was just an accident. “I definitely don’t think it exploded on its own,” he said. “It was started by someone.”
Who that might be is a question that has opened old cracks across the country over the past and the current role of Russia, whose troops invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 overthrowing their reformist communist leadership, but some Czechs still deserve victory over Nazi Germany.
“The older generation remembers how the Russians liberated us from Hitler, while others remember 1968 when they attacked us,” said Ladislav Obadal, deputy mayor of Vlachovica. “But rarely does anyone now have a good word for the Russians.”
Except, that is, President Milos Zeman, a frequent guest of Moscow, who recently contradicted the government’s report on the explosions on television. The explosions, he said, could have been an accident – the sabotage of Russian spies was just one of two plausible theories.
Mr Zeman’s statement sparked protests in Prague among Czechs who had long considered him too friendly for Russia. He also met with anger among residents of Vlachovica-Vrbetica who believe Moscow should compensate the villages for all the physical and psychological damage, which the mayor said he supports if Russia’s role is proven.
Yaroslav Kassa, 70, the father of a local builder who said his warnings of the disaster were ignored, has no doubt the Kremlin is to blame. “Of course the Russians did it,” Mr Kassa said, noting that the Russian army would have detailed plans for a wider facility from the time the Soviet army used it after the 1968 invasion.
His views led to discussions with his neighbor Jozef Svelhak (74). Mr. Svelhak recalled how he knew and loved the former Soviet commander in the camp and said he had never heard of Russian spies in the area, only for the Western 1970s during the Cold War.
Half a century later, to say that spies are wandering again is a measure of how Cold War suspicions are buzzing in this remote eastern corner of the Czech Republic.
“It’s fun to watch James Bond in the movies,” said another of Mr. Kasse’s sons, Yaroslav. “But we don’t want him to hide behind our hill.”