Life makes its way among the ruins that dot the picturesque landscape of Yahidne, a village in the Chernihiv oblast (Ukraine) occupied by Russian troops at the beginning of the invasion. A blanket of vegetation covers the remains of buildings and hides the scars of war. There are volunteers and aid workers repairing the streets, and many residents have returned to rebuild their homes while trying to recover from the injuries left by the occupation. With continued shelling on the neighboring border with Belarus and Russia and the constant fear of a new attack, it is not being easy.
Where there are no signs of change is in the municipal school or in its basement, which has not been cleaned for fifteen months. If it had not been for the war, two-year-old Polina would soon have gone to this kindergarten. But the building will never again serve its original purpose. “Putin should spend the rest of his days in a basement with a bucket,” President Volodimir Zelensky declared when he visited the hole in which Russian troops kept 367 residents of Yahidne, including 74 children, locked up for 28 days. A dozen of them did not come out alive. Among the survivors is Polina. Covered in a scarf to ward off mosquitoes, she sweetly greets foreigners from her grandmother’s arms, but her joy disappears as soon as we descend the narrow staircase that leads to the basement where she spent the most sinister month of her short life.
Russian soldiers locked 367 people underground for a month in subhuman conditions
“Now it’s much better than when we went out, but at first I could hardly sleep and couldn’t stand the noise. If she heard anything, even a car engine, she would cry and just wanted to be hugged,” says her grandmother Ludmila, who spent her confinement in a dark cubicle with 18 people -among them her mother, paralyzed, her daughter and her granddaughter – in subhuman conditions. She herself had trouble sleeping, she went down to the basement when she heard thunder and for a month she went to bed dressed, in case she had to run away. Both receive psychological help.
It happened on March 3, 2022. “They came that way, they came out of the forest,” she recalls, pointing to the side of the Olena Shvydka school, mayor of the municipality to which Yahidne belongs. The Ukrainian army had blown up the three bridges over the Desna river that give access to the village – despite itself, strategically located south of the city of Chernihiv along the highway from Belarus to Kyiv – but the Russian forces managed to gain access in boats. Two thirds of the region, which is the same size as Catalonia, was then under Russian control.
The invaders, say the neighbors, established their headquarters in the school. During the first few days, the soldiers kicked their way into the houses to search the inhabitants and take their weapons and food. On the third day, under threat of throwing grenades at their houses, they forced them to leave at the point of a Kalashnikov and go to school. Then they made them go down to the basement. There were babies, sick, nonagenarians. There was a lack of oxygen and the combination of human heat and the cold of the walls caused high levels of condensation that caused allergies and illnesses to appear. There was no electricity, just candles, and not enough room for everyone to lie down; only adults and babies were allowed. The rest slept sitting up. The children’s drawings on the walls are not enough to illuminate such a gloomy space.
They had been told that they would only be there for a few days, that they had come to “save them from the Nazis” and that after “official negotiations” they would be released. But the deadline passed and nothing changed, if anything, the mood of the soldiers, who were no longer allowed to go out into the courtyard to stretch their legs or relieve themselves. Their only option was to use one of the three cubes scattered throughout the basement, with no more privacy than a thin blanket hung to separate them from the group. A bottle with traces of urine hanging from the ceiling attests to the hardships they went through.
They had no water (on the third day of confinement, they were let out to boil what they drew from a well) and the little food they had ran out quickly. Sometimes, the Russians gave them remains of their rations, some of them expired, and from time to time they offered sweets to the children, who gladly took them from their hands while the soldiers recorded the scenes with their mobile phones, like when they were given leftover bread. covered in mold and the children tried to eat it. “They said that in the Ukraine we were starving and that they had come to save them, to save us!” the teacher was indignant, as she kept track of the days on a calendar painted on a door.
On the right, he wrote down the names of the neighbors who died in the basement, and on the left, the names of those killed by the Russians. The living conditions were unbearable for many elderly people; a dozen died during captivity. “Only when we already had four bodies below, they let us out to bury them,” explains Ivan Petrovich. They took the bodies in wheelbarrows to the cemetery and began to dig, but suddenly they were fired upon by some soldiers who were passing by. “We had to jump into the pits to save our own lives,” he recalls.
With no phones or radio, all they knew about the war was what the Russians told them, who told them they would soon conquer all of the Ukraine. They were unaware that the city of Chernihiv (285,000 inhabitants) was heroically resisting the siege thanks to the army, the border guard and civilian volunteers. “They thought they would hardly meet any resistance and that from here they could go to Kyiv, but things were very different,” Colonel Dimitro Bryzhynskii explains from Novo Selivka hill. Although the invasion caught them by surprise, he admits, they reacted, made “the right decisions” quickly and managed to stop the Russian forces, more numerous than the Ukrainian army then had, which suffered heavy casualties.
On March 30 in Yahidne, without warning, the military closed the basement door and told them not to move. “We hear the noise of vehicles, tanks and machinery, as if they were circling around the school. But then it seemed to us that they were moving away. The noise went down and, suddenly, everything was quiet”, Valentina narrates. A group went out to see what was happening and found that no one was there. “We went out to the patio to go to the bathroom, and the bravest even went to their homes. We made the decision to sleep one more night in the basement just in case it was a trap and the soldiers came back.”
The mayoress, taking refuge in another town, saw them leave: “On March 3 they arrived in well-organized columns and in their dress uniforms, but they stampeded,” she says with satisfaction next to the school, unperturbed when the sirens sound warning of air raids. She says that “a guardian angel” watches over her family: although she, by her function, was on the Russians’ hit list, she managed to hide her identity until the end and no neighbor gave her away
“I don’t know what time it was but suddenly a soldier appeared there and we saw that he was from our army. We screamed, we cried, we laughed, we jumped for joy…! ”, Valentina continues, gesturing enthusiastically as she recalls his release on March 31. At that moment, three storks crossed the sky, a bird of good omen that symbolizes life. They had been saved but others had worse luck. When they left, they discovered that “all the people who had tried to flee, children and adults, had been shot,” Švydka regrets. The next day the village was evacuated.
The Russians gave up on reaching Kyiv and took the tanks elsewhere but the conflict is still active in the area. “There are bombardments every day, the intensity has increased for two weeks,” says the region’s civil and military governor, Viacheslav Chaus. In the hot zone of the border with Belarus (232 km) and Russia (225 km), mined on both sides, live 10,000 people who refuse to leave their homes. Civilians and the military suspect that, once the battle for Bakhmut is settled, Russia may once again try to launch an offensive from northern Ukraine. “It is a possibility and, if it occurs, we will be prepared to respond,” says Bryzhynskii, who does not rule out that “when Putin sees that he cannot win on the battlefield, he will convince Lukashenko to make his army an active part of the conflict.” .
The Russians withdrew from Chernihiv on April 4, 2022, leaving behind a trail of destruction and death. The official figures speak of 664 deaths and 1,133, but “without a doubt there are more,” says Chaus. The damage inventory includes 12,276 “objects”, of which 99% were civil infrastructures: 9,111 private houses, 1,058 apartment blocks, public buildings, the Olympic stadium of the local football team, FC Desna Chernigov, the monumental Hotel Ukraine, hospitals, a shopping center… Although it has some Sisyphus work, because the Russians continue to destroy infrastructure in the north, the physical reconstruction is advancing at a good pace; In one year, 3,300 houses and 70 schools have already been repaired.
“For me, those Russians are not soldiers but terrorists, they have nothing in common with the military. They are criminals. They killed, tortured and robbed”, affirms the governor of Chernihiv, regarding the trauma that many victims of the occupation carry. Yahidne’s neighbors came out of the basement on March 31, but the basement has not come out of them at all. The experience “left a deep mark on us for the rest of our lives,” says Valentina, who was nevertheless one of the first people to return and goes down to the basement from time to time. “For some reason, she gives me strength,” she says. But “other people have never come back. Some tried, but it was too painful a memory and they couldn’t do it.”
The government wants to turn the basement into a memorial, so it hasn’t been cleaned yet. There are still the remains of clothing, garbage and the newspapers that reported on his release. “Of course we are afraid; not for our lives but for those of our children”, but “what we need most is for the world to know what happened”, asks Ludmila. Fear is still in the air and some neighbors think they should clean out the basement in case there is another attack. Valentina disagrees: “I would rather go anywhere else than go through this again.”