YAHIDNE, Ukraine — The former primary school administrator carefully turned the key of the green door to the basement and walked down the stairs with a flashlight. Finally he stopped the beam on a calendar scrawled on the concrete wall and on the list of names next to it.
For example, the people who were imprisoned there by the Russian occupiers kept track of who died when.
“People were dying, people couldn’t handle it,” said the former custodian, Ivan Petrovich Polhui. “There wasn’t enough air. We spent a month there – 28 days.
Mr. Polhui has become something of an unofficial custodian of the memories of the school and of the suffering Russian soldiers inflicted there in March when they trapped him and more than 300 of his neighbours, including children, in the damp and desperate seclusion of the cellar.
Before the war, the primary school was the center of the community. Mr. Polhui, whose grandchildren attended the school, said many fond memories had been made before the Russian invasion.
Now the children in the area go to other schools or take online lessons. And while the Russian forces are gone, the trauma lingers for those held in captivity, with the intact elementary school as a daily reminder of their experiences.
Mr. Polhui said that the Russians went from house to house rounding up every villager, and even some people from the surrounding areas, to put them in the school. For many, he said, it was difficult to look back on those poignant days.
“When we were there, none of us believed we would survive. We were all preparing for our own deaths,” Mr Polhui said. “A lot of people just went crazy,” he added, while others fled the village after it was recaptured by Ukrainian forces in April and have yet to return.
Yahidne is just one of countless communities in the country struggling with the devastation of war as residents continue to live next to these places of oppression.
Some formerly occupied parts of Ukraine have moved quickly to design memorials or repair areas where the fighting has left physical scars. In Irpin, a suburb of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, plans are underway for a memorial near a bridge where a number of civilians died trying to flee. For now, wooden crosses provide an impromptu tribute.
In Bucha, another Kiev suburb, human remains found in mass graves left after the Russian troops were expelled have been painstakingly documented and identified, and small memorials have been erected.
But in many smaller towns, such as Yahidne, the discussion of what to do with sites – once the hearts of smaller communities but later places of horror under Russian occupation – has stalled.
“There’s a tension between the scene of the crime, so to speak, and the need to preserve the evidence and collect the evidence,” said Karen Remmler, a professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts who studies how atrocities are committed. can be commemorated. “And the question is how much time has to pass before the community can own that space and decide what to do with it.”
Yahidne, about 150 kilometers north of Kiev in the northern Chernihiv region near the border with Belarus, was occupied by Russian forces on March 3. More than 300 people, including 77 children, were marched from their homes at gunpoint and forced into the cramped basement. from Yahidne Elementary School. At least 10 people died there, some from disease, and at least 17 others were believed to have been killed by the Russian army, Ukrainian officials said.
They were used as human shields to protect Russian troops who had set up a base in the school, and they spent the four weeks in near-total darkness. Small groups were allowed outside for a few minutes each day to collect food and water and use an outdoor toilet, Mr Polhui and Ukrainian prosecutors said. But because there was no running water in the basement, they had to use buckets inside as well. Many became ill.
Those who died were left in a small adjoining room while the villagers begged to bury their neighbors. By the time the remaining residents emerged on April 1, many were deeply scarred.
The local military administration in the Chernihiv region said it is too early to discuss the fate of the school as a preliminary investigation is still underway. And it noted that the full extent of the crimes committed may still not be understood, as many victims are unwilling to talk about it.
Some villagers have fled the country or moved elsewhere. But for those who have stayed, also dealing with concerns about surviving the coming winter in badly damaged homes, the violence that tore their lives apart is never far from the mind.
Nadiia Skrypak, 66, was cycling past the school when she saw Mr Polhui outside and was eager to talk about her own experience, despite the obvious pain it caused her. She talked vividly about her delivery as if it had happened the day before.
“They were shooting near the houses,” Ms. Skrypak said. “A mine exploded in the garden. It was terrible,” she said, turning to her neighbor, overcome with emotion. But when she talked about what happened in the basement of the school, her voice hurt.
“They’ve gathered all the villagers there,” she said, gesturing to the school, her voice cracking with emotion. Her mother, 86, was also held there, Ms Skrypak said, adding “in the room where we stayed, most of the people died”, before she died.
Her mother, Hanna Skrypak, has lived in the village for 45 years and has no plans to leave. The elderly Mrs. Skrypak said she still wondered why she was spared when others perished in their ordeal.
“I think, ‘I’m old, no one needs me anymore’ — that’s how it seems to me,” she said. “And people died in that basement. But I survived.”
Mr. Polhui was the caretaker of the school for many years, so he still has the keys. As he guided several DailyExpertNews reporters through the building, he described how much he had enjoyed working there before the war. The school is just a few minutes walk from his home.
Now the memories of detention hang like dark clouds over those happier times. As he walked through the basement, he pointed out the countless drawings scribbled on the walls by children. He and a few others were allowed to take crayons from the classrooms to the basement so the kids would have a way to pass the time.
Upstairs, where Russian soldiers had lived for weeks, children’s textbooks are scattered haphazardly on the floor, with little heaps of cigarette butts on them. The colorful murals that adorn the hallway and classroom walls have crumbled, some full of shrapnel holes. Soldier uniforms are still on the floor.
“Look at the mess they left behind,” Mr. Polhui said, shaking his head, pointing to the rations of the remaining Russian army.
On the door outside the cellar hangs a poster of a photograph taken while the villagers were held there. Although Russian troops confiscated their mobile phones, Mr Polhui said a woman was able to hide hers and surreptitiously took some photos before the battery died.
This visual record and the testimony of the villagers have been vital to early accountability efforts. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Ukrainian investigators dug up the remains of those buried outside the school by Ukrainian soldiers and residents and attempted to identify them.
Ukraine’s attorney general said in a statement this month that eight of the Russian soldiers believed to be holding the villagers in the basement had been identified and summoned for a preliminary investigation. A logbook containing photos from one of the military units occupying the area was found after the Russian troops withdrew and became vital evidence for investigators.
As so often in this war that has spawned thousands of criminal investigations, none of the Russians identified as perpetrators are in custody or likely to be detained.
But dr. Remmler, of Mount Holyoke, said accountability was essential to healing in many of the communities she studied that have experienced similar violence. And even more important than creating a memorial is the ability to collectively deal with and cope with the trauma, she said.
“It’s the process that really matters,” she said, “not necessarily the outcome, or the actual mortar and cement of a memorial itself.”
She said the way forward would be a very complex one for a community struggling with the taint of violence they now associate with a once-loved school.
“People might disagree about what to do with the space, or some people might just want to leave,” said Dr. Remmler, while others may wish to honor the courage and resilience of survivors.
“I don’t think one size fits all,” she said. “These are very messy processes.”
So far, no one in the village seems to know about the plans for the school building, Mr. Polhui said. But his family’s focus is more on getting through the worst of the war.
His days are now spent harvesting his apples, tending his animals and preparing for a cold winter in his damaged home.
“This is the way we will survive,” he said. “We just focus on how to survive.”
Oleksandra Mykolyshyn reporting contributed.