YAHIDNE, Ukraine – More than two months after the residents of Yahidne kicked in the locked cellar door where the Russian army had taken them hostage, the village is being rebuilt, but the memories remain fresh – and deeply painful.
On March 3, eight days after the large-scale invasion began, Russian troops invaded Yahidne, a village on the main road north of the Ukrainian capital Kiev. For nearly a month, until March 31, when Ukrainian troops liberated the city, more than 300 people, including 77 children, were locked in different rooms in the damp basement of the village school – a human shield for the Russian troops stationed there. . Ten of the prisoners died. Among the detainees were a baby and a 93-year-old, Ukrainian prosecutors said.
“This is our concentration camp,” said Oleh Turash, 54, one of the inmates who helped bury the people who died there. Most of the time there was virtually no light. Despite the frigid winter weather, he said, people were packed so closely that their body heat was the warmth they needed.
But there was never enough oxygen to breathe normally, causing some people to black out and others, especially older people, to have hallucinations. “They started babbling about the need to plant potatoes and other things they couldn’t do,” said Ivan Petrovich, the school’s janitor.
Mr Turash, 54, slept in the largest room. It had the only air source, a small hole that the people made themselves, Petrovich said. Across the room was a bucket, a makeshift toilet for children and others who couldn’t wait until morning, when there was hope that the Russian soldiers would let people out to use the regular toilets.
A count on the door of the largest room showed that 136 people had stayed, nine of whom were children. Originally the number had been 139, but that had been scratched to represent three deaths, Mr. Turash.
“Three people died around me,” said his 73-year-old mother, Valentyna. She had broken her right arm going down the stairs to the basement, but received no medical treatment. Her wrist is still swollen three months later.
“I’m still in a lot of pain and I can’t use my fingers as well as I used to,” she said.
She said the room she was in was so full that there was no room for her to move.
“I spent 30 days like this, barely moving,” she said, crouching low to the ground. “Twice I lost consciousness from lack of oxygen, but my son banged on the door to get me out. Thank God I survived.”
Mr. Petrovich and Mr. Turash brought crayons for the children to draw. Inside, they drew a mural on the wall consisting of Ukrainian flags, hearts, suns and butterflies. At the top a child had written: “No war!!!”
In a smaller room, about 25 by 10 feet, there was another altered body count: 22 people, including five children, were written in pencil. Someone writing in navy blue chalk had changed the number to 18.
On one wall was a count of the dead and the date they had died. One man, Anatoly Shevchenko, had a question mark next to his name. His fate is still a mystery.
Every few days, if the prisoners were lucky, the Russians would give them permission to take the bodies to the school’s boiler room, usually several at a time.
They also got their drinking water there.
The men went through an opening and climbed a ladder to a sewer line, where they would fetch water normally used for the school’s heating system.
Once they had the water, they boiled it over the open flame they used for cooking, if they were allowed to.
“Imagine there were dead bodies on this table,” Mr Turash said. “And just next to the corpses, we boiled the water we drank.”
At one point, the Russian soldiers enlisted Mr Turash and others to dig a pit at least ten feet deep next to the boiler room.
“I thought I was digging my own grave,” he said.
Instead, the Russians eventually installed a generator there.
Every week or so, after some negotiation, the soldiers gave Mr. Turash permission to bury the deceased outside in a common grave. They accompanied him, as did all the villagers who were allowed to leave the cellar, with their Kalashnikovs raised. The residents were able to get intermittent and inconsistent food supplies under soldier’s supervision.
Outside, the school was surrounded by Russian tank emplacements. The soldiers had cut down trees in the forest behind the school and dug foxholes for themselves, stole carpets from people’s houses to place in the mud dwellings. Mr. Turash recognized his own boots on a soldier’s feet.
The occupiers told some residents that there were plans to bring them to Russia. “They told us, ‘The men will go to Tyumen to work in wood production and the women will be sent to another part of Russia to polish fish,'” Ekaterina Balanovych said, referring to a town in western Siberia.
On March 30, as the Russian troops began to withdraw from the north, the soldiers locked everyone in, bolted the door and ordered them not to leave.
That night, the villagers broke open the door and soon realized that the Russians had left. But they heard heavy fighting nearby, and most stayed inside, waiting to be rescued.
But they found an old phone, Ms Balanovych said, and someone was able to reach one of the Ukrainian troops.
“When our boys arrived we were so happy, we hugged them and we cried,” she said. “They brought bread. We hadn’t seen a crumb of bread in a month.”
However, more than two months later, Yahidne is far from back to normal. The school is badly damaged, perhaps beyond repair. The wrecked tanks and armored vehicles have been towed away, but evidence of the occupation – underground dwellings, recently extinguished fires and the scattered belongings of those forced to live in the basement – remain.
Some, like Mr. Petrovich, seem to suffer from depression or some form of PTSD. “After two months, we are still in shock,” he said. “There’s still so much work to do at home, but you can’t lift your hand. It is scary.”
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There is still much to clean up. “There isn’t a single house here that didn’t have a tank or armored personnel carrier,” said Valentyna Sezonenko, 75, who found partially unexploded ordnance in front of her house on the road. Houses across the street and next door were razed to the ground.
In a street next to the village’s ruined events hall, volunteers from the capital were putting new roofs on apartment buildings. Nearby was a grenade of cluster munitions.
“My soul hurts,” said Nina Shish, who managed to flee Yahidne hours before it was occupied but was locked in a cellar by Russians in a neighboring village.
Once she returned to Yahidne, she attended the local school, where she had worked and where her granddaughter had attended kindergarten.
“I have no words for my sadness, the school used to be so beautiful,” she said. “Now students don’t learn anything there anymore.”
She took home a plant stand with a spider plant and placed it in the foyer of her building as a memento.
On Wednesday, Ukraine’s chief prosecutor announced eight new war crimes, including one against nine Russian soldiers accused of terrorizing Yahidne.
“Unfortunately, these people are not physically here, and we are going for a trial in absentia, but it is very important for us, for the Ukrainian justice system, for the victims and their relatives to have this legal process,” the prosecutor said. general. Irina Venediktova, wrote on Facebook on Wednesday.
While Russia denies that its soldiers committed war crimes, Ukraine has already convicted three soldiers for related crimes. Most by Mrs. Soldiers named Venediktova come from Tuva, a remote province in southeastern Siberia.
On the road that the locals call Fourth Street, Ludmila Shevchenko tended her garden. She had already buried a son, Vitaliy, 53, who had been shot by the Russians in the early days of the occupation.
And she was worried about her other son, Anatoly, the man with the question mark next to his name on the list in the basement.
“I don’t know if he’s alive or dead,” she said, leaning against the smallpox of the damaged house.
“I don’t know if the commander will be tried,” she said. “But I want to ask him, ‘Where is my son, Anatoly Shevchenko?'”
Evelina Riabenko contributed reporting.