More than two months after the residents of Yahidne broke down the locked basement door where the Russian army had held them hostage, the village is under reconstruction but the memories remain fresh – and deeply painful.
On March 3, eight days after the start of the full-scale invasion, Russian forces invaded Yahidne, a village on the main road north of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. For nearly a month, until March 31, when Ukrainian troops liberated the town, more than 300 people, including 77 children, were imprisoned in several rooms in the damp basement of the village school – a human shield for the Russian troops based there. Ten of the captives died. Among those held inside were a baby and a 93-year-old man, Ukrainian prosecutors said.
“This is our concentration camp,” said Oleh Turash, 54, one of the prisoners who helped bury those who died there. Most of the time there was hardly any light. Despite the freezing winter weather, he said, people were so tight that their body heat was the only warmth they needed.
But there was never enough oxygen to breathe normally, causing some people to faint and hallucinate in others, mostly older people. “They would start babbling about needing to plant potatoes and other things they couldn’t do,” said school janitor Ivan Petrovich.
Turash, 54, slept in the largest bedroom. It had the only air source, a small hole people made themselves, Petrovich said. A bucket sat on the other side of the room, a makeshift toilet for the children and others who couldn’t wait for the morning, when there was hope that the Russian soldiers would let people out to use the ordinary toilets.
A count on the door of the largest room indicates that 136 people stayed there, including nine children. Originally the number was 139, but that was crossed out to reflect three deaths, Turash said.
“Three people died around me,” said her 73-year-old mother, Valentyna. She had broken her right arm while descending the stairs leading to the basement, but had received no medical treatment. Her wrist is still swollen three months later.
“I’m still in a lot of pain and can’t use my fingers as well as I used to,” she said.
She said the room she was in was so cluttered that there was no space for her to move.
“I spent 30 days like this, barely moving,” she said, crouching low to the ground. “Twice I lost consciousness due to lack of oxygen, but my son knocked on the door to get me out. Thank God I survived.
Petrovich and Turash brought pencils for the children to draw. Inside, they drew a mural on the wall made up of Ukrainian flags, hearts, suns and butterflies. At the top, a child had written “No war!!!”
In a smaller room, about 25 feet by 10 feet, there was another altered body count: 22 people, including five children, had been penciled in. Someone writing in navy blue pencil had changed the number to 18.
On one wall was a tally of the dead and the date they died. One man, Anatoly Shevchenko, had a question mark next to his name. His fate is still a mystery.
Every few days, if the captives were lucky, the Russians would give them permission to take the bodies into the school boiler room, usually several at a time.
It was also there that they drew their drinking water.
The men would pass through an opening and down a ladder to a sewer line, where they would fetch the water normally used for the school’s heating system.
Once they got the water, they boiled it over the open flame which they used for cooking, when they were allowed to.
“Imagine, there were corpses here on this table,” Turash said. “And right next to the corpses, we were boiling the water we were drinking.”
At one point, Russian soldiers enlisted Turash and others to dig a pit at least 10 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 granted Turash permission to bury the deceased outside in a mass grave. They accompanied him, like all the villagers who obtained permission to leave the basement, with their Kalashnikovs raised. Residents were able to obtain intermittent and inconsistent food supplies under the watch of soldiers.
Outside, the school was surrounded by Russian tank positions. The soldiers had cut down trees in the forest behind the school and dug burrows for themselves, stealing mats from people’s homes to put inside the earthen dwellings. Turash recognized his own boots on a soldier’s feet.
The occupiers told some of the residents that there were plans to bring them to Russia. “They told us: ‘The men will go to Tyumen to work in the production of wood, and the women will be sent to another part of Russia to clean the fish,'” Ekaterina Balanovych said, referring to a town in Russia. western Siberia.
On March 30, when Russian forces began to withdraw from the north, the soldiers locked everyone inside, locked the door and ordered them not to leave.
That night, the villagers broke down the door and quickly realized the Russians were gone. But they could hear heavy fighting nearby, and most stayed inside, waiting to be rescued.
But they found an old phone, Balanovych said, and someone was able to reach one of the Ukrainian soldiers.
“When our boys arrived we were so happy, we hugged them and cried,” she said. “They brought bread. We hadn’t seen a crumb of bread for a month.
More than two months later, however, Yahidne is far from back to normal. The school is badly damaged, possibly beyond repair. The destroyed 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 underground – remain.
Some, like Petrovich, appear to be suffering 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 raise your hand. It’s frightening.”
There is still a lot of cleaning to be done. “There’s not a single house here where there wasn’t a tank or an armored personnel carrier standing there,” said Valentyna Sezonenko, 75, who found partially unexploded ordnance on the road in front of his house. Houses across and adjacent to the street had been razed.
On a street next to the village’s destroyed village hall, volunteers from the capital were installing new roofs on apartment buildings. A cluster munition shell lay nearby.
“My soul hurts,” said Nina Shish, who managed to flee Yahidne hours before she was taken to be trapped in a basement by Russians in a nearby village.
As soon as she returned to Yahidne, she went to see the local school, where she had worked and where her granddaughter had attended kindergarten.
“I have no words for my grief, school was so beautiful before,” she said. “Now students won’t learn there anymore.”
She took home a plant stand with a spider plant and placed it in the hallway of her building as a keepsake.
On Wednesday, Ukraine’s chief prosecutor announced eight new war crimes cases, including one against nine Russian soldiers accused of terrorizing Yahidne.
“Unfortunately, these people are not here physically, and we are going for a trial in absentia, but it is very important for us, for Ukrainian justice, for the victims and their relatives to have this judicial procedure,” said the attorney general. Irina Venediktova, wrote on Facebook on Wednesday.
While Russia denies its soldiers committed war crimes, Ukraine has already convicted three soldiers for related offences. Most of the soldiers appointed by Venediktova come from Tuva, a remote province in southeastern Siberia.
On the road locals call Fourth Street, Ludmila Shevchenko tended her garden. She had already buried a son, Vitaliy, 53, shot dead by the Russians at the start 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 marks 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?'”
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Post expires at 6:01pm on Monday June 20th, 2022