A Ukrainian village occupied by Russian troops is trying to recover — H Talk Asia

Ivan Petrovich wearily unlocks the gates of the school, which became a makeshift prison for four harrowing weeks in March while a morning fog still lingers in the surrounding woods.

“I know there’s a lot to do – clean up the village, do some farming, fix the house,” he says. “I just don’t know why. you can’t do anything You just don’t have the strength.”

Petrovich, 62, worked for two decades as the school’s administrator — guardians of the keys to the place where the small farming community of Yahidne sent their elementary- and middle-school-age children to study.

But that was before Russian troops invaded last March in an advance they thought would soon end in the capture of Kyiv, 140 kilometers (87 miles) to the south. The soldiers wore festive uniforms for the occasion, so sure of their success.

For 28 days, the school served as a base for the Russian armed forces. For Petrovich and 364 others crammed into the basement – including 70 children, the youngest just 6 weeks old – it became an epicenter of trauma.

Journalists from The Reporter, a Taiwan-based investigative news agency, were shown through the village by Petrovich and other locals, who stayed despite the brutality they witnessed and suffered. This story is the result of a collaboration between H Talk Asia and The Reporter through a grant from the United States Agency for Global Media. The project, which will also be published in Mandarin, aims to provide Chinese readers with more clarity on the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Ivan Petrovich sheds light on messages that prisoners wrote on a wall in a school to describe their experiences. Photo by Yang Zilei

UN investigation

The prisoners survived four weeks underground in a room about 200 square meters, the size of an average American house. Sometimes they were allowed to go to the toilet, but often not. Some people passed out due to lack of oxygen. There was little access to food, water or medicine, Petrovich says.

In October, a United Nations-sponsored inquiry into human rights abuses in Ukraine found at least 10 people starved to death in basements. Russians appeared to position civilians near their troops and equipment, including at Yahidne, to deter attacks, the report said. According to the UN report, the 365 prisoners were at “significant risk”.

After unlocking the gate to the school, Petrovich opened the door to the basement, where he and the others spent weeks literally knee to knee and back to back.

To the left of a green door, the names of the people who died there were written on the walls as a record in case none of those trapped survived. On the right were the names of seven people who were shot on the street. Other people have been reported missing.

“When they wrote down the names, they didn’t expect to go home alive,” Petrovich said.

The attack begins

The bombs fell around 1 p.m. on March 3, said Petrovich, who was initially huddled in his own basement with his family and children. Soldiers arrived that afternoon, and by nightfall they inspected houses from door to door and captured locals, including Petrovich and his family.

Some of the villagers who were rounded up were quickly taken away, while others were tortured, says Petrovich. The soldiers ordered residents to undress and tried to identify Ukrainians who were in the military or who worked for the government using tattoos or other identifiers.

“They thought I was a retired soldier or police officer. I said it’s not me. They pinned me to the ground and fired their machine guns around me. Order me to confess.” He said others had suffered the same terror.

The villagers were then wheeled into the school’s basement. Locals told reporter-journalists that the prisoners included a 13-year-old girl who was the sole survivor of a family of four who were shot dead by Russian soldiers while trying to escape in a car.

The reporter has not been able to independently verify the claims, although the UN report includes similar testimonies.

A Ukrainian village occupied by Russian troops is trying to recover — H Talk AsiaKindergarten teacher Natalia said Russian soldiers gave prisoners like her small amounts of military rations to eat. The UN said 10 people starved to death during the occupation. Photo by Yang Zilei

Leaking waste

The basement is divided into four rooms. In one, Petrovich said 36 people were crammed into just seven square meters of space. Some prisoners had enough space to sleep sitting up, others had to attach themselves to something stable and try to sleep standing up.

The soldiers occasionally allowed their prisoners to go outside for 10 minutes to get some fresh air or to use a bathroom. But the door could be closed for days. Elderly inmates passed out due to lack of oxygen.

Natalia, another prisoner who was a kindergarten teacher at the school, said that waste from a leaking septic tank was dripping into one of the rooms. Soldiers slaughtered cattle and raided kitchens, leaving meager military rations for the locals, which Natalia said were “so bad it was hard to swallow.”

People got sick, starved and, Petrovich said, went mad with delirium, overwhelmed by the stress and the stench and lack of food.

“Honour of Ukraine”

There was a constant threat from the soldiers above, who residents said would call out a name and bring the person out to be tortured. Some never returned. Other times, soldiers called down, “Give us women!”

Petrovich found some crayons and gave them to the children to draw on the walls to distract them from the fear and boredom. They drew pets, their village as it looked before the war, gardens, butterflies, sunshine, “Glory of Ukraine”.

First the prisoners had to stack the corpses in a corner in the basement. Eventually, they said their captors relented and gave the prisoners 90 minutes to bury the bodies at a local cemetery. Halfway through the fire from a Russian machine gun, two of the villagers were killed, people in the community said.

On March 30, Russian soldiers sealed the door and warned residents not to come out. But they could hear the troops leaving and after a long silence they broke down the door, found an old cell phone and contacted the Ukrainian military, who arrived the next day.

yahidne5.jpgPetrovich found crayons that the children could use to draw during their captivity. They also wrote messages like “No Wars” and “Glory to Ukraine”. Photo by Yang Zilei

A destroyed village

The captured locals reappeared in a destroyed Yahidne. Russian bombs left craters in the countryside and holes in buildings. Tanks rolled over cars to prevent residents from escaping. Troops broke up floorboards and looted homes, taking large appliances such as washing machines and microwaves.

“They burned everything and left nothing but ruins and soot,” says Petrovich. “They did what they wanted. When they arrived they were wearing knee-high rubber boots. But when they left, they stole our shoes.”

Residents found booby traps in their homes and landmines in the forest; bodies buried in backyards and left outdoors; Women from surrounding villages who had been abducted and taken to Yahidne to be raped.

‘They hated us.’

Buses arrived on the second day after their release to take the residents to Kyiv for treatment. Many others went to relatives in other cities of Ukraine.

Most of the people the reporter-journalists met came from families who had lived in the city since 1953 and grew strawberries, apples and other fruits for export to Belarus and Russia. Yahidne means “berries” in Ukrainian.

Whatever ties there were with those countries are now broken forever, residents said.

“They hated us. You abused us. They crushed us,” says another Natalia, who helped show reporters around town. And they still find ways to torment their former prisoners — Natalia said she received a Facebook message from one of the soldiers who was part of the invasion force.

A challenge for Putin

Olena Taranova, a 50-year-old new grandmother who has volunteered in support of Ukrainian troops since Russia conquered Crimea eight years ago, carried a notebook as she guided journalists through Yahidne.

“Shot in the head. Burned in the car. Died in a bomb attack on the highway. Shot in her backyard,” she recites from his sides. It’s a small part of her list of 76 bodies she says she’s killed in the last Months ago, she saves a photo of each one on her phone as evidence, including the charred bodies of a father and his daughter, who were killed in their car in a Russian attack.

“As a woman, I don’t give up,” she says. “I’ve seen the kind of pain that a lot of moms experience. They had to bury their own children with their own hands.”

Her phone also contains a video of her practicing shooting a gun. “Come on, Putin, you and me, one on one,” she says. “Don’t touch the weak.”

yahidne8.jpgGuide Natalia broke down in tears as she spoke about what her child endured during the occupation. Despite the trauma, she said the people of Yahidne are rebuilding. Photo by Yang Zilei

‘Now we are free’

Tables and chairs have been set up in the cemetery for those who stayed behind to rest, reflect and cry. There are many new tombs, including one for a villager who tried to fight the troops. A bottle of liquor and a few glasses stand nearby for his friends, who stop by to toast his keepsake.

International relief groups have arrived in Yahidne to help clear the area of ​​landmines and advisory groups have been set up to help residents deal with their trauma. But as Petrovich led the reporters through the community, he warned them to follow his path, as dangers remain.

This of course applies to Ukraine as a whole. Although the military has reclaimed territory and continues to advance, Russian missiles continue to bombard Ukrainian cities and cut off sections of the population from electricity or heat.

“Now we are free, but everything we had was destroyed, and winter is coming,” said Natalia, the guide. But Yahidne people are working hard to rebuild, she said.

>> Read more on the special page.

Translation of Min Eu. Edited in English by Jim Snyder, Paul Eckert and Mat Pennington.