Tue. Mar 28th, 2023

Seven days after the invasion of Ukraine, Russian troops entered the village of Yahidne. They pressured the residents out of their houses and into the basement of the native college, which they’d changed into their headquarters. Till they withdrew on March 30, 2022, the Russians stored nearly the whole inhabitants of Yahidne—greater than 360 folks, together with kids and the aged—in that basement for practically a month.

It was so cramped, folks needed to sleep sitting up. As a substitute of a bathroom, there have been buckets. Meals needed to be foraged. There was no air flow, so the oldest went loopy and died. The Russians didn’t enable the useless to be buried instantly, and once they lastly did, they fired on the funeral.

“Individuals jumped into the pit with the our bodies,” says one six months later, recalling the ordeal, at a feast for many who emerged alive. Many had not.

Within the intervening months, the survivors repeated their expertise to at least one one other, and to investigators working for justice. Their confinement within the basement could serve, one yr after Vladimir Putin invaded on Feb. 24, as a microcosm of the sadism that arrived with the invaders. However to multiple survivor, what involves thoughts is a focus camp.

“What day,” one in all them asks, “did folks begin going loopy?”

The varsity beneath which Yahidne residents had been held captive

Andrii Bashtovyi—The Reckoning Venture

A yr into the invasion, sure locations in Ukraine—the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, the southern metropolis of Mariupol—are identified for what Russian forces did to the civilians there. To the checklist add the tiny village of Yahidne, which lay within the north of the nation, immediately within the path of the advancing military. As quickly because the artillery barrages started, the casual village chief, a person named Valeriy Polhui, made a bomb shelter out of his cellar. When Svitlana Baranova and Lilia Bludsha, a journey agent and an engineer at Chernobyl, pulled into the village in a automotive struck by shrapnel, its windshield shattered, Valeriy took them in too.

There was preventing throughout the village. Svitlana and Lilia known as their households to say that it was too harmful to go away Yahidne and that they might keep there some time longer. On March 3 the army automobiles entered the village in a protracted column. Valeriy hurried everybody—the 9 members of his prolonged household and the 2 friends—into his makeshift bomb shelter.

From inside, they may hear heavy equipment driving into his yard, stomping, and gunfire. However that night no one found their hiding spot, due to Valeriy’s good considering: he hung a lock on the door to make it look as if it had been shut from the skin. The Russians pulled on the door and walked away. However the subsequent day they broke the lock. Valeriy shouted:

“Don’t shoot, there are kids right here!”

The whole lot froze for a second, as if the particular person on the opposite facet of the door hadn’t anticipated to listen to a voice. Then the command got here for everybody to return out, one after the other. Valeriy went first. The subsequent command to him was to lie down on the snow. The Russians took their telephones and searched their contacts. In the event that they noticed the phrase Kyiv they requested for extra particulars, as if this phrase in and of itself was a menace. They searched the home, discovered a uniform, and determined that Valeriy was within the army. He defined that he wasn’t. He spoke in Russian, however the soldier didn’t perceive him.

“Navy, army,” the soldier repeated, ignoring the reason. The troopers regarded Asian, their Russian was damaged, and Valeriy later realized that they had been from Tuva, a area within the far east of Russia, one of many nation’s poorest.

“Married?” a soldier requested Lilia.

“No,” she lied.


“32. Are you going to kill us?”


Then they locked them again in Valeriy’s cellar. The subsequent day, March 5, the Russians opened the cellar door and stated:

“Get out. We’re taking you to the varsity basement.”

Clockwise from top-left: Lilia and Svitlana, again in Yahidne six months after rising from the basement; Valeriy Polhui was advised by a Russian officer, “You’ll be liable for everybody.”; a reunion meal hosted by Valeriy’s household in Yahidne on Aug. 27, 2022; Russian troops killed one in all Mykhailo Shevchenko’s sons; the opposite is lacking

Clockwise from top-left: 1, 3: Nataliya Gumenyuk—The Reckoning Venture; 2, 4: Andrii Bashtovyi—The Reckoning Venture

It was a grey, chilly morning.

The village is bordered on one finish by a pine forest and on the opposite by the Kyiv–Chernihiv freeway. There are 5 streets, and Valeriy may see folks being frog-marched to the varsity from every, slowly, household by household. Behind every household was a soldier pointing a machine gun at them. The Russians made the sick and aged come. Their households moved them in wheelbarrows.

On the five hundred meters that separate his home from the varsity, Valeriy counted 80 items of kit: armored personnel carriers, tanks, mortars. Troopers with crimson armbands had been bustling about, hauling ammunition. By Lisova Avenue a useless physique lay on the bottom. Anatoliy Yaniuk had been shot within the head on March 3. He was 30 years previous. The Russians had executed him when he refused to lie down on the bottom in entrance of them. “I’m by myself land, and I cannot lay down in entrance of you.” These had been his final phrases, neighbors who noticed the execution advised his mom.

The varsity is a two-story white brick constructing on the sting of the village, in entrance of the forest. That morning chalkboards within the lecture rooms nonetheless had the tutorial assignments for Feb. 23 written on them. Armed troopers scurried about army automobiles between the swings.

As they had been herded into the basement, the folks of Yahidne noticed a fellow villager, Anatoliy Shevchenko, off to the facet, blindfolded, his fingers tied. Regardless of the chilly he was sitting on the concrete parapet in a lightweight sweater, with seen bruises on his physique. The 2 troopers subsequent to him had been brandishing their machine weapons.

Olha Meniailo, an agronomist who was being pressured into the cellar along with her husband, son, daughter-in-law, and their 4-month-old son, observed a few of the army regarded extra skilled and a few had been boys of their teenagers. She felt sorry for the latter as a result of they had been simply “youngsters.”

“Why did you come right here?” she requested the Russian troopers.

“We got here to free you from the Nazis,” they repeated.

“There aren’t any Nazis right here,” stated Olha. “You solely ‘freed’ us from our houses.”

The most important room of the basement as soon as housed the varsity health club, however now it reminded her of photos of hell from historical non secular icons. “A candle glints right here and there,” she would keep in mind later, “and within the dim gentle there are folks subsequent to one another with doomed expressions on their faces. It’s suffocating.”

Valeriy, his household, and Svitlana and Lilia had been already within the basement, sharing the most important room with 150 different folks. Later they calculated there was about half a sq. meter per particular person: 170 sq. meters, 367 folks (together with greater than 70 kids). They sat on the bench or on the ground, resting their heads on their neighbors’ shoulders, not realizing if they might reside to see the following morning.

{Photograph} by Olha Meniailo—Courtesy The Reckoning Venture

As the times went on folks dealt with their concern otherwise. Some sat in a stupor, hugging their pet canines. Others ran round on the lookout for water and questioning survive.

Olha determined she may keep sane by retaining her diary. Immediately the phrases are arduous to make out—she wrote at the hours of darkness; flashlights had been turned on solely when completely crucial. Olha used her index finger to measure the width of the traces in order that she wouldn’t write over issues.

Day one—We tried to speak to the troopers.

Day two—They took away everybody’s cell telephones.

Day three—We began boiling water.

She caught to the naked information: she knew the diary might be seized and didn’t need anybody to know her innermost ideas.

Throughout the day, folks sat within the basement on chairs, benches, and the ground. They slept sitting up. They used bulletin boards to make a platform for the youngsters to lie on. The one strategy to stretch your legs in these cramped situations was to face up. Svitlana and Lilia would take turns mendacity on two chairs, whereas the opposite lay on the ground beneath.

The Russians had claimed that they despatched the villagers into the basement for his or her “safety,” but it surely was clear they had been human shields. The Russian army made their headquarters on the 2 flooring above.

At first the captives had been in such a state of shock that they didn’t even suppose a lot about meals. Then they ate what they had been capable of deliver from dwelling. The Russians gave them a few of their dry rations. Aboveground, the Russians took all the things from folks’s fridges. They slaughtered all of the livestock. All of March the scent of grilled meat hung over the village.

When folks bought hungry, they regarded to Valeriy for assist. “Valeriy, what will we eat?” they requested him. He started trying among the many Russians. He selected somebody about his age, 38, with a crimson beard and crimson hair. The opposite troopers known as him Klen (Maple). Not one of the troopers used their rank or actual names with each other, solely nicknames.

“There are nearly 400 folks right here,” he advised Klen, “they usually all need to eat.” Klen was silent at first.

“OK, make a hearth, however no smoke.”

Then he checked out Valeriy: “I see you’ll be liable for everybody. The whole lot goes via you.” Valeriy’s coronary heart sank. Klen hadn’t made a suggestion. It was an order.

They boiled water for the primary time on the third day. They ready child meals and each morning made porridge for the youngsters. They found out get water from the varsity nicely. It was not ingesting water, however water nonetheless. Since there was no electrical energy, they pumped by hand. One stroke introduced 100 to 150 milliliters of water; for meals and tea, they wanted 150 liters.

The prisoners watched enviously because the Russians drank from small juice containers, and dreamed how they might purchase some once they had been free once more. Typically the Russians would give them crackers from their rations, and one time they introduced a wheelbarrow of sliced bread. A few of the bread was moldy, the remaining was soiled, however the moms nonetheless ran to the wheelbarrow, grabbed the slices of bread, and dusted them off to feed their kids. The troopers filmed the scene on their telephones.

One time they introduced baggage of cereal and pasta. Valeriy puzzled what introduced on this gesture of goodwill. However when he took a more in-depth look, he noticed that the baggage had been leaking. They had been transporting diesel gasoline within the automotive, and it spilled on the baggage of cereal. The folks washed the pasta in water 3 times, boiled it, and ate it anyway.

Probably the most humiliating factor was going to the bathroom. They had been allowed to make use of the bathroom exterior solely throughout the day. However you weren’t allowed to go away the basement at evening. There have been three buckets within the health club for about 150 folks. Individuals stopped ingesting water within the night to maintain from having to make use of them.

The primary particular person died on day 5. Dmytro Muzyka was 92. His spouse Maria outlived her husband by only a few days. She too died within the basement. One other particular person died on day six. Then two in someday. From March 5 to March 30, 10 folks would die from lack of oxygen, medication, and care.

The checklist of the useless is etched on a wall, subsequent to a calendar. Valentyna Danilova maintained each. Earlier than the invasion she labored within the kinder-garten, immediately above the place she was now being held alongside along with her husband and 83-year-old mom. Valentyna discovered an ember close to the cooking hearth and used it to jot down the primary date. Then it turned a each day ritual. “Did you keep in mind to jot down down the day?” the 5-year-old boy subsequent to her would ask each morning. Later, she started writing the names of the useless subsequent to the numbers.

The basement wasn’t heated, however the air was sizzling from the a whole lot of our bodies. The partitions remained chilly and condensation from folks respiration ran down them, in order that the folks by the partitions sat in puddles. However the actual horror was the shortage of oxygen. Valentyna in contrast it to a sinking ship—they had been suffocating.

A few of the oldest couldn’t deal with it. They didn’t acknowledge their kids. Screamed. Had conversations with useless family. Revealed household secrets and techniques. Then they died, sitting in a chair.

By March 12, a number of corpses had collected. The Russian troopers lastly gave permission for them to be buried.

Individuals in villages take their funerals very critically. They spend many years planning what garments they are going to be buried in, making ready embroidered towels that their family ought to grasp on the cross. Now folks had been being buried and not using a coffin and and not using a cross. They had been taken to the cemetery wrapped in sheets, in a wheelbarrow, their legs and arms hanging out.

Two pits had been dug for the 5 useless. There wasn’t sufficient time to dig extra—the Russians gave them solely two hours for the funeral. In the event that they took any longer, they might be shot. When the primary our bodies had been lowered into the pit and the native priest, who was additionally stored within the basement, started saying the prayer, a Tiger armored car drove as much as the cemetery, stopped, and several other males regarded on the funeral brigade. They had been sporting balaclavas and helmets so solely their eyes had been seen. The car drove on, and a minute or two later the funeral was being fired on, with explosions throughout the graves.

The boys jumped into the pits with the our bodies. The priest fell between gravestones and was hit by a falling tree. After the shelling, the wounded had been taken to the basement in the identical wheelbarrows they used to deliver the our bodies to the cemetery.

Klen, the red-haired soldier, ran the basement in what a few of the prisoners describe as a focus camp.

“You’re being punished,” he would say when he locked the door throughout the day. Individuals would plead to be let loose, banging on the door, shouting that they had been suffocating … nothing helped.

When somebody with most cancers requested him for permission to go dwelling and get their medication, Klen answered, “If issues are so arduous for you, there’s the forest—go grasp your self, it’ll get simpler.”

Valeriy thought Klen hysterical and unbalanced, with a mania for controlling the prisoners within the basement. “Take one incorrect step and he’ll shoot you on the spot.” He was additionally a zealous patriot. One time, Valeriy went as much as Klen to ask permission for folks to go dwelling. The redheaded soldier listened to him, after which handed him a sheet of paper.

“Have you learnt the Russian anthem?”


“What concerning the Soviet one?”

“I don’t understand it.”

“Right here’s the anthem. If somebody desires to go dwelling to get meals, they must sing the Russian anthem.”

No person sang the Russian anthem.

From left: Olha Meniailo’s diary entry for the day of the funeral: “Yarema managed to sing them off and the shelling started.”; a nook of the varsity basement, photographed on Might 12, 2022

From left: Nataliya Gumenyuk—The Reckoning Venture; Andrii Bashtovyi—The Reckoning Venture

The folks within the basement had no concept what was taking place on the entrance, in Ukraine, in Kyiv, even within the native capital of Chernihiv. “We’ve captured all of your cities,” the troopers advised them. However the folks thought, If Russians had captured all of the Ukrainian cities, why had been they nonetheless in Yahidne?

A commander was purported to go to Russia. He promised to deliver again medication. However he returned in two days.

“Persons are asking about drugs,” Valeriy stated. “Did you deliver them?”

“I didn’t deliver them and I received’t,” the commander advised him. “Your partisans are mining the roads, we are able to’t make it to Russia.”

Nice, so there’s hope in spite of everything, Valeriy thought.

In the meantime, well being situations had been deteriorating. There was an outbreak of rooster pox. Individuals coughed from the shortage of air and the mud. Many had a temperature. Individuals’s legs swelled from sitting on a regular basis; they’d open sores. The Russians may have given them antiseptic or cough lozenges, however most frequently their response was “We didn’t come right here to deal with you.” Individuals continued to die, and once they did, their our bodies had been taken to the boiler room the place the residing went to scrub.

However towards the tip of March, hypothesis started to unfold that the Russians had been planning to go away. The folks observed elevated motion; there was much less safety. A hidden joyous premonition of freedom was rising. “Everybody desires about freedom,” Olha Meniailo wrote in her diary.

March 30 was the vacation referred to as Heat Oleksa. That morning, as they’d executed for practically a month, the folks went exterior to the bathroom and began making ready meals. However at 11 a.m. they had been despatched again into the basement and locked in. There was a gap within the picket door that was made to let in air. The troopers shouted: If anybody goes close to the door, we’ll shoot. However some folks stood at a distance from the door and watched via the opening because the Russians had been eradicating their tools.

A way of hope was rising inside everybody. However the prisoners had been afraid to betray this hope even to their closest neighbors. Possibly these troopers had been leaving, however new ones would exchange them? Possibly they had been going to fake to go away, then cover, after which begin taking pictures as quickly as folks exited the basement?

The automobiles hummed and the noise receded. The buzzing was changed by gunfire, which continued for a while, after which there was silence. There was full, utter silence. Footsteps? Voices? Nothing.

The prisoners kicked open the door, and the primary males left the basement. They went exterior and didn’t see any automobiles, any troopers. Slowly, one after the other, folks began going upstairs, exterior. To breathe the springtime air. To have a look at the sky. Birds flew to the varsity for the primary time in a month.

The dates of captivity. On the left are these killed by the Russians; on the proper, those that died within the basement

Andrii Bashtovyi­—The Reckoning Venture

The bravest ones ran to their houses. They returned to the basement to inform the remaining: They’re gone, they are surely gone! Individuals began to smile. Somebody discovered a radio. They needed to hear the information, to grasp if Yahidne was now underneath the management of Ukraine or Russia. However there was solely music on the radio. Then somebody realized the music was in Ukrainian. It meant Ukraine was nonetheless free.

The day the Russians had entered the village, a number of folks had buried their telephones of their barns and cellars. Now they dug them up. There have been 300 folks however just a few telephones: every bought a number of seconds to make a name. Svitlana tried to dial her husband, however she stored getting one quantity incorrect. Lastly, she known as her daughter:



Olha the agronomist went to take a look at her home. It hadn’t burned down, that was good. However the home windows had been damaged, the roof destroyed, there have been puddles inside. There was no electrical energy or gasoline. In the midst of the lounge was a pile of issues the Russian troopers had thrown round whereas they rummaged via the wardrobes. That they had stolen all the nice and cozy garments, males’s footwear, socks, instruments—it was the identical in most homes.

“All of us stated that as quickly as we bought out, we wouldn’t step foot in that basement,” remembers Olha. However given the state of their houses, on their first evening of freedom, most individuals returned to the place of their imprisonment.

That evening, no one locked them in. Within the morning, the folks went exterior each time they needed. “My first morning of freedom,” Olha wrote in her diary. Out of behavior, they boiled water and made breakfast. Then somebody noticed males in uniform popping out of the forest. The primary response was to cover. However they regarded nearer and noticed that it wasn’t a Russian uniform. Then somebody shouted, “It’s our guys!”

The folks ran as much as the troopers, touched them with trembling fingers to examine that they had been actual, laughed, and cried. They surrounded the troopers and requested them for the information concerning the Russian retreat from the area, how the siege of Kyiv had failed, time and again, till the troopers bought bored with repeating it.

Svitlana and Lilia discovered a automotive and sped out of Yahidne. Many locals would comply with. The Russians had mined some houses. Individuals lined their home windows in plastic to maintain out the rain, bought into buses, and went to family’ houses or non permanent shelters. Crucial factor was to get as far-off as doable, discover warmth, consolation, and safety.

That April in Yahidne, the one folks working within the gardens had been deminers.

When folks returned, they started to restore their houses. They had been nonetheless coughing from being within the basement, and continual ailments bought worse. However no one rushed to see the psychiatrist who got here to the village. “No person thinks they’re traumatized. Individuals suppose they’re OK,” says Valeriy.

The varsity constructing stays a criminal offense scene. The kids attend college within the neighboring village. The yard has been cleaned up, however inside there are traces of the Russians in every single place—ration containers, ashtrays, rubbish. The troopers left drawings on the partitions, together with the observe “55 br”—fifty fifth Separate Motorized Brigade from the Tuva Republic. The names of 9 troopers had been confirmed by the paperwork they left behind in Yahidne.

The regional administration desires to protect the varsity as a struggle memorial. The writings on the partitions can be essential reveals: kids’s drawings, the phrases of the Ukrainian anthem in a toddler’s handwriting; the calendar that Valentyna Danilova drew with charcoal.

“If we had been to die, different folks will learn the way a lot we endured,” Valentyna explains. This is the reason she stored these information.

Thanks largely to the testimonies collected from the villagers, 22 troopers from the occupying brigade have been recognized as suspects, in accordance with Ukrainian prosecutors. By January 2023, 4 of them had been convicted in absentia by a Ukrainian court docket for violating legal guidelines and customs of struggle. Three got 12 years in jail, and one 10 years. Their sentences are for the atrocities dedicated in Yahidne earlier than March 5, earlier than the villagers had been pressured into the basement. However there’s a robust argument to carry Russian troopers accountable for holding folks within the basement too.

The Reckoning Venture, an alliance of journalists and human-rights legal professionals, says the Russian troopers used humiliation and what’s identified in regulation as “torture, inhumane and degrading remedy” as a tactic to subdue the inhabitants in Yahidne. Systematic, widespread implementation of such sick remedy on a civilian inhabitants might be thought of a criminal offense towards humanity.

The undertaking’s authorized analysts additionally observe the absence of insignia on Russian troopers’ uniforms, and concealing their identities from Yahidne residents, actions suggesting predetermination to commit atrocities. In different phrases—what occurred at Yahidne was probably no accident. Like so many atrocities throughout Ukraine it was deliberate, deliberate, intentional.

Now comes the reckoning.

Oslavska is a journalist primarily based in Ukraine. This story is revealed in partnership with The Reckoning Venture, which brings collectively the ability of storytelling and authorized accountability to combat disinformation and impunity in Ukraine

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