Russian units entered the Yakhidne village in North Ukraine, fifteen kilometers towards Kyiv from the city of Chernihiv, on March 3. Within three days they forced most of the villagers, 360 people, to hide in the Soviet-era civil defense shelter under the local school-kindergarten.
There were 74 children among those detained. The youngest were three infants: 1.5, four and six months old.
They spend in the cellar without electricity and hot water for almost a month, in six rooms with stone floors and walls. There was so little space that not everybody had enough room to sleep on the floor. The largest room, a hall with 76 square meter floor space, contained 138 people or 0.55 square meters per person.
Many men were forces to sleep on their feet for the entire time. Mykola Klimchuk, 60, used a scarf to tie himself to the gymnastic ladders by his neck and arm so that he would not drop on top of the others while sleeping.
«I fell down twice at first. Then I go the idea to tie myself to the ladder,» Mykola said. «But I was not the only one. At least thirty men in our room slept like that. The strongest ones. Children, old people and women slept on the floor. There were old people over 80, they had to lie down. But I was only 60. A person lying down takes twice as much room. It just was not possible to lie down anywhere. No space. Can you understand that? And we did not know how long we shall have to sleep like that.»
Mykola adds with a sly smile that it is quite possible to sleep while standing up. «When I was an army conscript, I learned how to sleep standing up. And not just sleep but also to salute when somebody opened the door.» He tried to go out in daytime. «I got out of the cellar four times in the best day. There was air outside! Pine trees grow here. But down there you could suffocate. Men were sitting with their shirts off. The shelter was not heated but 140 people produce so much heat that it was hot there.»
Mykola’s feet are still swollen from standing up all nights. He can hardly move, he had endured real torture. Even the prisoners in German concentration camps were allowed to lie down at night.
The cellar was very damp, water dripped from the ceiling. Obviously there were no cots or hygiene facilities. They had to sleep on the stone floor or school desks, which were fortunately available.
«There was a kindergarten in the same building with the school. There were small mattresses for the children. We were allowed to take them,» said Yekaterina, 60. «We made some kind of cots from these few mattresses (there were 38 children in the kindergarten before the war) and cardboard boxes. Some people slept all that time on the stone floor and newspapers. When we were brought to the cellar, some people had blankets but most were in the same clothes they had been wearing when seized at home.»
«The first 22 days we sat in the cellar without electricity,» said Natalya, 44, who used to be assistant teacher at the same kindergarten. «Men made some primitive dim lanterns, using food cans and vegetable oil. These lamps provided all the light there was. The Russian soldiers provided electricity three days before we were saved. There was no way to wash ourselves. At seven they always opened the door at the top of the staircase to let us go to the toilet. Then we knew that it was morning.»
The elderly could not last
Ten people died in the cellar during these 25 days. They all were elderly, mostly over eighty.
«Old man Muzyka was 93. He was very weak,» Yekaterina said. «He could have lived a few more years but the war. They died of fear and their diseases because there was no treatment in these conditions. The Russians soldiers only gave us Paracetamol. There was not much air down there either, they could not properly breathe. This is why they died. The shock, bad food, no medicine, little air – all that combined caused their death.»
The prisoners were allowed every morning to take the dead to the boiler house in the yard. «We kept them there,» Yekaterina said. «Some day the soldiers allowed us to bury six people. The men took the bodies to the cemetery on wheelbarrows and buried them by three per one grave. As they returned, the Russians opened fire from mortars. Two were wounded in the legs, the third, a young girl, in the back. First they allowed to go and bury the dead and then began to shoot at them.»
They had much trouble with the infants. There were no diapers, but the Russian soldiers eventually brought them some. There was no way to wash the infants’ clothes. A small bowl was found in the cellar for washing the babies and the prisoners were allowed to heat water on a fire in the yard so that they could somehow wash the children.
Alisa, the youngest of the three infants, weighed 2.7 kilograms as she was born on January 19. She had managed to gain one kilogram before the imprisonment. She became two months old in the cellar.
«Alisa’s mother Natasha was so shocked that she no longer could produce milk,» Natalya said. «She was crying every day. The same happened to the mother of the six-month baby. She has no milk either. The Russians brought some powdered milk which had to be mixed in cold water in the days we could not boil water.»
Irina, 50, survived the imprisonment with her daughter and six-month granddaughter. «It was terrible. My daughter was crying all the time. There were no diapers at first, finally the Russians gave us some. My daughter tried to feed the baby all the time, but she could not produce milk because of all the stress. We were feeding the mother so that she could feed her child in turn.»
«Of course, all that was terrible pressure on the children, our baby was crying all the time,» Irina added. «We were in the large hall which was very hot and no fresh air. Obviously the child was very unhappy, it was difficult to breathe. The children slept half-naked. Our grandchild is now ill and in the hospital.»
The Russian soldiers at least gave condensed milk and semolina powder to make porridge.
The adult detainees received field rations from the soldiers. They later began to bring buckwheat, flour and resoling soup in three-liter jars and allowed some people go out and prepare food on open fire at the cellar door. Children were brought juice and some candy.
When the soldiers were in a good mood, they allowed the detainees go out for a walk. They were let to visit the dry latrine in the yard by groups of five. But there were also some days when the soldiers kept the prisoners indoors for 24 hours. Then they had to use buckets.
The older children’s main activity was drawing on the cellar walls – the Russians allowed their parents to bring pencils from the kindergarten. «You had to give the children something to do, even in prison,» Natalya said. Now the shelter walls have become a kind of museum remembering the horrors they endured.
The mood in the shelter was depressive because the people had no idea of what was coming. The Russian soldiers were the only link with the outside world.
«The soldiers told us that they would take us all to Siberia and that Putin would rule here,» Yekaterina said. «That we would start gutting fish and cutting trees there. Kind of half-slaves. They wanted us to learn the Russian anthem but we refused. Of course, deep in the heart we believed that our soldiers would liberate us.»
«They told us that they will destroy all the Bandera’s people and Nazis and then it would be all right,» said Valentine (65). «They offered to take us from here to the Gomel region (in Belarus). Well, thank you very much!»
Yekaterina added that their greatest fear was what the Russian soldiers could do to them. «We feared very much that they would take us somewhere and simply gun down,» she said. «We tried to be polite and not to irritate them because we were seriously afraid that they would shoot us otherwise. We all decided to get along with them and not to resist.»
The Russian soldiers shot two men of the village in the first days. They invaded the home of Vitya Sevchenko, who had just become 50, found his gun – Sevchenko was a hunter – and as he talked back, shot him and buried him in his garden. The other villager was seized by the Russians, tied to a tree and humiliated. Later they took him to the forest.
The rescued were in a shock
«The hardest thing to endure was the uncertainty about how long we have to stay there,» Mykola said. «In retrospect I would say that the last days were the hardest, starting from March 22. The main thing was to survive. If a house if bombed, it can be rebuilt. If a vehicle is destroyed, it can be replaced. If a person dies, he cannot buy a new life.»
The people became finally free on March 30 as the Russians abandoned the village. But then they experienced another shock. Firstly the whole village was shattered by artillery fire. Then it emerged that the Russians had taken away everything possible from the houses. The apartments and private homes were completely cleared out so that many people released from the cellar had nothing else to wear. Some had to stay in the schoolhouse cellar until April 2 because they had no more a home to go to. Only then the women and children were evacuated from Yakhidne.
Valentina, 65, who had lived in Tamsalu, Estonia, in the 1980s, said that the Russians had totally looted the village. «They took everything from the houses, down to socks and underpants,» she said. «All the household appliances, all computers. Spare parts for cars. They were actually picky. The soldiers rotated all the time: the old ones left and new ones came. Apparently they all wanted something. The first ones took the better things. The latter ones took everything left. Everything was turned upside down in the homes.»
Yekaterina told the same story. «They ate up all our pigs. They shot our cow and another family’s cow. They took from the homes everything possible: household appliances, mattresses, clothes, footwear, chainsaws. Everything not nailed down. I went to my home, there were only bedsteads left, everything else was taken away. What they could not take, they smashed. They broke not just the windows but even the window frames in a number of houses. People lost everything. We were left totally destitute. Many people had their homes bombed or burned down. Some even had no spare clothes after we were released. Mu neighbor even did not have any underpants, everything had burned up. Volunteer brought us some clothes. We had a beautiful village, green, with a lot of young people. Now there is nothing left.»
Natalya showed us an apartment where the Russian soldiers had stayed. Ten soldiers had lived in her apartment and five at her neighbor’s. They were all from Tuva. Their commander had said his name was Konstantin Alexandrovich. As they left, they took the TV sets, refrigerators and all other appliances.
«Only the bedsteads were left in the apartments,» Natalya told us, showing the apartments. «The mattresses and all bedclothes were taken, even from the cupboards. Mattresses from the children’s room were taken as well. My wardrobe was completely cleared out. All my dresses, the children’s clothes, the coat – everything gone. The son’s and the husband’s clothes were taken as well, shoes too. Even my husband’s neckties.»
Natalya described the departure of the brave warriors: they stopped a tank next to the building, piled all the loot on it and raced away.
But even that was not all. The dignified representatives of the mighty nuclear power had left another mark behind.
«Do not mind the stench,» Natalya said. «As they left they defecated on the corridor floor. We took out most of the crap. They did it on divans in some apartments.»