- The Russian forces paid any attention to Slavutych only a month after the beginning of the war
- The residents were provided with food and medicines secretly through the forest
- Staff of the Chornobyl nuclear power station were taken to work by fishing boats across Dniepr
The city of Slavutych in North Ukraine near the border with Belarus, built for the staff of the Chornobyl nuclear power station, found itself in a month-long isolation at the beginning of the war during which food and medicines were secretly smuggled into the city by paths in the forest. Mayor of Slavutych Yuri Fomichev told Postimees about the fighting near the city and how he was arrested and taken to forest with his hands tied up.
What was the situation in Slavutych at the beginning of the war?
Our city found itself in isolation on the first day of the attack on Ukraine. When Russian troops crossed the Belarusian border on February 24, they tried to take Chernihiv. They occupied all the international roads connecting Belarus and Ukraine. Russian troops did not enter Slavutych during a whole month after the invasion of Ukraine. We are an isolated city in the woods, we were of no strategic interest to them because there are no military bases or anything else important here. We knew they were all around us, but there was no contact. It was difficult, but not as difficult as being occupied.
When did the Russian troops reach the city?
On March 23, the Russians issued an ultimatum demanding that we lay down the weapons and allow the troops enter the city. During the 30-day isolation, the Ukrainian army was unable to send us reinforcements. I do not want to compare our city to Mariupol, the situation is quite different there, but in territorial terms our situation was the same. We could only defend ourselves with the weapons that were available. The territorial defense units had Kalashnikov machines, and that was all. There were no armored vehicles, tanks, anti-tank weapons or cannon. City dwellers also made Molotov cocktails, but they are effective against tanks only in urban battles, not in open terrain. We rejected the Russian ultimatum and said that we were ready to defend ourselves. We decided with the boys of territorial defense to give them battle on the way into the city. For three days they held back the occupiers and there were minor battles. Then the HQ of the Northern Defense District made the difficult decision to retreat. Fighting in the city would have resulted in civilian casualties, and defenders had only small arms. The territorial defenders complied with the order and left the city on March 25 and 26.
What happened after the retreat of the territorial defense units?
On 25 March, we decided to hold a peaceful demonstration against the occupiers. The people were ready to take an active part. The Slavutych women had seen the people protest on television in other occupied Ukrainian cities, and they decided to do the same. I told them that if they gather at least 500 people, I would give them permission. They quickly gathered 1,500 people behind the initiative. We named the group “Get Out”. We would have liked to use a more offensive name, inspired by a famous Russian warship, but you do not speak like that when women can hear it, not even during the war. On the morning of March 26, at 9 a.m., people began to gather in the central square and move on to the entrance to the city. At the same time, Russian tanks were already trying to approach the city.
Were you with the protesters?
I have my own story about that. I spent the night in the countryside and drove to the demonstration from outside the city. The Russians had already occupied the driveway and the passengers to Slavutych were not allowed to pass. All the people, including myself, were detained, our hands were tied, and we were taken to the forest. They promised to clear the city of the defenders and set us free in a few hours. At that time, the Ukrainian army had already left the city. I said I was the mayor and I needed to talk to the commander urgently. I was taken three kilometers on foot through the forest to the commander of the Russian unit. I informed him of the departure of the territorial defenders and that there are only unarmed civilians in the city.
At the same time, about 500 people had gathered in Slavutych central square. There were fewer people than registered, but it is good that as many showed up. The Russians were distrustful and said that there must be armed soldiers among the people who would attack them. I suggested that we should drive to town together and I would be the first to get out of the car. If there are really soldiers, I will be the first to be shot. We drove together, by that time the protesters had reached the entrance to the city from the central square. Everything went peacefully, the Russian troops came to the city, inspected some of the buildings and made sure there were no soldiers in the city. They did not enter the residential houses. They stayed in the city for two days and left after that. Thank God, that was the last we saw of them.
The international media reported at the end of March that Russian troops had taken you hostage. How exactly did that happen?
In fact, that was the very case when I drove to the city on the morning of March 26th. It was not like what is happening in southern Ukraine, where mayors are being captured and put under pressure to collaborate with the occupiers. The security service ordered me not to spend the night in my apartment and drive out of the city for the night to prevent the occupiers from trying to make me collaborate. But it was not the arrest of the mayor, I was detained as an ordinary resident. Eight more people were detained with me. We just weren’t allowed to enter the city.
Were there any casualties in the battles around the city?
Yes, four defenders were killed in three days. One was seriously wounded at the start of the fighting and died in hospital. Two were killed in battle at the entrance to the city, and a fourth body was found two days after the occupiers left the city. He was buried in the woods and we found him.
Will the situation in Slavutych now return to normal?
There are still many traces of the hard month here. For four days, the shops in the city were closed because there were simply no goods to sell. Everything was sold out. The only normal way to Kiev is through Chernihiv, and the occupiers had blocked it. It was simply not possible to deliver food, medicine and fuel. We did not have electricity for six days because the occupiers turned off the power lines in Chernobyl leading here. At that time, people were cooking in the courtyards over an open fire. It was a kind of interesting time as people started to communicate a lot more with each other. The residents of the apartment buildings ate together in front of the house. Since there was no internet at the time of the power outage, people had no choice but to talk to each other.
Where did the townspeople get their food at that time?
There are some forest roads through which the necessary items can be delivered. We had informants in the villages to let us know if the occupiers were there or not. In this way, we delivered the necessary stuff so that the residents could survive the difficult times. While there are usually 25,000 people living in Slavutych, about 15,000 were left by the time of isolation. We were also helped by farmers living around the city, who brought milk, bread and other food on their own initiative. By then, we had set up a voucher system to distribute food to everyone. We managed and what was the most important: there were no battles in the city. It was much easier for us than, for example, in Chernihiv, where there were constant battles.
Most of Slavutich population works at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant. How do they get to work?
This is a big problem and we are still looking for a solution. Before the war, it was possible to travel by train from Slavutych to Chornobyl directly through Belarus. More than 95 percent of the employees of the Chornobyl plant are residents of Slavutych. However, the logistics have become very complicated. We are trying to rotate the staff of the power plant once a week, although in the current situation they cannot be offered fast transport. It will take at least a year for a new and operational route to be established. March 20 was the first time we were able to replace the people trapped at the Chornobyl power plant since the start of the war. We transported them by fishing boat across the Dnieper River.
What were the working conditions of the Chornobyl staff trapped by the occupiers?
They are, in my view, real heroes, because they did not abandon the nuclear facility and continued to operate it in order to prevent another nuclear disaster. The new shift arrived in Chernobyl just before the start of the war, on February 23, and remained there for 28 days before being replaced. There were people who did not return when the second shift arrived, but worked continuously for 40 days. This is physically difficult because the power plant does not have normal sleeping conditions. It’s also morally difficult to be away from your family, not knowing what might happen to you.
How many people stayed in the Chornobyl nuclear power plant?
On the first day, more than a hundred Slavutych people remained there. There were more than 180 people on the shift, but in addition to nuclear specialists, there were also firefighters, medical services and service staff, such as cooks. Rosgvardia soldiers occupied the nuclear power plant and took them hostage. Apart from the inhabitants of our city, no one can work in Chornobyl because it is very specific. After the nuclear power plant was seized, specialists from Russia’s Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom arrived to take over the operation of the plant. They came, got acquainted with the situation and refused to work because they did not understand how the station works. The fourth unit of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant has a unique technology and specialists did not understand the principles of its operation.
Is curfew in force also in Slavutych?
Yes. Although the occupiers are gone, it is very likely that they left sabotage groups here trying to organize something. The curfew is urgently necessary to catch them. We check the documents of all those who enter the city and make sure what is the purpose of their visit.
Is it allowed to sell alcohol in Slavutych now?
The sale of alcohol is currently banned in the Chernihiv region around us, but Slavutych is in a unique situation. We are located in the Chernihiv region, but in fact we belong to the Kiev region. We are still discussing whether and how to organize the sale of alcohol. But retaining the alcohol ban is not realistic. It has never worked anywhere in the world. If you cannot buy it officially there will be illegal suppliers as has always been the case.
What are the Ukrainians’ relations with the Belarusians after the war began?
We did not expect Belarus to allow Russia to attack Ukraine from its territory. We knew that hostilities could begin soon, but it was unexpected that Belarus would turn against us this way. We believed that the attack would come from the east or through the Crimea. This is very difficult for us, because for the last 35 years, the people of Slavutych have been driving through Belarus to work at the Chernobyl power plant. It was friendly territory for us. Many people of our city have relatives in Belarus. Relations with them are very difficult at the moment, but we know that a large proportion of Belarusians are normal people. In 2020, there was a revolution against the autocratic regime in Belarus, which was not successful but awakened the society there. We know that there are partisan groups in Belarus breaking up rails to prevent Russian military transport and informing us when a plane takes off towards Ukraine or a missile is launched. Belarus has a polarized society. People and the authorities are on different sides. But when we talk about Russia, the people and the authorities in that country are on the same side.
When do you think this war will end and how?
A very difficult question. There is currently an active war in the Donbass and southern Ukraine. I do not think it will end any time soon, even if we reach some kind of peace agreement. The issue of Crimea remains, and I cannot imagine how the Donbass issue can be resolved. What is happening now does not in any way lead to mutual understanding between the societies. We do not understand how the whole Russian society with a population of 140 million can become brain dead. News reports show how young Russians are saying «we do as the authorities say and we are proud of it.» There is a mass in Russia who cannot think critically and who does not analyze anything.
I believe that such relations between Ukrainians and Russians will last for generations. At present, there is no understanding even between parents and children on the other side of the border and between brothers and sisters. 40 million Ukrainians hate Russia for killing our people, killing our children and invading our country. There is no justification for that. To say that it was done by the authorities or the army is just bullshit. It will be a long time before our people are ready to accept them again.