The names of the dead are scrawled on the peeling wall of a school basement where residents say more than 300 people were trapped for weeks by Russian occupiers in Yahidne, a village north of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.
Ukrainian villagers count dead after weeks confined in school basement
Halyna Tolochina (pictured above), a member of the village council, struggled to compose herself as she went through the list, scribbled in black on the plaster either side of a green door, in the gloomy warren where she said she and hundreds of others were confined.
To the left of the door were scrawled the seven names of people killed by Russian soldiers. To the right were the 10 names of people who died because of the harsh conditions in the basement, she said.
“This old man died first,” Tolochina said, pointing at the name of Muzyka D., for Dmytro Muzyka, whose death was recorded on March 9. “He died in the big room, in this one.”
She said Muzyka’s body lay for a few days in a boiler room until, during a break in shelling, some people were allowed to take the dead to be buried in hastily dug graves in the village cemetery.
The last victim recorded on the walls of the basement, Nadiya Budchenko, died on March 28, Tolochina said, two days before Russian troops withdrew from the village when their drive toward the Ukrainian capital stalled.
As well as those, mostly elderly, who died of exhaustion in the stifling, cramped conditions, Tolochina named others she said were killed by Russian soldiers, including Viktor Shevchenko and his brother Anatolii, known as Tolya.
“This one was buried in the yard,” she said, pointing to the name Shevchenko V. “And this one, they said he is there (buried in the village), somewhere,” she said, pointing to the name Shevchenko T, whose body has not been recovered.
Reuters interviewed six other residents, who corroborated Tolochina’s account and described being held in the bare concrete rooms of the basement, with around 60 children, little food or water, no electricity and no toilets.
Ukrainian authorities have accused Russia of war crimes, following the unearthing of mass graves in towns around Kyiv, such as Bucha and Motyzhyn, and the discovery of bodies whose hands had been tied and shot in the head.
Russia has denied allegations of extra-judicial killings, torture and abuse of civilians.
The Kremlin has said its forces are not targeting civilians, and accused Ukrainian authorities and the West of fabricating evidence.
Two of the villagers interviewed by Reuters said that at first some Russian troops, who arrived in early March, behaved well, offering to share their rations and expressing surprise at the village's prosperous appearance. But others began to loot immediately.
“They started looting, took everything they could grab,” said 71-year old Petro Hlystun, who witnessed the scene. “There was a light torch, a tablet computer my son brought from Poland. They took it all.”
On March 5, the villagers said they were ordered into the school basement where they were to spend the next 25 days, with only brief breaks to relieve themselves or stretch their legs.
The Russian soldiers told them the confinement was for their own protection, the villagers said.
They described sharing buckets for a toilet and taking turns to sleep in the small, crowded rooms as there was not enough space for everyone to lie down.
“It was almost impossible to breathe,” said Olha Meniaylo, an agronomist who said she was in the basement with her 32-year-old son, his wife and their children - a 4-month-old baby boy and an 11-year-old girl.
She said the Russian soldiers demanded a list of the people in the basement to organize food, and she had tallied 360. Two other villagers said there were more than 300 people.
“For the elderly, it was difficult to stay there in the dark without fresh air, so it was mostly the old who died.”
She said that the first burial - a man killed by the soldiers and four elderly people who died in the basement - took place on March 12. Russian soldiers allowed out some youths to dig shallow graves.
“As soon as they started digging, there was shelling,” Meniaylo said. “The people who were doing the digging had to lie on the dead bodies in the graves to protect themselves from the shelling. My husband was there.”
A woman who had a cow was led under escort one morning to get some milk for the children. Others were let out occasionally according to the whims of the Russian soldiers. When they returned to their homes, villagers found everything from television sets to women’s underwear had been taken.
It was not until the Russians started their withdrawal on March 30 that those trapped in the basement ventured out permanently, said 64 year-old Tamara Klymchuk.
“We opened the door. We were getting out as though we had been born again.”
Yahidne, a small farming village of just five streets, had been a popular place for city people from nearby Chernihiv to take a holiday cottage. It is now a desolate ruin of burned-out houses scattered with cast-off military gear.
An abandoned tank stands concealed across the road from the school. Ukrainian military, police and explosive disposal technicians sift through the wreckage, exhuming bodies and recovering unexploded ammunition.
“We had a very good life,” said Klymchuk, whose son-in-law was 50-year-old Viktor Shevchenko, one of the two brothers that villagers say were killed by Russian soldiers. “We never thought such grief would come upon us.”
Viktor, she said, was shot on March 3. He had stayed behind to guard his house after sending his wife and two children to the school basement.
Russian soldiers had told the villagers that Viktor had been wearing a military uniform and was armed with a shotgun.
Klymchuk did not witness the killing herself but said she saw Viktor’s body after sappers exhumed his body from a mass grave at her request once the town was retaken by Ukrainian forces. He was dressed in blue jeans and a black jacket, she said.
“They just shot him in the head.”
The Wider Image
Photography: Marko Djurica
Writing: James Mackenzie and Silvia Aloisi
Additional Reporting: Vira Labych and Maria Starkova
Picture editing: Gabriele Fonseca Johnson
Text Editing: Daniel Flynn
Design: Daniela Hart and Marta Montana Gomez