Vehicles destroyed in Yahidne near Chernihiv

Civilian vehicles that were destroyed near Chernihiv in Yahidne village, 1 June 2022. Photo by Euromaidan Press 

Featured, Russian Aggression

Article by: Bohdan Ben, Orysia Hrudka
Edited by: Matt Wickham, Sonia Maryn

As Russian troops set their sights on Kyiv in the first month of the invasion, the northern city of Chernihiv was nearly entirely encircled and escape routes were sealed off. However, not the route to life, a secret path through the swamps and the forests by which volunteers clandestinely evacuated at least 75,000 civilians in a route that was visible from space. We talk to the volunteers who made that rescue happen.

  • Part two, about the villages which witnessed destruction and terror but saved Chernihiv from occupation, coming soon.
Russo-Ukrainian war, day 33: Russian advances around Mariupol, counterattacks elsewhere; potential for sanctions running out

Russian troops controlled the main roads in the north of Ukraine as of March 2022. However, areas in between remained largely uncontrolled.

Although many maps from the first days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine show that Russians allegedly occupied the entire Chernihiv and Sumy oblasts (regions), local volunteers drove undetected 200 kilometers between Kyiv and Chernihiv many times to deliver humanitarian aid and evacuate people to villages in the countryside.

In the first days of the 24 February invasion, as few as 12 people, mostly strangers, self-organized, used their vehicles to assist people fleeing the besieged city. Locals from the villages helped them with accommodation and supplied them with food and fuel.

“We were not the first to devise this strategy. In fact, we borrowed this tactic from the Ukrainian military, who also bypassed Russians by using rural roads from all sides while Russians controlled the main highways,” says Roman, one of the volunteers.

Related: Ukraine’s secret to resisting Russia: resilience

From right under the Russians’ noses

Before the war, Roman was a member of the Chernihiv City Council in charge of energy efficiency. We met him halfway between Kyiv and Chernihiv, two months after Ukrainian troops liberated the Chernihiv Oblast.

“The route to life.” How volunteers secretly rescued 75,000 from a city encircled by Russian troops ~~

Roman Movchan and another volunteer from the group, local businessman Oleksandr, showed us the roads and villages where they planned the escape “from right under the Russians’ noses.”

First, make sure you can get out; then, go back for the rest

During the early days of the war, Roman got his disabled parents out of Kolychivka, a village south of Chernihiv across the Desna River.

“It just happened that we formed our own evacuation route and then decided to take other people out as well,” he explains.

There were no official evacuation routes from Chernihiv, meaning civilians had to escape the city at their own risk, even if it was under Russian shelling.

There were several stages to the evacuation. People first crossed the Desna from Chernihiv to the south. After the destruction of bridges, people crossed the river via a narrow pedestrian bridge while under shelling or were transported by boats provided by volunteers. Following that, people moved through fields to a location in Anysiv, where they were met by other volunteers who picked them up in vehicles.

“The route to life.” How volunteers secretly rescued 75,000 from a city encircled by Russian troops ~~

 

“We had a big blue cargo bus that broke in half because people were transported like sardines in a can, piled on top of each other just to get out of Chernihiv. There was no exact count, but we transported more than 75,000 people from the pedestrian bridge, with at least 40,000 people crossing the Desna river by boat to go even further on,” Roman recalls.

Museum of Soviet propaganda to be opened in Chernihiv Oblast

Everyone was first driven to a kindergarten in one of the villages hidden among the forests that had been converted into the main base of volunteers. There stayed four women who fed and cared for the refugees in the kindergarten, where people usually rested one night before moving on.

“If it wasn’t for you, I might not be alive”

“Some people remained in the forest villages until Chernihiv was safe, but others went further east, crossing the Desna river by boat once again, with the help of volunteers. Those evacuating were often able to avoid the main battle zones, due to a big part of the Oblast not falling under Russian control, even though it sits right next to the Russian border.

“People were transported far from the pedestrian bridge in our vehicles but many suffered from awful travel sickness because the road was so tight and full of potholes. Terrible things happened, but we were able to save many. Now, when I walk around Chernihiv, someone will approach me and say, ‘Thank you so much, because if it wasn’t for you, I might not be alive,'” Oleksandr says.

Oleksandr, like many volunteers, put his life and livelihood on the line to get people out of Chernihiv, and in the process, lost all three of his cars to Russian bombardment.

Burnt out car from Russian bombings in Ukraine

We saw many burned or shelled cars of civilians that were just abandoned on the roadside near Kolychivka, Yahidne, Lukashivka villages, like this one. The inscription made later on the car says: “We will not forgive this, beasts”

Special Forces used Javelins to protect the entire Desna river, preventing Russians from crossing

The Desna and its swamps concealed country roads and villages from Russian satellites, thanks to its natural camouflage. Due to high water levels, the Russians were unable to lower a pontoon across the Desna. Their attempts were quickly thwarted by GUR [Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence] special forces, defending the entire Desna perimeter with Javelins and drones, laying Russian vehicles somewhere at the bottom of the Desna river and swamps.

Javelins tested by Ukraine in Donbas show Russia’s makeshift tank mods useless against these missiles

Oleksandr was a local volunteer territorial defense formation member, patrolling the territory while assisting with the evacuation. From time to time, the territorial defense and Special Operations Forces (SOFs) from GUR sat down for dinner together, and this is when Oleksandr saw how these soldiers from special forces were just like machines.

They called each other G1 and G2 [instead of using some normal nicknames]. They had so many Javelins that I had never seen such an accumulation of weapons before. So, I am extremely grateful to them,” Oleksandr explains.

The Security Service (SBU) contacted volunteers mid-March and told them to “shut the project down” because their route was visible from space. The group decided right away to hide all the cars so the evacuation could continue.

Russia’s war crimes in Chernihiv Oblast: “They were beaten, tortured & executed…”

Many cars had been abandoned by those who fled in the early days when bridges were still standing. Volunteers camouflaged the parked cars by covering them with branches or moving them into abandoned buildings. Unfortunately, this was not a simple task as, at that time of year, few leaves were on the trees. However, one unfinished school building under construction helped by accommodating as many as 100 cars, invisible from the air.

Villages of Anysiv and Kolychivka – the gates from Chernihiv that held

The Russians did not discover the evacuation route. However, there was another dangerous point that threatened escape – the Kolychivka and Anysiv villages, which stood at the foot of the “route to life.”

Burnt out tank left on the side of the road in Chernihiv

Remnants of destroyed military vehicles on one of the Anysiv hills and the chapel built by the mayor of Ivano-Frankivsk on the place where he was saved from shelling.

Russians were bearing down on these villages from the west and the south via the Kyiv highway, which their troops had reached in the first days of the invasion. However, like the only narrow gates to Chernihiv that linked it to the rest of Ukraine, these villages withstood a monthly-long siege before reinforcements arrived, pushing the Russians out of Ukraine or eliminating them in the process.

Editor’s Note

Roman emphasizes the great need to help with building materials while showing houses damaged during the war. His volunteer team now assists in providing and delivering simple building materials to remote villages in order to repair roofs and close holes with mounting foam before winter. You can donate here to help them with their mission by PayPal: [email protected]

Anysiv was located on the hills, and we saw Chernihiv from the village. If Russian troops had occupied Anysiv, Chernihiv would have been completely surrounded and the evacuation route cut off. Moreover, Russian artillery would have easily leveled the city, shelling it from hills only 5 kilometers away.

The battle’s story still lingered in the air

When we arrived, the battle’s story still lingered in the air. Eerie images of Russian and Ukrainian armored vehicles sat on the roadside, telling a story itself, covered by long grass and overgrown bushes.

Rockets were protruding from the concrete in a few places, and severely damaged buildings and destroyed streets in the villages that Russians had shelled stood frozen in time, serving as a painful reminder of the suffering.

The Russians failed to take Kolychivka,” Roman told. “Some took a detour from the north to reach Shestovytsia village, but they were stopped firmly in their tracks once our troops blew up the nearby bridge.

 

The Russians placed pontoons there several times, but, once again, our troops blew up many of them — a little-known fact that is rarely discussed.

 

A massive battle on the Kyiv highway in front of Kolychivka raged for a time but, eventually, the Russians were stopped. When they fled the area, many remnants of their army were left behind, scattered around in the forests.

 

Not wanting to let any of them get away, many of our [Ukrainian] troops hid in carefully created traps before counterattacking and capturing those who had been abandoned by their commanding officers.”

While passing a temporarily made ground dam ahead of Kolychivka, created due to Ukrainian troops tactically blowing up bridges to halt the attack, there, not too far away from us, were piled up remnants of destroyed vehicles, both military and civilian.

“I saw with my own eyes how Russian tanks were no match for the Javelin: it demolished them, bashing to pieces the armor and everything and everyone inside. What we have seen from this war is that Russians don’t care, or simply don’t understand the severity of the situation they get themselves into. You can destroy some of them, but no matter what, the rest continue to march ahead.”

remnants of MLRS rockets

A huge farmstead in Lukashivka turned into a place of battle and was heavily destroyed. Russians fired at it from MLRS. A farmer later collected remnants of MLRS rockets in the shed where scattered oat started sprouting up under the destroyed roof. 1 June 2022. Photo by Euromaidan Press

Villages occupied by Russians paid a horrible price for defending Chernihiv

Yahidne, one of the villages where Russian occupiers stayed during March while storming Kolychivka, was turned into a place of terror. Russians herded all locals to the cellar in a school, where 377 people had to stay, almost without food, for the entire month, having already said goodbye to life, as a local woman told us.

Russian troops shelled an SUV vehicle outside Lukashivka

Russian troops shelled an SUV vehicle outside Lukashivka village. Local residents then put a cross nearby in memory of the victims. 1 June 2022. Photo by Euromaidan Press.

In the neighboring Lukashivka village, a local farm was destroyed during the battles, and several local residents were tortured. Today, people are struggling to restore their decimated farmsteads while destroyed Russian vehicles still stand on grain fields, among tall sheaves of wheat.

Despite mines, explosives and remnants of destroyed vehicles, the field was sown

The farmer goes on his field in June which was the place of heavy battle in March. Despite mines, explosives and remnants of destroyed vehicles, the field was sown. 1 June 2022. Photo by Euromaidan Press.

“Z” Russian symbols were painted on almost every gateway or fence in Ivanivka, which Russian troops also held for several weeks while unsuccessfully attempting to advance on Kolychivka. It was strange to see the entire village marked this way as if the Russians were trying to compensate symbolically for their failure to advance further.

Z graffiti on fences in Ivanivka

The “Z” symbol was painted on all the gates in Ivanivka village which was occupied by Russian troops in March 2022. 1 June 2022, photo by Euromaidan Press.

Villages around Chernihiv and suburbs, heavily destroyed by Russian shelling and terror, paid a high price to save the city from occupation.

In June 2022 two months after the liberation of the Oblast, the center of Chernihiv was already cleaned up and returned to a more or less normal way of life with only a destroyed Ukrayina hotel and fewer people than usual on the streets remembering recent battles. However, villages that were occupied or shelled will need years to recover from Russian invasion.

Ukrainian resistance saved the town, St.Paraskeva Church

While villages around Chernihiv and suburbs were heavily destroyed by Russian shelling, the strong resistance of Ukrainian troops saved the city from occupation and total destruction. Near St. Paraskeva’s Church, Chernihiv, 1 June 2022. Photo by Euromaidan Press

“After seeing mothers with children running across the field and shells falling all around them, literally running for their lives, how can you allow yourself to be scared?”

We stopped on a hill near Kolychivka and Anysiv where we saw Desna river and Chernihiv behind it, linked to our bank by a narrow pedestrian bridge. The walking distance to the city is less than 5 kilometers across the green ravine, which refugees were crossing under the shelling a few months ago. Since the road bridges were destroyed, we had to drive 200 kilometers in a detour that day to reach Chernihiv.

The fragile link between the city and the rest of the world reminds us how risky the entire city’s defense and evacuation were. Volunteers say they are only beginning to realize how severe the situation was. Zhenia, another guy from the evacuation team whom we met in Anysiv, told us about how he took people away and was nearly killed once during the shelling of the pedestrian bridge.

Ukrainian Volunteers in Chernihiv

Volunteers Oleksandr (left), Roman (center), and Zhenia (right) and one of their damaged cars in Anysiv.

“When the evacuation began, I was among the first to join,” Zhenia says. “I lost four cars to shelling during the war. I saw many injured people. I was also attacked while attempting to transport a wounded soldier from Chernihiv.

 

My car broke down, leaving me stranded in Chernihiv for a week, but then I continued evacuating people again.

 

It was difficult to watch mothers with infants struggle to run across the meadow from Desna under the constant shelling; children pressed to their breasts. Due to mortar fire, 12 people were killed, and many more were injured in Anysiv during an evacuation. Five civilians died around the corner, then six more in only two days.

 

When crossing the pedestrian bridge from Chernihiv, Russians suddenly opened fire and started shelling it to pieces. I dropped to the floor and lay there, in the middle of the bridge for half an hour, wondering what would happen next. As soon as it seemed safe to do so, I, with my friend Maxim, got up, and we continued to help with the evacuation efforts.”

70% of Chernihiv destroyed as Russian troops retreat & civilians leave bomb shelters

After the pedestrian bridge was seriously damaged, volunteers started using boats to transport people from Chernihiv across the river.

“There was no fear,” Zhenia continues, “because we had no other choice. In one SUV, up to 16 people were evacuated. It was challenging, but there was no fear. After seeing mothers with children running across the field and shells falling all around them, literally running for their lives, how can you allow yourself to be scared? We had to save the children, mothers, grandmothers, and grandfathers.”

Traitors and rescuers

“As we later discovered, two Kolychivka residents, a man and his son, were traitors who corrected the positions of Russian fire and shelling. Russians opened fire on the military and the local cultural center, where the military was also present. Those traitors have been caught. People at first wanted to lynch them, but this did not happen, and they were arrested,” Roman recalls.

Kolychivka is part of a municipality with more than ten villages, most of which were occupied. However, the community’s leader and administration fled in the early days of the war, abandoning their community. As a result, volunteers took care of Kolychivka themselves as well as of the thousands of evacuees from Chernihiv who arrived.

The mayor of Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in western Ukraine, came to Anysiv during active hostilities in March to assist. He was wounded while driving but was saved. As a token of gratitude, he constructed a small chapel on the hill in Anysiv, where people were fleeing Chernihiv and where the city could be seen across the river.

Local in Chernihiv cleaning chapel

When we arrived in Anysiv, a local woman was cleaning the new chapel built by the mayor of Ivano-Frankivsk saved in that place after shelling.

“Everyone on our team ran out of money while trying to purchase fuel”

Finding fuel to continue the evacuation was one of the most difficult tasks for volunteers. There were no functioning gas stations in the north of Chernihiv Oblast during the active hostilities. As a result, one had to drive more than 100 kilometers to Kyiv to get fuel, bypassing battlegrounds.

“We had to specifically request that people buy fuel in the west of Ukraine and bring it here. People pitched in wherever they could. However, we occasionally had to purchase fuel from black market vendors at extortionate prices. If a liter of diesel cost UAH 40 in the west of the country at the time, I paid up to UAH 250 here,” says Roman.

Even in early July, only one gas station was open for the entire third of the oblast we drove through. There was a huge queue at this gas station and a limit of 20 liters of fuel per vehicle.

“I was building a house,” Roman explains, ” I still had loan money, so I invested UAH 120,000 loan funds in fuel and volunteer aid, as well as all my own funds. We also helped the military in any way we could by purchasing thermal clothing for soldiers and sleeping bags for the GUR, which guarded our bank of the Desna. Our entire team ran out of money, but so many generous people were willing to help and gave us money for gas.”

Bread and a roof: new responsibilities after liberation

In March and April, bread was being delivered to Chernihiv Oblast from Volyn, 700 kilometers away, but due to the hostility and the uncertainty of the area, trains could only deliver it so far, with volunteers picking it up in Kyiv and taking it on to further destinations.

Roman’s team delivered 8 tons of bread immediately after the liberation of the Chernihiv Oblast, mostly for older people in the villages because young people had left the area.

Embodied Ukrainian towel in chapel

St. Mary with Jesus and traditional Ukrainian embroidered towel in the new chapel in Anysiv.

Another priority was medical assistance. Certain medications, such as Levothyroxine, were particularly required because many people in the area used it regularly to treat thyroid diseases. Hospitals also requested pharmaceuticals from volunteers.

“Seven hours after the Russians left, we drove into the occupied villages of the Chernihiv district to deliver bread and medical aid. Nothing had been de-mined yet, and there were corpses everywhere – Russian corpses … Ukrainian corpses. There were many anti-tank mines. We just hoped they wouldn’t blow up if we hit them with our car, but we didn’t put that to the test.

People had been sitting in basements for two to three weeks without food before we arrived. The Russians kept them there and wouldn’t let them go outside,” Roman says.

“What did we feel? Nothing, Whatsoever,” he talks rhetorically about their feelings during active hostilities and volunteering. “It needed to be done, and that’s that. At the time, we didn’t consider why, and we didn’t discuss big ideas. Nor did we ask ourselves, ‘At what cost, at what risk?’ No one thought about it. It just had to be done.

Those concerned about Chernihiv’s occupation fled as far as they could. But it’s impossible to run from war. You can hide for a day or two, but it will eventually find you.”

While Roman and Oleksandr were driving back along a 200-kilometer detour to the next bridge from Chernihiv, Oleksandr pulled out his phone and showed photos from Chernihiv’s pre-war life.

“This is my 14-year-old son,” he said. “I’ve raised him on my own since the age of six. Now, we clean the machine gun every evening. We have to be ready for anything, just in case.”

Roman emphasizes the great need to help with building materials while showing houses damaged during the war. His volunteer team now assists in providing and delivering simple building materials to remote villages in order to repair roofs and close holes with mounting foam before winter. You can donate here to help them with their mission by PayPal: [email protected]

Three stories of Russian occupation in Chernihiv Oblast told by victims

Editor’s Note

The villages to the south-east of Chernihiv suffered massively at the hands of Russian soldiers. Euromaidan Press visited these villages to record the stories of the victims of Russian war crimes. Detention, torture, hunger, rape, shelled cars and fields, destroyed houses, businesses and places of memories – these were the consequences of the nearly month-long Russian occupation.

The village of Yahidne: a place of torture in Cherhihiv Oblast

A family from Yahidne village was kept in a school basement with 377 other people for nearly a month, with the elders giving their tiny portions of food to the children.

The village of Yahidne is located on the highway 10 kilometres south of Chernihiv. It has gained notoriety as a centre of torture, where Russian soldiers transported locals from the surrounding villages. In particular, 377 people were kept for nearly the whole of March in the village school’s cellar.

Here in Yahidne the Russian forces maintained a stronghold until 30 March, when they were expelled by Ukrainian troops. The Russians arrived here from the village of Shestovytsia located to the west of Yahidne, Chernihiv volunteer Roman Movchan says, with a part of these forces continuing on towards Kyiv and another part staying in Yahidne to block the way to Chernihiv.

The former collective farm near the city of Yahidne, Chernihiv Oblast, destroyed by Russian forces in March 2022. Photo by Orysia Hrudka ~

The former collective farm near the city of Yahidne, Chernihiv Oblast, destroyed by Russian forces in March 2022. Photo by Orysia Hrudka

When we entered Yahidne two months after it had been liberated by Ukraine’s forces, we saw burned and crushed cars, piles of debris, shattered warehouses and destroyed buildings all around. Near the former collective farm, four men were standing, trying to clean something.

“They [Russians] entered the village on 3 March, and for several days fighting was ongoing,” one of the men told us. “They were afraid to come here at first while ours [Ukraine’s Armed Forces] were here. And then the air force hit a roadblock and a [Ukrainian] tank. Afterwards [the Russians] started moving further towards Ivanivka.”

The man told us that he was originally from Yahidne. “From the first day they came, I stayed in the basement [till 30 March]. I turned on the boiler at school just as they arrived, and I stayed in the school basement. I sat there together with all of Yahidne’s [residents], and not only.”

When we asked if he had heard of any cases of torture, the man replied “I saw it… And I experienced it myself.”

“Can you tell us about it?” we asked him.

“No, it’s disgusting. I don’t want to remember. My son served earlier [in the Armed Forces], his uniform was found. They beat us. It’s good that at least one decent person was there and we remained alive.”

“Money was taken from almost everyone, they even tore out the floor looking for things… And what were they looking for there?” the man said.

Tamara’s story: a hungry month in a school basement where Russians kept 377 people

Moving further to the local school we saw no one on our way. The village looks empty and abandoned. Not far from the school one woman was working in a garden.

66-year-old Tamara told us that she too was forcibly kept in that school basement from 3 to 30 March. The Russians took her there under the muzzles of machine guns together with her husband, daughter, seven-year-old grandson and eleven-year-old granddaughter.

The day before, on 2 March, Russian forces had entered their village right from the side of her house near the forest, which would be completely incinerated due to Russian shelling the following day.

The garden she is working in is her daughter’s, who left the village together with her children immediately after it was regained by the Ukrainian forces and they left the school basement.

“When we got out of the cellar, that’s how we ended up – with nothing. Everything was burned down. Only the ashes were left. They [Russians] were already stationed there, near us. They walked around drunk all the time, terrorising [us]. They did whatever they wanted. They came here wearing knee-high rubber boots. Then they took away shoes from our men…and walked around in our shoes. These were the scariest people,” Tamara tells us.

Tamara says that in total 377 people were forcibly kept in the Yahidne school basement for almost a month. There were more than 60 children, including infants, as well as disabled and sick people. Tamara herself has diabetes and needed to drink several litres of water a day but was getting only three sips.

Only once a day, at seven o’clock in the morning, were people allowed to go to the toilet. If someone wanted to stand outside a little longer to breathe the fresh air, Russians shot over their heads and made people go back to the basement. People were forced to go to the toilet in the basement using a bucket.

The worst thing was hunger, and not that she was starving herself but seeing her grandchildren starving, Tamara says. 

“It was horrible that the [grand]child was starving and you couldn’t give [him anything],” Tamara recalls. “They ate our meat, cheese… They gave us galettes from their dry food bags and a spoon of paste. That was for the whole day.”

While the people in the basement were starving, Russian occupiers ate the villagers’ chickens, pigs, “and even dogs”, Tamara recalls.

The phones were taken away from the people at the very beginning of the detention. “They [Russians] said that if they found someone’s phone, they would shoot every third person,” Tamara recalls.

School in the city of Yahidne, in the basement of which Russian soldiers forcibly kept more than 300 village residents for 27 days in March 2022. Photo by Orysia Hrudka ~

School in the city of Yahidne, in the basement of which Russian soldiers forcibly kept more than 300 village residents for 27 days in March 2022. Photo by Orysia Hrudka

“Tuva people are the worst,” Tamara said, adding that sometimes they entered the basement and demanded “give us woman.” Tamara supposes that hostages in Yahidne school basement were kept by the Russian special forces unit who were “not as savage as Tuva people.”

“Some [Russian soldiers] were better, and some were worse but I wish that not one of them come back home (alive),” the woman said.

The day Russians retreated came unexpectedly. On 30 March Russians closed people in the basement as usual but they heard the sounds of uproar and military equipment moving. Then there was silence until the Ukrainian soldiers came to the people and they were able to finally go home, whoever still had a home.

Tamara’s 11-year-old granddaughter lost a lot of weight and was so scared that her mother immediately took her out of the village. Those who remained started receiving help from the volunteers and Tamara says she is very grateful for it because she and her husband were left with nothing. All their hopes to give the house they built themselves to their children have been destroyed. “We hope for victory, we believe that there will be victory,” Tamara says.

“Dead cows lay everywhere.” Destroyed farm in Lukashivka village

7 kilometres to the north-east of Yahidne lies the village of Lukashivka. From there and the neighbouring village of Ivanivka the Russians shelled Chernihiv and its suburbs. In summer 2022 hardly a single house can be found in Lukashivka that is not severely damaged if not destroyed completely. The signs of Russian shelling of civilian houses are everywhere.

Church in the village of Lukashivka, destroyed by Russian shelling in March 2022. Photo by Orysia Hrudka ~

Church in the village of Lukashivka, destroyed by Russian shelling in March 2022. Photo by Orysia Hrudka

Yet not only private houses but businesses too suffered badly from Russian shelling. Half of Alla Mykolayivna’s family farm was destroyed during the month of Russian occupation in March. Villagers say that dozens of dead cows were lying all around the farm.

When Russians entered the village in the first days of March, Alla Mykolayivna and her son were not allowed to leave the cellar for three days. The Russians saw Ukrainian self-propelled guns stationed not far from their farm, and discovered that in the first days of March, the farmer had invited the territorial defense to the farm premises to sleep. The Russians started checking the documents of the farmers’ family, and one day they started interrogating Anna’s son.

“They took my son out for questioning, shot him over the head, cut his leg and tendons, and knocked out his teeth. They asked where our soldiers were… Other boys [from the villages] were also taken to the fields and interrogated,” Anna told us.

The family says they don’t know what to do with their business they have been building up for years. Out of 120 cows, only 63 remain. The rest were killed by shrapnel when the farm was bombed.

“Wherever they [cows] were hit, there they lay. There were those who were injured but still alive and were lying and waiting for death. Calves were lost,” Anna recalls.

Now they still cannot sell milk because there is no electricity, the woman says. The milk goes to waste.

“The route to life.” How volunteers secretly rescued 75,000 from a city encircled by Russian troops ~~

Anna says that she and her husband started the farm in 2001. They started with a horse and a cow, then they bought land from people (after Soviet collective farms fell apart, each farmer was assigned a part of the land, and many sold it to make money because of hyperinflation,–ed.), and now the family has 400 hectares of their own and rented land. Since Anna’s husband died three years ago, the children now continue their business.

We visited the destroyed farm together with Anna’s son-in-law, 37-year-old Andriy. Near the farm we saw traces of battle – several destroyed armored personnel carriers and cars belonging to the Ukrainian military and Russian invaders. The granary is destroyed, and there is a lot of scattered grain inside, which has sprouted in places. Here, cows used to eat.

In the first days of the war, Anna and Andriy helped the Ukrainian military and invited them to sleep in the part of the barn where there was hay. The farmer made places for Ukrainian soldiers to sleep and helped them with food.

“The first time we were hit by [Russian] Grad rockets was on 7 March. And then the Russians continued shelling with tanks. They shot at the vegetable storehouse, and here at the grain storehouse.”

In the granary there are traces of the artillery. Near the storage in the rye there are Russian Kamazes with shells. From 9 March, when the farm was seized from Ukrainian groups, until March 30, Russians were based here and in the village of Lukashivka.

Among the rye field, there are still many projectiles that fell from the Kamaz, but these are relatively safe. Experts have destroyed the most dangerous projectiles. Yet there may still be explosive objects deeper in the field which makes it difficult to sew the fields. Nonetheless, sowing was completed this spring and harvesting is planned.

Near the field there is a car which is almost completely burnt. Yet two soldiers are unscrewing something from it. Due to the lack of spare parts, many are taken from the battlefield, including from Russian equipment, because Ukraine and Russia still have a lot of similar equipment of Soviet heritage.

Russian war crimes in Chernihiv Oblast progressing from day to day

The behavior during occupation depended on what people from Russia were in a particular unit: from looking for vodka and robbing to frying chickens with feathers

While driving in Chernihiv Oblast, we saw more checkpoints than near Kyiv. There is a checkpoint every ten kilometers here, where documents and cars are checked. Destroyed houses, burned out military vehicles, remnants of projectiles recall that only very recently was there fierce fighting here in the Oblast.

Volunteer Roman Movchan says that in the first few days of the attack Russians didn’t commit serious crimes, thinking they were indeed liberators and would be greeted by locals:

They did not touch anyone in those villages that they passed first from the border, they were in a good mood there, and still went to the shops to buy cigarettes. They were on their way to a parade. More than 1,500 units of military equipment passed in that direction towards Chernihiv, where the Ukrainian military started crushing them.

Volunteer Roman Movchan (left), was one of the first to bring aid to Chernihiv Oblast villages liberated from Russian occupation. Photo by Euromaidan Press ~

Volunteer Roman Movchan (left), was one of the first to bring aid to Chernihiv Oblast villages liberated from Russian occupation. Photo by Euromaidan Press

When Russian occupation reached the outskirts of Chernihiv where Roman lived at the time, he witnessed a lot of cars shelled by the Russians. His minivan was shelled too as well as a minibus that his group of volunteers used to evacuate people.

There were 19 passengers in that bus and I remember 9 of them died. People were running away and many cars were shelled and burning on the roadsides.

There were also cases in Ivanivka of people asking the Russians during the occupation if they could leave the village. Russians told people that they could go, then shot up the car from behind.

The number of shelled cars in the area south of Chernihiv is astonishing. In June 2022, when a lot of cars had already been taken away, we still saw them every few kilometers while driving through the villages

Cars that exploded on mines or were destroyed due to Russian shelling in villages southwest of Chernihiv in February-March 2022. Photos by Orysia Hrudka

[VIDEO of killed girl by Oleksandr]

Yuriy Mykolayovych, 55, from Lukashivka told us that the Russian soldiers took away his dog.

“A drunken officer came to me and started shooting. He said that if he found something, I would be a corpse. ‘What do you have in your cellar?’ he asked. I showed that there was nothing. And then he asked what was in the second and third cellar and I showed that there was nothing but potatoes and fodder. And all the time he held a machine gun aimed at me. Then he heard a shepherd’s voice. He asked what kind of dog it was, and then said that he would take the dog. On the second day, the dog came here again herself, but then the soldier came again and said that he would be taking the dog away. I asked why he needed it and he said that he dreamed of getting such a dog for two years. He took the dog and that was it, we never saw her again.”

Russian occupation Chernihiv Oblast

Yuriy Mykolayovych who suffered from Russian occupation in his home village of Lukashivka, Chernihiv Oblast. Photo by Orysia Hrudka

Local people say everything depended on the particular unit of the Russian army. Roman recalls the story of his friends from Viktorivka that were also under occupation. Their family was sitting in the house when the door flew out broken by feet. Russians came in and asked: “Is anyone alive? If not, we open fire all over the house.”

“Well, we are alive,” people come out.

“Do you have any weapons, relatives from the military? Show the documents,” Russians then asked.

“Here are no weapons and neither do we have relatives”

“Do you have vodka?” the next question was.

“Yes”

“Give it”

They gave but not everything at the first time.

“Is here something to eat?”

“Yes”

“Give it”

Well, you understand, if you were made to kneel under a machine gun, then no matter what kind of patriot you are, you will give food or vodka,” Roman comments.

Then Russians said to the people in the house “We are leaving, but we will come back, if not us, then others from our unit. If the gate is closed or the door is closed, you are corpses, we will shoot without question.”

So, people opened the door and sat in the house. Already at night, other Russians would come:

“Is somebody alive?” And again they asked for alcohol and food.

Those friends of mine were not robbed, but their neighbors, who left their homes, were robbed,” Roman recalls. “The next day, still more came, asking if there was alcohol. My friends said that they had already given everything. Ok, then, those Russians said and left. Everyone says with one voice that those who are still similar to the Slavs, because it is a big question to what extent Russians are Slavs, those from the west of Russia show at least some adequacy. But those from the East, of Asian appearance, were generally savage.

Russian occupation Chernihiv Oblast

The village southeast of Chernihiv Oblast. A house destroyed by the Russian forces during Russian occupation of the Oblast in March 2022. Photo by Orysia Hrudka

Once people of Asian appearance, likely from Tuva, saw the henhouse, Roman said. They first checked the people’s house and then took the family out, pointed at the henhouse and asked:

“Who lives in that house?”

“It’s not a house, it’s a henhouse.”

“Do you think we are stupid!” – Tuvans shouted. “Open it.”

The owner opened it, then a soldier threw a grenade there. Afterwards they ran inside with machine guns and saw there really were chickens. People were beaten for living too well, because they put chickens in the “house.”

When they lived in Lukashivka, they ate chickens there without cleaning their feathers. They take a chicken, cut it up, turn its skin inside out, fry it on the fire and eat it. All the chickens were eaten like this.

Those people from Russia robbed electric kettles but without the bottom part that is plugged into the electricity socket. Once they also took a man’s powerbank and beat the man until he said that it was a specific phone from NATO.

Sometimes Tuva people came to the Yahidne school basement where locals were kept hostages saying “give us women,” Tamara from Yahidne village, who stayed in that basement, recalls. Tamara says that from what she saw, the Russians told Tuva soldiers to go away and did not give them women. Tamara believes that people in Yahidne school basement were kept by the Russian special forces unit who were less cruel

Tuva soldiers were walking around Yahidne and nearby villages and many locals tell the same story that they were looking for women.

Volunteer Roman Movchan tells us about a family from Ivanivka who was taken to Yahidne village.

Russian occupation Chernihiv Oblast

The road connecting Kyiv and Chernihiv; Chernihiv suburbs where the villages of Ivanivka and Yahidne are located. Some of destoyed equipment was still on the roads in June 2022. Photo by Orysia Hrudka

“They [Russian soldiers] got drunk, killed a man and raped his wife. They are all the same type, these jerks don’t come up with anything new… We have heard many such stories in our Oblast. There are common cases when girls were taken away. Many of them were brought from Ivanivka to Yahidne, where atrocities were committed, I am absolutely sure of that. If the Russians took the girls, then for what, definitely not for a romantic evening by candlelight…

Then people started to hide the girls. There are a few remote homesteads near Ivanivka and they started to hide the girls there,” Roman says.

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Edited by: Matt Wickham, Sonia Maryn
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