Residents of a village north of Kyiv have said that more than 300 people were trapped in a school basement for weeks by Russian occupiers, scrawling the names of the dead on a peeling wall.
Halyna Tolochina, a member of the Yahidne 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 the names of seven people killed by Russian soldiers. To the right were the names of 10 people who died because of the harsh conditions in the basement, she said.
“This old man died first,” Tolochina said, pointing at the name Muzyka D, for Dmytro Muzyka, whose death was recorded on 9 March. “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.
Reuters spoke to seven residents of Yahidne who said that in total at least 20 people died or were killed during the Russian occupation. No official death toll has been released by Ukrainian authorities.
Reuters was not able to independently verify the villagers’ accounts. Reporters saw one freshly dug grave in a field by the village, and two bodies wrapped in white plastic sheets.
The Kremlin did not respond to requests for comment on the events in Yahidne.
The accounts of what happened in the village add to growing testimony from Ukrainian civilians of suffering in the towns around Kyiv during the weeks of occupation by Russian forces.
The last victim recorded on the walls of the basement, Nadiya Budchenko, died on 28 March, Tolochina said, two days before Russian troops withdrew from the village after their drive towards 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 about 60 children, little food or water, no electricity and no toilets.
Two of the villagers interviewed by Reuters said that some Russian troops, who arrived in early March, behaved well at first, offering to share their rations and expressing surprise at the village’s prosperous appearance. However, others began to loot immediately.
“They started looting, took everything they could grab,” said Petro Hlystun, 71. “There was a light torch, a tablet computer my son brought from Poland. They took it all.”
The villagers said they were ordered on 5 March 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 burials – a man killed by the soldiers, and four elderly people who died in the basement – took place when Russian soldiers allowed some young people out 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 that everything from television sets to women’s underwear had been taken.
It was not until the Russians started their withdrawal on 30 March that those trapped in the basement were finally able to leave, said Tamara Klymchuk, 64. “We opened the door. We were getting out as though we had been born again.”
Yahidne, a small farming village of five streets, had been a popular place for people from the nearby city of Chernihiv to take a holiday cottage. It is now a desolate ruin of burnt-out houses scattered with cast-off military gear.
“We had a very good life,” said Klymchuk, whose son-in-law was 50-year-old Viktor Shevchenko, one of the two brothers who say villagers were killed by Russian soldiers. “We never thought such grievance would come upon us.”
Viktor, she said, 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 said she saw Viktor’s body after sappers exhumed his body from a mass grave at her request once the town was retook by Ukrainian forces. He was dressed in blue jeans and a black jacket, she said. “They just shot him in the head,” she said.