A Ukrainian Village’s Month in Captivity in a Basement


Seven days after the invasion of Ukraine, Russian troops entered the village of Yahidne. They pressured the residents out of their houses and into the basement of the native college, which that they had became their headquarters. Till they withdrew on March 30, 2022, the Russians stored nearly the complete inhabitants of Yahidne—greater than 360 folks, together with kids and the aged—in that basement for almost a month.

It was so cramped, folks needed to sleep sitting up. As a substitute of a bathroom, there have been buckets. Meals needed to be foraged. There was no air flow, so the oldest went loopy and died. The Russians didn’t permit the useless to be buried instantly, and after they lastly did, they fired on the funeral.

“Folks jumped into the pit with the our bodies,” says one six months later, recalling the ordeal, at a feast for individuals who emerged alive. Many had not.

Within the intervening months, the survivors repeated their expertise to 1 one other, and to investigators working for justice. Their confinement within the basement might serve, one 12 months after Vladimir Putin invaded on Feb. 24, as a microcosm of the sadism that arrived with the invaders. However to a couple of survivor, what involves thoughts is a focus camp.

“What day,” one in every of them asks, “did folks begin going loopy?”

The varsity beneath which Yahidne residents have been held captive

Andrii Bashtovyi—The Reckoning Mission

A 12 months into the invasion, sure locations in Ukraine—the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, the southern metropolis of Mariupol—are recognized for what Russian forces did to the civilians there. To the record add the tiny village of Yahidne, which lay within the north of the nation, straight within the path of the advancing military. As quickly because the artillery barrages started, the casual village chief, a person named Valeriy Polhui, made a bomb shelter out of his cellar. When Svitlana Baranova and Lilia Bludsha, a journey agent and an engineer at Chernobyl, pulled into the village in a automotive struck by shrapnel, its windshield shattered, Valeriy took them in too.

There was combating throughout the village. Svitlana and Lilia known as their households to say that it was too harmful to go away Yahidne and that they’d keep there some time longer. On March Three the army automobiles entered the village in a protracted column. Valeriy hurried everybody—the 9 members of his prolonged household and the 2 friends—into his makeshift bomb shelter.

From inside, they might hear heavy equipment driving into his yard, stomping, and gunfire. However that night no person found their hiding spot, because of Valeriy’s good pondering: he hung a lock on the door to make it look as if it had been shut from the skin. The Russians pulled on the door and walked away. However the subsequent day they broke the lock. Valeriy shouted:

“Don’t shoot, there are kids right here!”

The whole lot froze for a second, as if the individual on the opposite aspect of the door hadn’t anticipated to listen to a voice. Then the command got here for everybody to come back out, one after the other. Valeriy went first. The following command to him was to lie down on the snow. The Russians took their telephones and searched their contacts. In the event that they noticed the phrase Kyiv they requested for extra particulars, as if this phrase in and of itself was a risk. They searched the home, discovered a uniform, and determined that Valeriy was within the army. He defined that he wasn’t. He spoke in Russian, however the soldier didn’t perceive him.

“Army, army,” the soldier repeated, ignoring the reason. The troopers appeared Asian, their Russian was damaged, and Valeriy later realized that they have been from Tuva, a area within the far east of Russia, one of many nation’s poorest.

“Married?” a soldier requested Lilia.

“No,” she lied.


“32. Are you going to kill us?”


Then they locked them again in Valeriy’s cellar. The following day, March 5, the Russians opened the cellar door and mentioned:

“Get out. We’re taking you to the college basement.”

Clockwise from top-left: Lilia and Svitlana, back in Yahidne six months after emerging from the basement; Valeriy Polhui was told by a Russian officer, “You’ll be responsible for everyone.”; a reunion meal hosted by Valeriy’s family in Yahidne on Aug. 27, 2022; Russian troops killed one of Mykhailo Shevchenko’s sons; the other is missing (Clockwise from top-left: 1, 3: Nataliya Gumenyuk—The Reckoning Project; 2, 4: Andrii Bashtovyi—The Reckoning Project)

Clockwise from top-left: Lilia and Svitlana, again in Yahidne six months after rising from the basement; Valeriy Polhui was advised by a Russian officer, “You’ll be liable for everybody.”; a reunion meal hosted by Valeriy’s household in Yahidne on Aug. 27, 2022; Russian troops killed one in every of Mykhailo Shevchenko’s sons; the opposite is lacking

Clockwise from top-left: 1, 3: Nataliya Gumenyuk—The Reckoning Mission; 2, 4: Andrii Bashtovyi—The Reckoning Mission

It was a grey, chilly morning.

The village is bordered on one finish by a pine forest and on the opposite by the Kyiv–Chernihiv freeway. There are 5 streets, and Valeriy may see folks being frog-marched to the college from every, slowly, household by household. Behind every household was a soldier pointing a machine gun at them. The Russians made the sick and aged come. Their households moved them in wheelbarrows.

On the 500 meters that separate his home from the college, Valeriy counted 80 items of apparatus: armored personnel carriers, tanks, mortars. Troopers with crimson armbands have been bustling about, hauling ammunition. By Lisova Road a useless physique lay on the bottom. Anatoliy Yaniuk had been shot within the head on March 3. He was 30 years previous. The Russians had executed him when he refused to lie down on the bottom in entrance of them. “I’m alone land, and I can’t lay down in entrance of you.” These have been his final phrases, neighbors who noticed the execution advised his mom.

The varsity is a two-story white brick constructing on the sting of the village, in entrance of the forest. That morning chalkboards within the lecture rooms nonetheless had the tutorial assignments for Feb. 23 written on them. Armed troopers scurried about army automobiles between the swings.

As they have been herded into the basement, the folks of Yahidne noticed a fellow villager, Anatoliy Shevchenko, off to the aspect, blindfolded, his arms tied. Regardless of the chilly he was sitting on the concrete parapet in a light-weight sweater, with seen bruises on his physique. The 2 troopers subsequent to him have been brandishing their machine weapons.

Olha Meniailo, an agronomist who was being pressured into the cellar along with her husband, son, daughter-in-law, and their 4-month-old son, observed a number of the army appeared extra skilled and a few have been boys of their teenagers. She felt sorry for the latter as a result of they have been simply “youngsters.”

“Why did you come right here?” she requested the Russian troopers.

“We got here to free you from the Nazis,” they repeated.

“There are not any Nazis right here,” mentioned Olha. “You solely ‘freed’ us from our houses.”

The biggest room of the basement as soon as housed the college gymnasium, however now it reminded her of pictures of hell from historical non secular icons. “A candle sparkles right here and there,” she would bear in mind later, “and within the dim gentle there are folks subsequent to one another with doomed expressions on their faces. It’s suffocating.”

Valeriy, his household, and Svitlana and Lilia have been already within the basement, sharing the most important room with 150 different folks. Later they calculated there was about half a sq. meter per individual: 170 sq. meters, 367 folks (together with greater than 70 kids). They sat on the bench or on the ground, resting their heads on their neighbors’ shoulders, not understanding if they’d reside to see the subsequent morning.

{Photograph} by Olha Meniailo—Courtesy The Reckoning Mission

As the times went on folks dealt with their worry otherwise. Some sat in a stupor, hugging their pet canines. Others ran round searching for water and questioning find out how to survive.

Olha determined she may keep sane by retaining her diary. At present the phrases are laborious to make out—she wrote in the dead of night; flashlights have been turned on solely when completely mandatory. Olha used her index finger to measure the width of the traces in order that she wouldn’t write over issues.

Day one—We tried to speak to the troopers.

Day two—They took away everybody’s cell telephones.

Day three—We began boiling water.

She caught to the naked info: she knew the diary could possibly be seized and didn’t need anybody to know her innermost ideas.

Throughout the day, folks sat within the basement on chairs, benches, and the ground. They slept sitting up. They used bulletin boards to make a platform for the youngsters to lie on. The one strategy to stretch your legs in these cramped circumstances was to face up. Svitlana and Lilia would take turns mendacity on two chairs, whereas the opposite lay on the ground beneath.

The Russians had claimed that they despatched the villagers into the basement for his or her “safety,” nevertheless it was clear they have been human shields. The Russian army made their headquarters on the 2 flooring above.

At first the captives have been in such a state of shock that they didn’t even assume a lot about meals. Then they ate what they have been capable of carry from dwelling. The Russians gave them a few of their dry rations. Aboveground, the Russians took the whole lot from folks’s fridges. They slaughtered all of the livestock. All of March the scent of grilled meat hung over the village.

When folks bought hungry, they appeared to Valeriy for assist. “Valeriy, what will we eat?” they requested him. He started wanting among the many Russians. He selected somebody about his age, 38, with a crimson beard and crimson hair. The opposite troopers known as him Klen (Maple). Not one of the troopers used their rank or actual names with each other, solely nicknames.

“There are nearly 400 folks right here,” he advised Klen, “and so they all need to eat.” Klen was silent at first.

“OK, make a fireplace, however no smoke.”

Then he checked out Valeriy: “I see you’ll be liable for everybody. The whole lot goes by you.” Valeriy’s coronary heart sank. Klen hadn’t made a suggestion. It was an order.

They boiled water for the primary time on the third day. They ready child meals and each morning made porridge for the youngsters. They found out find out how to get water from the college properly. It was not consuming water, however water nonetheless. Since there was no electrical energy, they pumped by hand. One stroke introduced 100 to 150 milliliters of water; for meals and tea, they wanted 150 liters.

The prisoners watched enviously because the Russians drank from small juice containers, and dreamed how they’d purchase some after they have been free once more. Generally the Russians would give them crackers from their rations, and one time they introduced a wheelbarrow of sliced bread. Among the bread was moldy, the remainder was soiled, however the moms nonetheless ran to the wheelbarrow, grabbed the slices of bread, and dusted them off to feed their kids. The troopers filmed the scene on their telephones.

One time they introduced baggage of cereal and pasta. Valeriy puzzled what introduced on this gesture of goodwill. However when he took a more in-depth look, he noticed that the baggage have been leaking. They have been transporting diesel gas within the automotive, and it spilled on the baggage of cereal. The folks washed the pasta in water thrice, boiled it, and ate it anyway.

Probably the most humiliating factor was going to the bathroom. They have been allowed to make use of the bathroom outdoors solely in the course of the day. However you weren’t allowed to go away the basement at evening. There have been three buckets within the gymnasium for about 150 folks. Folks stopped consuming water within the night to maintain from having to make use of them.

The primary individual died on day 5. Dmytro Muzyka was 92. His spouse Maria outlived her husband by only a few days. She too died within the basement. One other individual died on day six. Then two in someday. From March 5 to March 30, 10 folks would die from lack of oxygen, medication, and care.

The record of the useless is etched on a wall, subsequent to a calendar. Valentyna Danilova maintained each. Earlier than the invasion she labored within the kinder-garten, straight above the place she was now being held alongside along with her husband and 83-year-old mom. Valentyna discovered an ember close to the cooking fireplace and used it to put in writing the primary date. Then it grew to become a every day ritual. “Did you bear in mind to put in writing down the day?” the 5-year-old boy subsequent to her would ask each morning. Later, she started writing the names of the useless subsequent to the numbers.

The basement wasn’t heated, however the air was sizzling from the tons of of our bodies. The partitions remained chilly and condensation from folks respiration ran down them, in order that the folks by the partitions sat in puddles. However the actual horror was the shortage of oxygen. Valentyna in contrast it to a sinking ship—they have been suffocating.

Among the oldest couldn’t deal with it. They didn’t acknowledge their kids. Screamed. Had conversations with useless family. Revealed household secrets and techniques. Then they died, sitting in a chair.

By March 12, a number of corpses had gathered. The Russian troopers lastly gave permission for them to be buried.

Folks in villages take their funerals very severely. They spend a long time planning what garments they are going to be buried in, making ready embroidered towels that their family ought to cling on the cross. Now folks have been being buried with out a coffin and with out a cross. They have been taken to the cemetery wrapped in sheets, in a wheelbarrow, their legs and arms hanging out.

Two pits have been dug for the 5 useless. There wasn’t sufficient time to dig extra—the Russians gave them solely two hours for the funeral. In the event that they took any longer, they’d be shot. When the primary our bodies have been lowered into the pit and the native priest, who was additionally stored within the basement, started saying the prayer, a Tiger armored car drove as much as the cemetery, stopped, and several other males appeared on the funeral brigade. They have been carrying balaclavas and helmets so solely their eyes have been seen. The car drove on, and a minute or two later the funeral was being fired on, with explosions throughout the graves.

The boys jumped into the pits with the our bodies. The priest fell between gravestones and was hit by a falling tree. After the shelling, the wounded have been taken to the basement in the identical wheelbarrows they used to carry the our bodies to the cemetery.

Klen, the red-haired soldier, ran the basement in what a number of the prisoners describe as a focus camp.

“You’re being punished,” he would say when he locked the door in the course of the day. Folks would plead to be set free, banging on the door, shouting that they have been suffocating … nothing helped.

When somebody with most cancers requested him for permission to go dwelling and get their medication, Klen answered, “If issues are so laborious for you, there’s the forest—go cling your self, it’ll get simpler.”

Valeriy thought Klen hysterical and unbalanced, with a mania for controlling the prisoners within the basement. “Take one flawed step and he’ll shoot you on the spot.” He was additionally a zealous patriot. One time, Valeriy went as much as Klen to ask permission for folks to go dwelling. The redheaded soldier listened to him, after which handed him a sheet of paper.

“Have you learnt the Russian anthem?”


“What concerning the Soviet one?”

“I don’t realize it.”

“Right here’s the anthem. If somebody needs to go dwelling to get meals, they need to sing the Russian anthem.”

No person sang the Russian anthem.

From left: Olha Meniailo’s diary entry for the day of the funeral: “Yarema managed to sing them off and the shelling began.”; a corner of the school basement, photographed on May 12, 2022 (From left: Nataliya Gumenyuk—The Reckoning Project; Andrii Bashtovyi—The Reckoning Project)

From left: Olha Meniailo’s diary entry for the day of the funeral: “Yarema managed to sing them off and the shelling started.”; a nook of the college basement, photographed on Might 12, 2022

From left: Nataliya Gumenyuk—The Reckoning Mission; Andrii Bashtovyi—The Reckoning Mission

The folks within the basement had no concept what was taking place on the entrance, in Ukraine, in Kyiv, even within the native capital of Chernihiv. “We’ve captured all of your cities,” the troopers advised them. However the folks thought, If Russians had captured all of the Ukrainian cities, why have been they nonetheless in Yahidne?

A commander was presupposed to go to Russia. He promised to carry again medication. However he returned in two days.

“Persons are asking about capsules,” Valeriy mentioned. “Did you carry them?”

“I didn’t carry them and I received’t,” the commander advised him. “Your partisans are mining the roads, we are able to’t make it to Russia.”

Nice, so there’s hope in any case, Valeriy thought.

In the meantime, well being circumstances have been deteriorating. There was an outbreak of hen pox. Folks coughed from the shortage of air and the mud. Many had a temperature. Folks’s legs swelled from sitting on a regular basis; that they had open sores. The Russians may have given them antiseptic or cough lozenges, however most frequently their response was “We didn’t come right here to deal with you.” Folks continued to die, and after they did, their our bodies have been taken to the boiler room the place the dwelling went to scrub.

However towards the top of March, hypothesis started to unfold that the Russians have been planning to go away. The folks observed elevated motion; there was much less safety. A hidden joyous premonition of freedom was rising. “Everybody desires about freedom,” Olha Meniailo wrote in her diary.

March 30 was the vacation often known as Heat Oleksa. That morning, as that they had performed for almost a month, the folks went outdoors to the bathroom and began making ready meals. However at 11 a.m. they have been despatched again into the basement and locked in. There was a gap within the wood door that was made to let in air. The troopers shouted: If anybody goes close to the door, we’ll shoot. However some folks stood at a distance from the door and watched by the opening because the Russians have been eradicating their gear.

A way of hope was rising inside everybody. However the prisoners have been afraid to betray this hope even to their closest neighbors. Perhaps these troopers have been leaving, however new ones would substitute them? Perhaps they have been going to fake to go away, then conceal, after which begin capturing as quickly as folks exited the basement?

The automobiles hummed and the noise receded. The buzzing was changed by gunfire, which continued for a while, after which there was silence. There was full, utter silence. Footsteps? Voices? Nothing.

The prisoners kicked open the door, and the primary males left the basement. They went outdoors and didn’t see any automobiles, any troopers. Slowly, one after the other, folks began going upstairs, outdoors. To breathe the springtime air. To take a look at the sky. Birds flew to the college for the primary time in a month.

The dates of captivity. On the left are those killed by the Russians; on the right, those who died in the basement (Andrii Bashtovyi­—The Reckoning Project)

The dates of captivity. On the left are these killed by the Russians; on the fitting, those that died within the basement

Andrii Bashtovyi­—The Reckoning Mission

The bravest ones ran to their houses. They returned to the basement to inform the remainder: They’re gone, they are surely gone! Folks began to smile. Somebody discovered a radio. They needed to hear the information, to know if Yahidne was now beneath the management of Ukraine or Russia. However there was solely music on the radio. Then somebody realized the music was in Ukrainian. It meant Ukraine was nonetheless free.

The day the Russians had entered the village, a couple of folks had buried their telephones of their barns and cellars. Now they dug them up. There have been 300 folks however just a few telephones: every bought a couple of seconds to make a name. Svitlana tried to dial her husband, however she stored getting one quantity flawed. Lastly, she known as her daughter:



Olha the agronomist went to take a look at her home. It hadn’t burned down, that was good. However the home windows have been damaged, the roof destroyed, there have been puddles inside. There was no electrical energy or fuel. In the midst of the lounge was a pile of issues the Russian troopers had thrown round whereas they rummaged by the wardrobes. They’d stolen all the nice and cozy garments, males’s footwear, socks, instruments—it was the identical in most homes.

“All of us mentioned that as quickly as we bought out, we wouldn’t step foot in that basement,” recollects Olha. However given the state of their houses, on their first evening of freedom, most individuals returned to the place of their imprisonment.

That evening, no person locked them in. Within the morning, the folks went outdoors each time they needed. “My first morning of freedom,” Olha wrote in her diary. Out of behavior, they boiled water and made breakfast. Then somebody noticed males in uniform popping out of the forest. The primary response was to cover. However they appeared nearer and noticed that it wasn’t a Russian uniform. Then somebody shouted, “It’s our guys!”

The folks ran as much as the troopers, touched them with trembling arms to verify that they have been actual, laughed, and cried. They surrounded the troopers and requested them for the information concerning the Russian retreat from the area, how the siege of Kyiv had failed, time and again, till the troopers bought bored with repeating it.

Svitlana and Lilia discovered a automotive and sped out of Yahidne. Many locals would observe. The Russians had mined some houses. Folks coated their home windows in plastic to maintain out the rain, bought into buses, and went to family’ houses or momentary shelters. An important factor was to get as far-off as potential, discover warmth, consolation, and safety.

That April in Yahidne, the one folks working within the gardens have been deminers.

When folks returned, they started to restore their houses. They have been nonetheless coughing from being within the basement, and persistent illnesses bought worse. However no person rushed to see the psychiatrist who got here to the village. “No person thinks they’re traumatized. Folks assume they’re OK,” says Valeriy.

The varsity constructing stays a criminal offense scene. The youngsters attend college within the neighboring village. The yard has been cleaned up, however inside there are traces of the Russians in all places—ration containers, ashtrays, rubbish. The troopers left drawings on the partitions, together with the observe “55 br”—55th Separate Motorized Brigade from the Tuva Republic. The names of 9 troopers have been confirmed by the paperwork they left behind in Yahidne.

The regional administration needs to protect the college as a struggle memorial. The writings on the partitions can be vital displays: kids’s drawings, the phrases of the Ukrainian anthem in a baby’s handwriting; the calendar that Valentyna Danilova drew with charcoal.

“If we have been to die, different folks will find out how a lot we endured,” Valentyna explains. Because of this she stored these data.

Thanks largely to the testimonies collected from the villagers, 22 troopers from the occupying brigade have been recognized as suspects, in keeping with Ukrainian prosecutors. By January 2023, 4 of them had been convicted in absentia by a Ukrainian court docket for violating legal guidelines and customs of struggle. Three got 12 years in jail, and one 10 years. Their sentences are for the atrocities dedicated in Yahidne earlier than March 5, earlier than the villagers have been pressured into the basement. However there’s a robust argument to carry Russian troopers accountable for holding folks within the basement too.

The Reckoning Mission, an alliance of journalists and human-rights legal professionals, says the Russian troopers used humiliation and what’s recognized in legislation as “torture, inhumane and degrading therapy” as a tactic to subdue the inhabitants in Yahidne. Systematic, widespread implementation of such ailing therapy on a civilian inhabitants could possibly be thought of a criminal offense in opposition to humanity.

The undertaking’s authorized analysts additionally observe the absence of insignia on Russian troopers’ uniforms, and concealing their identities from Yahidne residents, actions suggesting predetermination to commit atrocities. In different phrases—what occurred at Yahidne was probably no accident. Like so many atrocities throughout Ukraine it was deliberate, deliberate, intentional.

Now comes the reckoning.

Oslavska is a journalist based mostly in Ukraine. This story is revealed in partnership with The Reckoning Mission, which brings collectively the facility of storytelling and authorized accountability to struggle disinformation and impunity in Ukraine

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