Russian soldiers squatting in houses, young men held captive, village elders – buried. Those are results of Termakhivka’s month-long Russian occupation.
In the morning of Feb. 26, Termakhivka, a small village 100 kilometers north of Kyiv – not far from the Chornobyl exclusion zone – had its life upended.
54-year-old Lyudmila, who lives on Termakhivka’s Zhovtneva street, was sharing a meal with her 81-year-old mother-in-law. “We sat down to eat, and then (my) mother (-in-law) took a nap,” Lyudmila recalls.
The first thing they heard was a loud “bang” nearby – it was a bomb, landing in a nearby swamp.
Another explosion followed. Lyudmila remembers falling to the ground. “Windows, the roof – everything shattered. I remember thinking ‘Oh Lord, at least I managed to cover mother up’,” Lyudmila recounts, standing outside her badly damaged house. Modern windows were all punched out by the shockwave, and are instead boarded up. Her roof has huge gaps in it.
After the bombing, Lyudmila climbed out from under debris and broken glass, and went outside, took a look at the neighbors’ place. “The owner was lying down, dead. His barn was on fire. One of his family members was running around, looking for his wife,” she says, and starts crying. “I came back home and told me mother that Leonid (the neighbor) is gone.”
She later saw another neighbor looking for a relative. He found her wounded. She died of her wounds two days later, since ambulances couldn’t get there in time because of active fighting.
In but several minutes of the bombardment, Lyudmila’s street lost five residents.
Zhovtneva, strewn with crosses
Around 400 people lived in Termakhivka before the war; everyone knew each other. Now, everyone knows exactly who died and where they are buried.
Lyudmila leads us to a nearby yard. A two-storey house there is intact, with a nice car nearby, albeit with its windows shattered. Clearly, somewhat well-off people lived here.
Right in the middle of the yard there is the neighbor’s grave.
Two brothers – Anatoly and Volodymyr – live in the house next door, along with their 71-year-old father, Petro. Right under their home is the grave of their 61-year-old mother Alla, who died on the same dreadful morning of Feb. 26.
Volodymyr tells us that Russian troops, once they entered the village, were not allowing proper burials at the cemetery, so people had to resort to makeshift graves by their houses.
Their house is damaged, but still stands. The same cannot be said about the house across from them: there is a crater where the house once stood, charred remnants of walls, a cow’s skeleton. Two crosses mark the grave of two women who lived there.
“I live without living now. To be honest, I thought I’m going to lose my mind after the month of (Russian) occupation,” Lyudmila says, while giving us the somber tour of the village.
Her husband was at work in Ivankiv – 15 kilometers south of Termakhivka – when the fighting broke out. He couldn’t come home until after the Russians retreated.
Russian troops entered her property once, Lyudmila tells us. Zhovtneva is one of the outer streets in Termakhivka, and suffered the most from bombardments. “This soldier is talking across the fence to me, says ‘Hello,’ I replied with ‘Hello’ back at him. ‘How are you doing? Everything alright?’ he asked. ‘Well, take a look,’ I replied, gesturing at the holes in my roof. I then turned my back on him, but Lord knows how much I wanted to tell him what I think!” the woman recalls the encounter.
Lyudmila didn’t venture beyond her street during the month of the occupation, and only saw Russian armor rolling past.
She is still reeling from the realization that Russians – “they are orthodox Christians, too” – were revealed to be “such monsters.” “They knew people lived here, and still dropped bombs on us; I don’t know how they can live with themselves after this,” Lyudmila says.
Since the outbreak of the war, she prays for Ukrainian soldiers, every day.
Young men, kept in holes in the ground
While Zhovtneva lies on the outskirts of Termakhivka, Poliska street is in the very center of the village. It wasn’t bombed, but instead, Russians squatted in houses along it.
Parishioners of the local church on the street told NV that Russian troops were looting empty houses of those who left Termakhivka. They stole everything, from clothes, to canned food. Locals started writing “people live here” on their fences, hoping to deter marauding soldiers.
Tetyana meets us near the church. She tells us that on March 17, the Russians detained fire local young men, aged 22-23. They were allegedly feeding intel to the Armed Forces of Ukraine, correcting artillery fire. “They were said to have been burning fires somewhere on the farm, even though they were taken from their couches at home,” Tetyana explains.
The men had their hand tied with aluminium wire, thrown into a hole in the ground, and kept there.
Villagers petitioned the occupying Russians to have them released, twice. First time around, 30 locals gathered at a checkpoint manned by Russian troops. They were told to send one person for negotiation; mother of one of the detained men was chosen. She was told that detainees are alive and being fed, but they won’t be released.
In five days, 70 residents came to the checkpoint. “They (the Russians) told us that our boys, won’t be released until the occupation ends. Russians promised to let them go once they start leaving the village,” Tetyana recalls.
They kept their word – young men were set free by retreating Russians. They ended up spending two weeks in that hole.
A house seized
On the same street, close to the road towards Ivankiv, NV met with 50-year-old locksmith Valeri Repik. Standing by his gate, he asks: “Would you like to hear about FSB agents living in my house?”, before inviting us into his home, where he lives with his 78-year-old father.
On March 6, Russians drove an IFV to Valeri’s house. They climbed over the gate, broke into his garage, and were rummaging around his car.
Valeri came outside, made himself known to the Russian soldiers, who immediately pointed their rifles at him and his father. Repik is a hunter, and keeps a rifle at home.
“They started to threaten me, told me to kneel, and were searching for weapons,” he tells us. The invaders turned his house upside down, scoured the attic and the basement.
On March 7, the Russians took Valeri’s car, and evicted him and his father, the next day. Until their retreat on March 31, Russian soldiers lived in Repik’s house. Several other houses on Poliska street were similarly seized.
Valeri had his and his father’s belonging – clothes, furniture, even the bathtub – thrown outside by the Russians, left to rot in the rain. Invaders were sleeping on the floor, having blocked the windows with sandbags. “They turned (my) house into a fort,” Valeri says. They also damaged the central power line, leaving the village without electricity – which is still the case.
Near Repik’s house, the Russians made 12 dugouts, and installed a makeshift latrine, along with a kebab grill nearby.
Valeri shows us a pig’s head and hide – all that was left after the troops left.
They apparently foraged the village farm for pork, and even shot livestock “for no reason” as they were retreating. “They (Russian troops) had nothing to eat, they were feeding off our population,” Repik tells us.
One of his two dogs was poisoned, and 25 kilograms of wax honeycombs were burnt by the Russians. “ (They are) simply monsters,” Valeri says.
“How did you know they were FSB men?” we asked him. Apparently, among the things they left behind in his house, there was an FSB-branded pen.
We go on to examine the trail left by Moscow’s soldiers around Repik’s property: packaging from Smolensk-made socks, shoes. In another house Russians used to quarter in, we found their military clothing – t-shirts, trousers, shoes, MRE boxes, gas mask, and even a special March edition of Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. The fortnpage had Denis Pushilin, “leader” of the so-called “Donetsk people’s republic,” declaring “We couldn’t bear it any longer.”
Lyudmila from Zhovtneva street describes pre-war life in the village. “We lived well, had fun, sang songs. We had everything! What did we do to deserve getting killed?” she asks, crying.
She hopes Russians will never come back to Termakhivka. “(They) came to ‘save’ us. Nobody wanted them here. I hope they live the way we live now, until their deaths,” Lyudmila goes on.
The villagers are trying to return to peaceful living – cleaning up artillery shell debris, starting to plant their crops.
“After I survived the air strike, I realized that God spared me to see my grandchildren grow up,” Lyudmila concludes, standing next to one of the destroyed houses on her street.