The village of Yahidne, where Ukrainian civilians were held in basements and shot execution-style by Russian soldiers, was liberated in early April. But rescuers still have a lot of work to do there.
On both sides of a road leading to a farm located near Yahidne, which is in Ukraine’s northern-central Chernihiv Oblast, there are still the remains of burnt-out cars, military equipment and trees torn apart by war.
There is almost nothing left of the farm itself: the building was bombed out, and next to it there is destroyed Russian military equipment and unexploded shells.
Only two months ago, Russian forces were deployed here.
“Yahidne is 18 kilometers from Chernihiv,” chief sapper of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine in the region Mykhailo Iliev tells NV, pointing to the destruction.
“There were the positions from which they went to the fields, fired artillery at Chernihiv itself, and then returned back to Yahidne, which was occupied, where they kept people in the basement of the school.”
In early April, Russian forces began to flee Chernihiv. They left thousands of rounds of ammunition and mined areas. Over two months, Ukrainian sappers have neutralized more than 26,000 explosive objects in the region. But there is still a lot of work to do.
“Our Armed Forces are doing great: they have reached the state border, they hold their positions well,” says Iliev, who is always accompanied by Patron, the most famous dog in social networks and in the media, looking for explosives.
But the amount of work the sappers still have to do is huge.
Patron gambols around him, and NV’s correspondents are from time to time distracted from the words of the chief sapper by the playfulness of the dog.
Pain of farmers
The former farm is one of the places that the sappers of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine will have to work on for a long time. The Russians also made an ammunition depot here.
The rescuers carefully take shells out of the premises and stack them in a separate area, marked off with red signs reading “Danger mines!”
Chief specialist of the Chernihiv State Emergency Service of Ukraine Anatolii Vasylchenko explains that his colleagues in this area mainly find 152-caliber artillery and rockets for Grad multiple rocket launchers.
“The Armed Forces of Ukraine captured this place and destroyed a Russian ammunition depot,” Vasylchenko said, standing against a backdrop of six burned-out KAMAZ military trucks. “While you are here, the work has stopped – we’re not allowed to work in front of you: you never know what can happen.”
It’s difficult for the sappers to estimate how much longer they will have to work on the farm: some ammunition is covered by debris, concrete slabs and burnt equipment. First, it will be necessary to clear the territory, then to remove the debris and retrieve the ammunition from underneath it.
But at the neighboring agricultural enterprise, which is closer to the village of Ivanivka, sappers reckon they have already collected all the explosives.
State Emergency Service of Ukraine officers came here to pick up hundreds of previously found ammunition. They bring out a metal container and begin to slowly load artillery shells into it. An employee of this agricultural enterprise, Vladyslav Nikolaienko, is closely wartching the process.
“I came out to see what’s going on here, because there are a lot of people,” he tells NV.
After the “visit” of the Russians, according to Nikolaienko, destroyed buildings and damaged equipment were all that remained of the enterprise.
“They damaged everything,” he says. “If they didn't blow it up, they just cut some pipes there, pierced the tanks. Just to do damage! After they left, there was practically no working equipment left.”
Today, part of it has already been repaired. After all, the sowing campaign is underway and the enterprise has to work. However, there is a shortage of workers, as some of workers left because of the war.
While NV is talking with Nikolaienko, the sappers are reloading all the shells. They are carefully lifted by crane and lowered into a specialized machine. The latter is to take out the dangerous cargo for destruction.
Yahidne itself, next to which the sappers are working, has already been cleared of mines. After the liberation of the village, rescuers worked there for almost three weeks, checking every residential building and nearby territories.
In the first days of April, when the Ukrainian military liberated the village, Vasylchenko also worked here.
“Everything was defeated, gloomy and scary,” the rescuer recalls. “There are still traces of the Russian soldiers: their combat rations were everywhere,a lot of ammunition, and a lot of their burnt equipment along with the ammunition.”
Today Yahidne is gradually coming back to life: adults clean the yards, children play and ride bicycles. But all this is against a background of broken windows, destroyed buildings and burned cars.
Seventy-one-year-old Petro Khlystun is chopping wood in the courtyard of one of the houses. He, along with almost 400 residents of the village, was kept in the cramped basement of the village school by the Russians.
“Oh, don't ask,” the man says, throwing back his hands when NV asks how he feels today. “Even now we’re shell-shocked.”
The Russians kept the residents of the village in the basement throughout the month-long occupation. Only sometimes they were the civilians allowed to go out.
“There was not enough air, children, screaming, people were suffocating,” the man says. “It was difficult...”
Khlystun is working with firewood near a broken barn. It burned along with all inside: bicycles, tools and his son's moped. Everything in his house is burned as well, and what survived was stolen by the Russians.
The elderly Yahidne resident did not immediately realize in early March that the Russian invaders had entered the village. But then he saw armored personnel carriers and tanks with the letter “O”, a symbol of Russian forces from Belarus, in his yard and in the village.
“We hid in a small storage room: there I have a bath and a toilet,” the man recalls. “The door slammed, and they broke the bedroom window, jumped into the house and went there... And what do I have there? There is no gold, no diamonds either.”
“Then the Russians broke into the shelter: they told us to get out or they would throw a grenade there.”
Khlystun and his wife began to ask to leave them alone, as they are seniors. But the invaders allowed them to spend the night in the house only for the night. In the morning, they took them along with the rest of the villagers at gunpoint to the basement of the school. The building is located just opposite Khlystun's house.
It was also a difficult for Ivan, the school’s caretaker, to recall the time of the occupation. He shows NV the way to the basement where the local residents were imprisoned by the Russian soldiers.
“The memories are not very pleasant. I’m just thankful for staying alive,” the caretaker explains.
He shows NV the green door of the basement, on which is written in red “Caution. Children.
It’s cold inside and smells of mold. A narrow corridor leads to several rooms where the residents of Yahidne spent 28 days. There are still the drawings of children and the writing of adults on the walls: They counted the days they were in prison, and recorded the names of their fellow villagers who were shot or died in the basement.
“The dead were lying with us,” Ivan recalls. “And then the men gathered up four of five of (the bodies) in the basement, took them out and asked for permission to bury them...”
Eleven villagers died in the basement prison. Another 20, according to various sources, were shot.
Traces of danger
In order not to frighten the villagers, who have already experienced a lot of pain and shelling, sappers warn them in advance when there will be explosions to destroy the collected ammunition.
Today is one of those days.
Emergency workers take the ammunition to a remote area of the forest and destroy it using controlled explosions. The sappers calculate the radius that fragments will fly so that they do not harm the local population and infrastructure.
A powerful explosion is heard and clouds of black smoke appear over the forest. And the locals know that another batch of enemy ammunition has been disposed of.