For the 300 Ukrainians forced by Russian soldiers to live for a month in the basement of the school in the Ukrainian village of Yahidne, “there was no morning, noon or night,” says Ania Yanko, 26, sent there earlier this month. March with her husband and their four and seven year old children. “We were all the time in the dark. At first we lit lamps, until someone brought an electric generator that was enough for what it was, ”she recalls in front of the place, where neighbors gather today to receive humanitarian aid.
They were all the inhabitants of Yahidne who remained on March 5, when Russian forces stationed in Belarus took this town in northern Ukraine, about 120 kilometers north of kyiv. They were mostly old men, women and children, since the men were rather in other parts of the country, fighting or organizing defense or supplies. Some 130 slept in a room and, as they did not all fit lying down, some did so leaning on each other’s shoulders, or back to back. At least 11 (the most conservative estimate) died in the basement. Their aged bodies gave in to the harsh conditions.
After occupying the town, the Russian military went from house to house forcing residents to move into the basement of the school, five rooms with wooden floors that retain a musty smell, a handful of broken school chairs and moldy thrown blankets. In one of several rebellious episodes he recounts, Yanko initially refused to move from his house. “We told them to leave us alone, that we had small children. On March 7, several soldiers arrived at night. They were drunk and told us: ‘Either you leave right now or we’ll kill you.’ They escorted us there and demanded that I give them the phone’s SIM card, which they broke. The next day they wanted the phone too, but I hid it. My husband has boots with a very thick sole and we cut a slot to put him in there without him stepping on it.”
Keeping the cell phone was not only a risky act of symbolic resistance, but also a consequence of what was happening around him. “I saw a phone smashed against the corner of the bathroom and someone else found one in the toilet. They were the old ones that the grandparents had. iPhones and smartwatches kept them. A girl next to me was made to sign out of her iCloud profile…so they could use it. They also kept the bracelets of fitness, because they said they could be used to contact the enemy. What a coincidence, just the good bracelets from fitness! Why did they have to keep my phone? I bought it a month ago, I had to ask for a loan, and I thought the war would end soon,” says the woman.
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Since it was the school building, there was material upstairs that the soldiers let the children take. The walls are decorated with children’s drawings in marker and watercolor, such as a calendar with a cross next to the word “dead”. Also the lyrics of the Ukrainian anthem. It was painted by Yulia Semenova, 12, “very happy that this is over.” “I was very scared. We were down there for a long time, ”she says today on the surface.
Yahidne’s neighbors were not locked up. Especially at the beginning they could go outside, to a space in front of the school where the tracks of the armored vehicles stationed on both sides can be seen. They also saw daylight when they went to the bathroom in a booth located a few meters away. “We were more or less OK… Until we found ourselves in the middle of the crossfire. A bomb fell next to the building, injuring an elderly man and a child. We decided not to go out again. I used a potty for my children” she assures.
It was the moment of greatest panic, with Ukrainian troops opening fire from the road and Russian tanks responding from their position next to the school, agrees Nina, 68, with a son at the front. “I was afraid that the roof would collapse and we would be buried alive. For two days, the Russians did not allow us to go out even to go to the bathroom. We began to be very afraid. It was very difficult, it was cold and we lacked fresh air. You know, 300 people in one place, the babies crying, the old people moaning… so we decided to do something. the two leaders [oficiosos, dos hombres mayores] they looked out and saw that the battle was right there. An hour later there was silence. They came out and told the rest of us. The Russians were no longer there. As I left, I noticed the brightness of the sky. I realized that spring had come and the birds were singing.” It was April 3. In the surroundings, there is still a blown-up bridge and completely destroyed armored vehicles, apparently by drone fire or by Javelin, the anti-tank missiles that its Western allies have delivered to Ukraine.
Help and threats
The relationship between Ukrainian civilians and Russian soldiers was ambivalent, a mixture of gestures of help and seeking conversation with threats and details of contempt. The military seemed to fear the civilians and felt the need to explain to them why they were there.
Nina assures that when they went to the bathroom they shot into the air to scare them, that they were increasingly nervous and that they imposed fear, with threats of immediate execution if they were caught in possession of a cell phone. “We didn’t dare to talk about politics even among ourselves,” she says. “One day my children began to sing the Ukrainian anthem and I silenced them,” recalls Yanko, who brings up the story that a group of men told them when they returned to the basement. They had gone out, with the permission of the Russian commanders, to dig two graves to bury five bodies. When the bodies had been brought in, “the Russians opened fire in that direction from a Tigr [un vehículo militar ruso]”. They had to take refuge in the holes where the corpses were. One was injured in the leg. “The Russians used to escort us, but they didn’t escort us there,” he says. He also remembers when they asked the Russian military doctor for help for a woman with hypertension: “All she told us is to make a hole in the wall.”
However, the Russian military also let them cook outside and go to the well for water. And they stole the animals, but then they gave them a part after sacrificing them. Some even shared their military rations with them, the remains of which can be seen in the basement (the Russian soldiers were upstairs). They weren’t very hungry either. They ate typical porridge from the area or vegetables. The Russian soldiers escorted the two unofficial leaders – who acted as representatives and interlocutors before the commanders – to their homes to collect food and clothing. “They were given 30 minutes,” recalls Nina.
The Russian troops had a list with everyone’s first and last names. “And they told us that if one of them escaped, the rest would have a lot of problems,” says Nina. Without telephones, newspapers, radio or television, they were ignorant of the course of the war. “We didn’t know what was happening in kyiv, in Chernihiv… They told us that our government was about to fall and our country was in serious danger. And all the time, that Ukraine was poor and they came to liberate it, ”she adds.
The twentysomething and more forward Yanko spoke with them several times, when they shared cigarettes or went to the bathroom. They boasted that they had taken Mariupol, kyiv, Kherson [solo la última era verdad]… ‘Chernihiv we almost have it’, they said. ‘The Azov Battalion has come, but we immediately finished them off too. Your [Volodímir] Zelensky has left the Ukraine and [Vladímir] Putin is going to come and rebuild it.’ They told me that they had nothing against us, that they only wanted to fight against the Azov Battalion, the Nazis and Stepan Bandera”, a founding father of the independent Ukraine and collaborator with Hitlerite Germany who died in 1959. “They spoke of Stepan Bandera as if he were live. I did not understand anything”.
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