Yahidne, a village 140 kilometers north of Kyiv, was occupied for 28 days by Russian troops in early March. Almost none of the windows in the school building remained intact. The playground was shattered by bombing. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)
Through a grant from the United States Agency for Global Media, Radio Free Asia collaborated with The Reporter, a Taiwanese investigative news outlet, to produce a series of stories about the effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The aim of the project, also being published in Mandarin language, was to provide Chinese readers greater clarity about the conflict.
Ivan Petrovich wearily unlocks the gate to the school that for a harrowing four weeks in March became a makeshift prison, a morning fog still lingering in the surrounding woods.
“I know there are a lot of things to do – cleaning up the village, farming, fixing the house,” he says. “I just don’t know why. You can’t do anything. You just don’t have the strength.”
For two decades, Petrovich, 62, worked as the custodian of the school – the keeper of the keys to the place where the small farming community of Yahidne had sent its elementary and middle school-aged children to study.
But that was before Russian troops invaded last March as part of an advance they thought would soon end with the capture of Kyiv, 140 kilometers (87 miles) to the south. The soldiers carried celebratory uniforms to wear for the occasion, so certain were they of their success.
For 28 days, the school served as a base for Russian forces. For Petrovich and 364 others who were stuffed into its basement – including 70 children, the youngest just 6 weeks old – it became an epicenter of trauma.
The captives endured four weeks below ground in a space about 200 square meters the size of an average American home. Sometimes they were allowed out to go to the bathroom, but often they were not. Some people passed out due to a lack of oxygen. There was little access to food or water or medicine, Petrovich says.
In October, a United Nations-sponsored investigation into human rights abuses in Ukraine said at least 10 people died of starvation in the basement. Russians appeared to position civilians near its troops and equipment, including in Yahidne, to discourage attacks, the report said. The 365 captives were placed at “significant risk,” the U.N. report said.
Journalists from The Reporter, which has extensively covered the conflict, were shown around the village by Petrovich and other locals who remained despite the brutality they witnessed and suffered.
After unlocking the gate to the school, Petrovich then opened the door to the basement where he and the others spent weeks literally knee to knee, and back to back.
To the left of a green door, the names of the people who died there were written on the walls as a record in case none of the trapped survived. The names of seven people shot to death in the streets were written on the right. Other people were listed as missing.
“When they wrote the names, they did not expect they would go home alive,” Petrovich said.
Ivan Petrovich shines a light on a wall where prisoners described their experiences, believing they might not survive their ordeal. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)
The bombs began falling around 1 p.m. on March 3, said Petrovich, who initially huddled in his own basement with his family and children. Soldiers arrived that afternoon, and by nightfall were inspecting houses door to door, taking locals including Petrovich and his family captive.
Some of the rounded-up villagers were quickly taken away, others were tortured, Petrovich says. The soldiers ordered residents to strip, trying to identify Ukrainians who were in the military or worked for the government by tattoos or other identifiers.
“They thought I might be a retired soldier or policeman. I said I am not. They pinned me down on the floor and fired their machine gun around me. Ordering me to confess.” He said others endured the same terror.
The villagers were then shuffled into the school basement. Locals told Reporter journalists that the prisoners included a 13-year-old girl who was the lone survivor of a family of four shot by Russian soldiers as they had tried to escape in a car.
The Reporter could not independently verify the claims, although the U.N. report includes similar witness testimony.
Kindergarten teacher Natalia was assigned to cook. The Russian soldiers gave her small Russian rations (see the cardboard package with a star on the table) to feed the 300-plus villagers. Every day, every person received a 200 ml cup of food. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)
The basement is divided into four rooms. In one, Petrovich said that 36 people were crammed into just seven square meters of space. Some prisoners had enough room to sleep sitting down but others were forced to affix themselves to something sturdy and try to sleep standing up.
The soldiers would occasionally allow their captives to go outside for 10 minutes for fresh air or to use a bathroom. But the door could be closed for days. Older prisoners passed out due to a lack of oxygen.
Natalia, another captive who was a kindergarten teacher at the school, said waste from a leaking septic tank would drip into one of the rooms. Soldiers slaughtered livestock and raided kitchens, leaving paltry military rations for the locals that Natalia said were “so bad it was hard to swallow.”
People got sick, starved and, Petrovich said, went crazy in delirium, the stress and the stench and lack of food overwhelming.
Petrovich, 62, in the spot where he sat for 28 days. At least another 130 people were in the same room. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)
There was a constant threat presented by the soldiers above, who residents said would shout out a name and take the person out to be tortured. Some never returned. Other times soldiers shouted down, “Give us women!”
Petrovich found a few crayons and gave them to the children to draw on the walls to distract them from the fear and boredom. They drew pets, their village as it looked before the war, gardens, butterflies, sunshine, “Glory to Ukraine.”
Petrovich found crayons for the children to draw with during their imprisonment. They also wrote messages like "No Wars," "No Half-Orcs (the Russian soldiers)," and "Glory to Ukraine." (Photograph by Yang Zilei)
At first, the prisoners had to stack the dead bodies in a corner in the basement. Eventually, they said their captors relented and gave the prisoners 90 minutes to bury the bodies in a local cemetery. Halfway through fire from a Russian machine gun killed two of the villagers, people in the community said.
On March 30, Russian soldiers sealed the door shut and warned residents not to come out. But they could hear the troops leaving and after an extended period of silence they pried the door open, found an old cellphone and contacted the Ukrainian military, which arrived the next day.
The trapped locals reemerged into a Yahidne that had been destroyed. Russian bombs left craters in the landscape and holes in buildings. Tanks rolled over cars to prevent residents from escaping. Troops pried floorboards open and ransacked homes, taking large appliances like washing machines and microwaves in their retreat.
“They burnt everything, leaving nothing but ruins and soot,” Petrovich says. “They did whatever they wanted. When they arrived, they were in knee-high rubber boots. But when they left, they stole our shoes.”
A school toilet was kept as it was the day when the Russian troops left. Many villagers returned home to similar scenes. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)
Residents found booby traps in their homes and land mines in the forest; bodies buried in backyards and left out in the open; women from nearby villages who had been kidnapped and brought to Yahidne to be raped.
On the second day after their release, buses arrived to carry residents to Kyiv for treatment. Many others left to stay with relatives in other towns and cities in Ukraine.
The people who The Reporter journalists encountered were mostly from families that had lived in the town since 1953, growing strawberries, apples and other fruits for export to Belarus and to Russia. Yahidne means “berries” in Ukrainian.
Whatever bonds there were with those countries are now broken forever, residents said.
“They hated us. They abused us. They crushed us,” says another Natalia, who helped to guide the reporters around the town. And they still find ways to try to torment their former prisoners – Natalia said she had received a Facebook message from one of the soldiers who was part of the invading force.
Volunteer Olena Taranova, nicknamed Wild Lady, cleared land mines, searched for villagers' bodies, transported supplies, and helped caring for wounded soldiers. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)
Olena Taranova, a 50-year-old new grandmother who has volunteered to support Ukrainian troops since Russia seized Crimea eight years ago, carried a notebook as she guided the journalists around Yahidne.
“Shot in the head. Burnt to death in the car. Died on the highway because of bombing. Shot in their backyard,” she recites from its pages. It’s a small portion of her list of 76 bodies that she says were recovered in recent months. She stores a photo of each one in her cell phone as evidence, including the charred bodies of a father and his daughter killed in their car in a Russian attack.
“As a woman I will not call it quits,” she says. “I have witnessed the kind of pain in many mothers. They had to bury their own children with their own hands.”
Her phone also includes a video of her practicing shooting a gun. “Come on, Putin, you and me, one on one,” she says. “Don’t touch the vulnerable.”
After leading us out of the basement, our guide Natalia talked about her child. She suddenly broke down in tears, until she was too exhausted to talk. (Photograph by Yang Zilei)
Tables and chairs have been set up at the cemetery for the people who remain to rest, reflect, weep. There are many new graves, including one for a villager who tried to fight the troops. A bottle of liquor and a few glasses lie nearby for his friends, who come by to toast his memory.
International aid groups have arrived in Yahidne to help clear the area of landmines, and counseling groups have been established to help residents deal with their trauma. But as Petrovich led the reporters around the community he warned them to follow his path because dangers remain.
That’s true of Ukraine as a whole of course. Though its military has regained territory and continues to advance, Russian missiles continue to pound Ukrainian cities, cutting parts of the population off from electricity or heat.
“Now we are free, but everything we have had was destroyed, and the winter is coming,” said Natalia, the guide. But the people of Yahidne would work hard to rebuild, she said.
Written and reported by Liu Zhixin
Translated by Min Eu
Photos by Yang Zilei
Edited by Paul Eckert, Mat Pennington, Jim Snyder
Visual editing by H. Léo Kim, Paul Nelson
Web page produced by Minh-Ha Le
Produced by Radio Free Asia
© 2022 RFA
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