Residents of a village north of Kyiv said more than 300 people were locked in a school basement for weeks by Russian occupiers, scribbling the names of the dead on a peeling wall.
Halyna Tolochina, a member of Yahidne’s village council, tried to calm herself as she went through the list scrawled in black on the plaster on either side of a green door in the gloomy pen where she and hundreds of others were locked was.
To the left of the door were the names of seven people killed by Russian soldiers. On the right are the names of 10 people who died due to the harsh conditions in the basement, she said.
“This old man died first,” Tolochina said, pointing to the name Muzyka D, for Dmytro Muzyka, whose death was registered on March 9. “He died in the big room, this one.”
She said Muzyka’s body lay in a boiler room for a few days before a lull in the shelling allowed some people to take the dead to hastily dug graves in the village cemetery.
Reuters spoke to seven residents of Yahidne, who said a total of at least 20 people died or were killed during the Russian occupation. The Ukrainian authorities have not released an official death toll.
Reuters was unable to independently verify the villagers’ accounts. Reporters saw a freshly dug grave in a field near the village and two bodies wrapped in white plastic sheeting.
The Kremlin did not respond to requests for comment on the events in Yahidne.
Reports of what happened in the village add to the growing testimonies from Ukrainian civilians of the suffering in the towns around Kyiv during weeks of occupation by Russian forces.
The last victim recorded on the basement walls, Nadiya Budchenko, died on March 28, Tolochina said, two days before Russian troops withdrew from the village after their advance toward the Ukrainian capital stalled.
In addition to the mostly elderly people who died of exhaustion in the suffocating, cramped conditions, Tolochina named others who she believed were killed by Russian soldiers, including Viktor Shevchenko and his brother Anatolii, known as Tolya.
“This one was buried in the yard,” she said, pointing to the name of Shevchenko V. “And this one, they said it’s there [buried in the village]somewhere,” she said, pointing to the name of Shevchenko T, whose body was not recovered.
Reuters interviewed six other residents who corroborated Tolochina’s testimony and described how they were being held in the bare concrete basement rooms with about 60 children, little food or water, no electricity and no toilets.
Two of the villagers interviewed by Reuters said some Russian troops who arrived in early March had initially behaved well, offering to share their rations and expressing surprise at the village’s prosperous appearance. However, others immediately began looting.
“They started looting, taking everything they could get their hands on,” said Petro Hlystun, 71. “There was a flashlight, a tablet computer that my son brought from Poland. They took everything.”
Villagers said they were ordered down to the school’s basement on March 5, where they were to spend the next 25 days, with only brief breaks to relieve themselves or stretch their legs.
The Russian soldiers told them the detention was for their own protection, villagers said. They described sharing buckets for a toilet and taking turns sleeping in the small, crowded rooms as there was not enough space to lie down.
“It was almost impossible to breathe,” said Olha Meniaylo, an agronomist who said she was in the basement with her 32-year-old son, his wife and their children — a 4-month-old boy and an 11-year-old girl .
She said the Russian soldiers demanded a list of the people in the basement to organize groceries and she counted 360. Two other villagers said there were more than 300 people.
“It was difficult for the elderly to be there in the dark without fresh air, so most of the time the elderly died.”
She said the first burials – a man killed by the soldiers and four elderly people who died in the basement – took place when Russian soldiers allowed some young people to dig shallow graves.
“As soon as they started digging, there was shelling,” Meniaylo said. “People digging had to lie down on the bodies in the graves to protect themselves from the shelling. My husband was there.”
A woman who had a cow was led under escort one morning to fetch milk for the children. Others were occasionally let out at the whim of the Russian soldiers. When they returned to their homes, the villagers found that everything from televisions to women’s underwear had been taken.
Only when the Russians began retreating on March 30 were the people locked in the basement finally able to come out, said Tamara Klymchuk, 64. “We opened the door. We got out like we were born again.”
Yahidne, a small five-street farming village, was a popular place for people from the nearby city of Chernihiv to rent a vacation home. It’s now a desolate ruin of burnt-out houses littered with discarded military equipment.
“We had a very good life,” said Klymchuk, whose son-in-law was 50-year-old Viktor Shevchenko, one of two brothers who villagers say were killed by Russian soldiers. “We never thought that so much grief would come over us.”
Viktor, she said, stayed behind to guard his home after sending his wife and two children down to the school’s basement.
Russian soldiers had told villagers that Viktor was wearing a military uniform and was armed with a shotgun.
Klymchuk said she saw Viktor’s body after sappers exhumed his body from a mass grave at her request after the city was retaken by Ukrainian forces. He was dressed in blue jeans and a black jacket, she said. “They just shot him in the head,” she said.