‘Putin’s worldview’: Inside a Ukrainian village-turned death camp

In Yahidhe, Russian soldiers held 368 villagers underground for nearly a month – 17 died and the survivors carry deep scars.

A stelle by the entrance to the school basement where most of Yahidne's population spent 27 days
A memorial near the entrance to the school basement where most of Yahidne's population spent 27 days in March 2022, help captive by Russia's invading soldiers [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

Yahidne, Ukraine – Aged between 90 days and 91 years, almost everyone in this northern Ukrainian village was forced into a subterranean hell – and some did not come out alive.

Drunk on stolen booze and impunity, Russian soldiers humiliated, beat, raped, tortured and murdered the villagers, according to survivors – casually, for the slightest objection, a criticising glance or just on a sadistic whim.

That killing spree, marauding and destruction of property encapsulate the “essence” of what the Kremlin and its master planned to do in all of Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said earlier this month.

“It’s just one village, but it reflects the essence of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s worldview, his real goals,” Zelenskyy said on May 8.

In March 2022, Russian soldiers herded 368 villagers, including six dozen children, into the basement of their elementary school. The villagers spent 27 days in the damp, rancid and noisy darkness with no electricity and heat, with little food and so little fresh air that most were hypoxic to the point of catatonia.

They stayed there right next to the dead – 17 people, including 10 elderly villagers who died there – but Russian soldiers allowed other captives to bring them out and bury them only days later.

Mikhai, 67, inside his house restored after Russian occupation-1716812420
Mikhail, 67, inside his house restored after Russian occupation [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

Death and torture

Yahidne means “rich with berries”.

The village in the northern Chernihiv region is nestled between a pine forest and a busy highway to Kyiv.

The Russians invaded on March 3, 2022. They began stealing everything from washing machines to bed sheets, guzzled alcohol, killed and ate all the cattle, poultry and even a dog, Mikhail, a 67 year-old-pensioner told Al Jazeera in late April, watching his white goat graze on fresh grass under the pines.

They told several pro-Moscow villagers to snitch on others – and humiliated the pro-Ukrainian majority by forcing them to sing the Russian anthem, kneel or undress; beating them up for speaking Ukrainian or criticising the invasion.

They gunned down Viktor Shevshenko, a 50-year-old father of three, in his kitchen garden and did not let his family bury his body for 21 days, his father Mykhailo told Al Jazeera.

The Russians occupied his house walking past the body many times a day – and planted a landmine under it before fleeing the village.

Viktor’s younger brother Anatoly went missing, and the family hopes the Russians took him with them.

“His body has never been found,” Mykhailo, a frail septuagenarian, said, standing just metres away from where Viktor had been murdered.

The underground inferno

Russian officers chose the school, a two-storey brick building near the forest, as their headquarters.

Mindful of Ukrainian counterattacks, they decided to use the villagers as human shields – and forced them into the basement, including several disabled elderly people who had to be brought in on wheelbarrows, villagers told Al Jazeera. One was 91-year-old Dmytro Muzyka, who survived World War II as a child and did not wake up after his first night in the basement.

The bodies of those who died lay on the floor for days, and their names and dates of death were scribbled on a wall next to lines from Ukraine’s national anthem and children’s doodles.

When finally allowed to bury the dead, several villagers were shot at by a group of Russian soldiers passing by the cemetery – and had to jump into freshly dug graves, villagers said.

The only ailing captive to be released was 84-year-old Mariya Tsymbaliuk, who had a heart condition.

She crawled out only to see her house razed to the ground – and sat near the ruins until dying three days later.

The basement consisted of several rooms, but there was only half a square metre per person. The captives slept sitting, developing ulcers on their legs and feet.

“I want a girl,” one of the Russian soldiers would tell the crowd and then pick a woman, otherwise promising to “shoot dead every fifth villager” if she refused, Mikhail, the pensioner, said.

Several older women were allowed to cook in cauldrons outside the basement so that every captive could get a tiny portion of porridge, potatoes or macaroni.

The Russians rarely let other captives out to use the school toilets, and people overcame shame in order to relieve themselves in buckets in front of others.

But the scariest moment arrived when by late March the Russians started digging a huge pit, prompting fears that they were planning to kill and bury everyone there.

“We thought that was it,” said Mikhail, a diabetic nearly killed by an insulin shock because the Russians did not allow any medical drugs in the basement.

Ukrainian prosecutors and volunteers have identified some Russian servicemen who had invaded Yahidne. In early March, the Chernihiv Regional Court sentenced 15 of them to 12 years in jail in absentia for war crimes.

Tamara Klimchuk's unfinished house in Yahidne-1716812502
The makeshift house Tamara Klimchuk lives in after a missile hit the two-storey house she had built with her late husband [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

Life in limbo

Russian guards did not let Tamara Klimchuk out of the basement when a missile hit the two-storey house she had built with her late husband.

The house burned down along with hundreds of books and family photos: all other valuables had already been looted.

“My memories burned down,” Klimchuk, 66, portly and clad in a chequered shirt, told Al Jazeera.

In late March 2022, unexpected pressure from Ukrainian forces, poor supply lines and heavy losses forced Moscow to withdraw its troops from northern Ukraine.

They left Yahidne after mining it and the forest around it. Also left behind were a howitzer, hundreds of rounds of ammunition and several soldiers who were so drunk and disoriented they lagged behind, and were later captured by the Ukrainian military.

Almost 120 houses in Yahidne were destroyed or damaged.

Since the Russians left the village, countless foreign dignitaries, including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have visited Yahidne and pledged to finance its restoration. The Latvian government offered to rebuild seven burned-down houses – including Klimchuk’s.

Kyiv also allocated money for Yahidne, promising uniform brick houses and an “occupation museum” in the school basement.

But two years – and two cold winters – later, some villagers still cannot move into the houses that lack electricity and heating.

Construction workers built the walls for Klimchuk’s new house and installed plastic windows. But the Latvian money ran out by the fall of 2022, and she was not eligible for restoration by Ukrainian contractors.

These days, Klimchuk lives in a residential limbo – in her tiny summer kitchen, next to a makeshift stove, piles of stuff and a dog.

Several other villagers also complained to Al Jazeera about the quality and speed of work of government-hired construction companies, but refused to provide their names or other details.

The restoration effort in Yahidne was a classic case of too many cooks spoiling the broth, a Kyiv-based analyst said.

“There weren’t enough funds for Yahidne because [authorities] pinned their hopes on volunteers and sponsors, but their capabilities were not enough,” Alexey Kushch told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera