Summer 2023 – Day Four: And Chernihiv’s Wounds Bring Tears

That afternoon we go on to Chernihiv. It’s about 40 miles from the Russian border. At the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the city was surrounded and under siege by the Russian Army.

Hostilities forced more than 150,000 residents of Chernihiv oblast from their homes in search of safety. An estimated 9,200 civilian homes, hospitals, schools, and other buildings were destroyed or damaged as a result of Russian shelling. The death rate in Chernihiv that year was 14X normal.

We had a lunch meeting with representatives of our host organization the Polissya Foundation for International and Regional Studies. Maxim Koriavets, Head of the Foundation, along with invited representatives from Chernihiv and several surrounding communities gave presentations on their recovery activities and projects.
Government buildings, hospitals, medical clinics and schools were intentionally targeted. Russians cleaned out the stores, destroyed factories and crippled the economy. School kids in occupied zones were forced to video testify that their principal was a Nazi.

The city held out but the outer villages and the suburbs suffered greatly. Of the 50-some villages leading to Chernihiv, 50% were totally destroyed the others suffered substantial damage.
The clean up and reconstruction is a whole-of-community effort. A volunteer group called “Friends Helping Friends” removes rubble and helps with repairs. Do to a lack of heavy machinery much of the work is done by hand. Of more than 2,000 buildings and homes damaged, over 700 have been fully repaired. About 50% of the refugees who fled have now returned.

The schools were just starting to reopen after Covid when the invasion started. Many schools were targeted and although repairs have been made the schools without bomb shelters cannot reopen. And so, online schooling continues. The normal extracurricular activities that are so important to kids – band, theater, sports – have not fully resumed. Chernihiv’s children have lost 3-4 years of proper schooling.

Last night the air raid sirens sounded at 1:00 AM. Down to the hotel basement we all go until the all clear sounds at 5:00. Today we meet up with Sasha, a Deputy Commander in the regional military district and Kate, our translator, for a tour of the battle zones. Sasha is a young man in his later twenties and before the war he was a TV journalist. He explains that most of the fighting was in the outlying districts of Chernihiv.

Sasha tells the story of one older man holding off a column of Russian tanks, destroying three, with his mortar.

Further up the road is a memorial to Ukrainian shoulders who held off a Russian battalion. These six young men are credited with saving the city. If not for their sacrifice the city would have fallen.
Most of the fighting was in the rural and suburban areas surrounding Chernihiv. We visited a community that was destroyed by shelling and was busy rebuilding.

Yet, in the midst of destruction and the bustle of clean up and rebuilding, best friends will still ride their bikes together.

After lunch we depart for Vinnytsia. We must transit the capital Kyiv to get to Vinnytsia. Our plans were to meet with the Ministry of Social Policy to better understand the needs of Special Needs Ukrainians fleeing the conflict zone and also to meet with the Mayor of Kyiv. However the city has been under nightly missile and drone attacks. Government officials have a crisis to deal with and had to cancel our meetings. To bring the point close to home, as we drove through Kyiv, the air raid sirens announced a rare daytime attack.