Summer 2023 – Day Three: And We Touch The Face of Satan

After a night of little sleep we depart for Chernihiv less than an hour drive from the Russian border. The rural settlement patterns here, as across Europe, are different than the U.S. There are few farmsteads. Farmers don’t live on their land, they live in rural villages and travel out to work their fields. It makes for a beautiful, idyllic landscape dotted with rustic villages. It also makes the rural population uniquely vulnerable to Russian artillery.

One such village, near Chernihiv, is Yahidne. As the Russians invaded from the north they destroyed village after village on their way to surround Chernihiv. Ivan Petrovish, a lifelong village resident in his mid sixties, told us of the horror visited upon his village and his neighbors by the Russian army.

The people of Yahidne hide in their basements as the Russians shell their town, some will never come out. Every home in the village is destroyed or damaged. As the infantry and tanks roll into the village, the villagers are forced out of their basements at gun point. Anyone wearing camouflage is shot. Anyone with camouflage clothing in their closet is shot. A picture of someone in uniform is a death sentence for the entire family. A retired elderly man is found to have served in the Ukrainian military. He is murdered.
The remaining 386 villagers are marched to the elementary school and locked in the basement. It’s a small basement, less than 200 square meters, 1/2 square meter per person, (1.5ft X1.5ft). The basement is damp and it’s March and there is no heat. Rooms the size of an average American bedroom have 40 people. The windows are boarded up, there are no toilets and there is no electricity.

The youngest prisoner is 21 days old. The oldest is 94 years. There are over 40 children imprisoned. Some villagers are wounded, some are sick, all are traumatized. Are they locked-up overnight? Are they locked up for a for a day or two? No. They live in that hell-hole for 27 days, from 3-March-22, until the liberation of their village by the Ukrainian military on 30-March-22

They are permitted to line up for the outdoor toilet once a day. There is never enough time for all to get to the toilet. The humiliation of using buckets in the basement, without privacy, is the alternative. A Russian ration packet designed for one man for one meal has to feed four people for a day. And, that’s a good day. Most days are 1/2 cup of some kind of cold gruel. Water is in short supply and it’s not clean. Children get sick and the buckets overflow.

The Russians are asked for toilet paper. Instead the shoulders give the villagers Ukrainian history books and Ukrainian newspapers. When challenged on their cruelty the Russian commander, know as Spider, says “This is war, what do you expect.”
Ivan explains that the air was incredibly stuffy. There is not enough oxygen for hundreds of people. The infant wails and screams pitifully. There is no room to lie dawn. Sleeping while sitting, standing or in shifts, in clothes you have worn for weeks while cold, sick and slowly starving is everyone’s fate. There is little anyone can do but pray.

People start to die. The men are allowed to bring bodies out and bury them in a common grave. In all, seventeen people do not survive. Ten simply die and seven are murdered by the Russians. The villagers keep track on either side of the door – seven on the left, ten on the right. The baby and the grandmother survive.

Yahidne is an agricultural village. Ivan explains that it was renowned for its fruits and in particular its spring strawberries. His smile is replace by a scowl as he says “We shipped our strawberries to Moscow and we fed the bastards!”

Today we touched the face of Satan.