To Hell and Back
published by Süddeutsche Zeitung Verlag, Germany
a basement for four weeks.
The prisoners had very little to eat,
they panicked, some were shot.
Now the Russians have gone,
but what does that really mean?
As Russian soldiers advanced on Yahidne in the first few days of March, Julia Vertyenko, 35, was huddled with her husband and daughter in the cellar of her parents’ house. A light bulb hung from the ceiling, the small window was open, and along the walls were homemade shelves full of canned fruit. Her father had taken the precaution of taking a few blankets down there against the cold. The noise of battle was coming ever closer: the attackers had to be in the village soon.
Now, standing in the village street in jeans and t-shirt one blisteringly hot day in June, her hair girlishly tied in a ponytail, she says that in the weeks that followed she often thought longingly of that storeroom in her father’s house. So bright and spacious, so tidy. She had been sitting there with her family for four hours when a Russian soldier yelled through the cellar window: “Everyone out. Or I’ll throw a grenade in the house.”
Her father Igor was the first to climb up the stairs. They made him stand against the wall of the house and he thought he was going to be shot. But the Russian soldiers just laughed, smashed his mobile phone, then made themselves comfortable and fried some eggs while the family stood beside them, frozen with fear. One of the intruders gave Julia’s young daughter, Masha, a mandarin. For one day the family lived downstairs in the cellar, the Russians upstairs in the house. Then the Vertyenkos were forced out onto the street and sent to the basement of the village school a few hundred metres away. They were told it was for their own safety, but it was an order. One of the soldiers gave Masha a farewell gift, chocolate this time. Then he said, “All the best.”
Four months later, Julia Vertyenko, a programmer in the nearby city of Chernihiv, is returning with her daughter to the backyard of the Yahidne school, and to the door that leads to the basement. In the village they call it the dungeon of death. The memories of those weeks in the basement still haunt the young mother’s dreams to this day. Unlike her husband, Serhij, a vet, she is on holiday and therefore not at work but at home, in the village. Masha’s online lessons have just ended. Ivan Podgul, the neighbour who holds the key to the basement, has come with her to the dungeon, which justice officials in Kyiv are treating as the scene of a war crime. Awkwardly he unlocks the green wooden door. Behind it, a narrow staircase leads down into the cold and dark.
They were kept in here for 26 days; other villagers speak of 28 days. Every day, every hour, they were joined by more and more people, driven here by the Russians, street by street, house by house: in the end there were 360 of them crammed into the corridor and the few basement rooms, 136 of them in the one larger room alone. Julia Vertyenko stops in front of the door, hesitating. Should she go down there again? Then she says firmly, “I don’t want it to become a museum inside my head. Am I going to walk past it every day, thinking about it and feeling afraid?”
Before 24 February, when the Russian army invaded Ukraine and Moscow’s troops advanced on the tiny village from the Belarusian border, all the local children attended this school and kindergarten on the edge of the forest. What happened there made headlines around the world. The United Nations, Ukrainian NGOs and the Prosecutor General in Kyiv are all determined to investigate crimes against humanity in Ukraine and bring the perpetrators to justice.
According to the latest list drawn up by the Prosecutor General’s office, Russian troops have committed 19,530 war crimes since their invasion of Ukraine. Yahidne is right at the top of the list. Nine suspects have been identified already, most of them soldiers from the autonomous Republic of Tuva in southern Siberia, near the Mongolian border. At a press conference held on 8 June, Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova acknowledged that the perpetrators had probably returned to Russia and would have to be tried in absentia but added, “This is very important for us, for justice in Ukraine, for the victims and for their families.”
Julia Vertyenko agrees that the investigations are important, but adds, “They’re not everything, though. We also have to go on living here together. Not everyone has come to terms with what happened.” And so she does go down into the basement, Ivan Podgul holding his hand out to her just in case. Masha has skipped ahead already. At the foot of the stairs is a narrow corridor, a few old children’s chairs by the wall. To the left and right are five small rooms, more like sheds, really. It is dirty and dusty. Here and there a few old school desks with notebooks and old textbooks on them; on the floor, shovels, ropes, wooden planks. It stinks of mice and excrement. A blanket here, a sleeping bag there. The windows are shuttered, the air is stuffy. The basement has been left exactly as it was when the whole village was living in it: a dumping ground for old school furniture that had been cleared away but never thrown out, plus the residue from a coerced community facing life or death.
“We were among the first to be sent down here,” says Julia Vertyenko, heading straight for the corner in the far right of the largest room, where she sits down on a children’s chair. “This is where we squatted, there wasn’t room to move around.” She shows us how Masha used to sleep: on her mother’s lap, sometimes on her father’s, her little head on her mother’s shoulder and her legs squeezed in between her parents. Most of them had to sleep sitting up, she says; others standing, leaning against the wall.
She is speaking faster now and has switched to informal pronouns: “you know”, “do you see?”, “call me Julia”. It all has to come out, every last detail, it’s as if it is being sucked out of her. It goes on like this for hours, hours seated on the same children’s chair she sat on back then. Ivan Podgul, the keyholder and friend, crouches down beside her, adding, explaining. Only Masha does not speak a single word the whole time.
The Russians, Julia recalls, initially said they would be in the cellar for no more than five days, then they would all be let out. There was fighting going on outside, it was dangerous. But she thinks it was just much more convenient for them to gather all the Ukrainians in one place and guard them. Little by little, the basement filled up. On 13 March, her sister and niece were pushed into the room. There was rarely any food: “If the soldiers had some themselves, they would sometimes throw it across the room, as if they were feeding dogs.”
After the fourth day, she says, brushing her daughter’s hair out of her face, a few of the women were allowed out from time to time to fetch food from home. What the occupiers had left of it, at least. On a good day there might be a few potatoes each, cooked upstairs in the open, then shared out downstairs.
There was hardly any clean drinking water, even for the children. After a while, they all had diarrhoea and almost all the children had chickenpox. “You have to picture it, they all infected one another in this tight space, they were scratching themselves till they bled, many of them were running a fever.” Once, she recalls, pulling her daughter closer, they let her go home to fetch some tablets for Masha. “But they had long since been stolen.”
Podgul says the soldiers had made themselves at home in people’s houses. He calls them Buryats. Buryatia is another autonomous republic in Siberia. But whether they were from Buryatia or, as previous investigations have found, from Tuva, for Podgul they were all the same: “Even the guys guarding us were afraid of them. There was constant stress because the Buryats were even more brutal than the other Russians. Sometimes they shot each other.”
Every now and then Podgul was allowed out to go and feed his cow. Anyone who was let out of the basement had to tie a white ribbon round their arm and be back within twenty minutes exactly, Julia Vertyenko says: “They said anyone who didn’t come back would be hunted down and shot.” The door to freedom was always barricaded. “We begged to be allowed out to the latrine in the schoolyard. Downstairs there was one bucket per room, it stank to high heaven.” If the soldiers had not had too much alcohol, a few people would be allowed out. “Everything depended on their mood. Food, water, life, death.”
The buckets quickly overflowed and the air became unbearable. “At some point they started letting us go outside to the toilets at eight o’clock every morning. Anyone who was allowed upstairs for the few minutes they gave us had to step, roll or climb over dozens of people.” One man who had fled from Donetsk to Yahidne to stay with relatives looked up at the sky for too long on his way across the yard to the toilet. “They thought he was checking military coordinates. So they shot him.” After that, everyone just looked straight ahead. Julia demonstrates, staring straight ahead, motionless. “But everything was dangerous.” A boy with a tattoo of a Ukrainian trident: shot. A man found on the street: shot.
Julia says she thought everyone was going to die. She and Ivan Podgul both remember the atmosphere down there among the crammed-in people, the constant shrieking and crying, the six-week-old baby whimpering in the corner to their right, the rows, the despair. It was all burned into their memories, forever. On one occasion, the Russians tried to drag one of their neighbours outside. “She resisted the rape so loudly, yelled so wildly, that we could hear her from the basement. They sent her back down. Unharmed, I think.”
And then, says Julia Vertyenko, people started dying, one by one. Someone kept a list on a whitewashed wall in the smallest room. To the left of the door were the names of those who had been shot. To the right, the names of those who had died due to the lack of the most basic necessities: air, food, water, safety. According to Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova at her press conference, ten people died in the school basement over the course of those four weeks, and sixteen were taken out and shot. “We were only allowed to carry the bodies up to a boiler room next to the school every few days,” says Ivan Podgul. “That’s how long they were left lying among us. Every now and then, some of them would be buried somewhere outside the school wall.”
“It sounds strange,” says Julia Vertyenko, “but sometimes I didn’t know where I would be safer: here in the middle of this starving crowd of people I knew? Or out in the open air, among armed Russians and under constant fire? In a perverse way, the basement was also a shelter.”
At some point, after an eternity that ended on the last day of March, a soldier came into the cellar. They were pulling out, he shouted. The Russians were still blowing up an ammunition depot in the pine forest behind the school, and it had been hellishly noisy for hours, as if the world was coming to an end. Then everything fell quiet. “We looked outside through a hole in the door. Then some brave person opened the door. Total silence. For a short time the only thing you could hear was the wind,” says Julia Vertyenko. Then you could hear the noise of battle again in the distance. The tanks of the occupiers were gone. The trenches they had built around the school were empty. It was only hours later that the first Ukrainian soldiers arrived in the village.
The inhabitants of Yahidne go on living with these images in their heads. The fear is slow to fade, say Julia Vertyenko, and later a kind of self-loathing was added to it. Almost four weeks without washing, almost four weeks in the same shoes, the same underwear, emaciated, covered in lice. “The first time I took my clothes off, my skin came off with them.” Everyone, she says, had scabies afterwards, or eczema.
Now, a few months on, everything seems peaceful. Everything is green and lush; a woman goes by on a bicycle. As if this were a normal village. Along the dusty roads there is the smell of elderflower. The cherries are on the verge of ripeness, pears and walnuts are still small and green, cornflowers and lupins are blooming in the gardens. A solitary rooster struts across the street. Nearly all the houses are damaged: some just have a hole in their roof, of others only the chimney remains.
The deputy mayor, Mykola Rudenok, has heard there is a journalist in the village and rushes over. He tells us that seventeen villages have been merged as part of a territorial reform, but that there is no money anywhere, the war has left almost all the inhabitants without employment, and there is a lot to do. Yahidne is now famous, for tragic reasons, but the other villages have been partially destroyed by the Russians too. “We didn’t know that more than 300 people were being held in a basement,” says Rudenok. “But what could we have done in any case? We were totally powerless ourselves.”
After the liberation, four buses set off to Khmelnytskyi Oblast, to the west, but many of the villagers who left on them came back again later. Rudenok says there is still a fear that Putin’s men will return, and that there has been a “steady nervousness” throughout the area ever since the enemy was driven out by the Ukrainian army.
At the end of June, a few days after our visit to Yahidne, Belarus-based Russian missiles are again fired at the nearby city of Chernihiv and the villages around it. Bombs fall on Kyiv, on Kharkiv, on a shopping mall in Kremenchuk. The Kremlin’s message is clear: the frontline is everywhere.
But things are moving forward: everywhere in the village people are building, polishing, hammering. Volunteers from the aid organisation Dobrobat have come to Yahidne from all over the country to help: a washing machine repairman from the Donetsk district, a carpenter from Dnipro. NGOs are sending doctors and psychologists. Julia Vertyenko and Ivan Podgul have accepted the offer of talking therapy. “It can’t do any harm to talk about what this has done to us,” Julia says.
And now? Ever since it happened there have been fierce, bitter fallings-out, in the street, between neighbours. Arguments about donations, arguments about which roof should be repaired first. A church aid organisation has driven a van up to the cultural centre, now in total ruins, and helpers are handing out bags containing oil, maize and flour. Women bicker, men shout, children push. Julia Vertyenko has got hold of two bags of food for her family and her father, and is carrying them home along the village street. “There’s been a lot of envy since it happened,” she says. “The atmosphere has been poisoned. For too long we saw too many terrible, intimate things about each other.” Does she hate the Russians for it? “Hate? No. But they took our health, destroyed our lives. It’s more that I despise them.”
In mid-June, the BBC’s Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg asked Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about the Ukraine war in a long interview that covered, among other things, the crimes in Yahidne. Russian officials, too, had investigated the allegations against their soldiers, whom the Ukrainian side accuses of war crimes in the tiny village. According to the Kremlin, no wrongdoing was found. The wife of one of the soldiers from Tuva had also first told a Radio Liberty reporter who had contacted her via social media that her husband could not hurt a fly. She later denied that he had ever even been in Yahidne.
Rosenberg now asked Lavrov quite specifically: Holding up to 360 people, some of them children, elderly or disabled, in a basement for a month – was this “fighting the Nazis”?
At first, Lavrov dismissed the claim as fake news, but the interviewer pressed him further: Was everyone in Yahidnelying? Lavrov conceded that “Russia is not squeaky clean.” On the contrary: “Russia is what it is. And we are not ashamed to show who we are.” And it sounded as if he was proud of it.
Translation by Paula Kirby / Voxeurop.