‘We Are Still in Shock’: A Month Trapped by Russian Forces in a Basement

YAHIDNE, Ukraine — More than two months after the residents of Yahidne kicked down the bolted basement door where the Russian army had held them hostage, the village is being rebuilt but the memories remain fresh — and deeply painful.

On March 3, eight days after the full-scale invasion began, Russian forces swept into Yahidne, a village on the main road north of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. For nearly a month, until March 31, when Ukrainian troops liberated the town, more than 300 people, 77 of them children, were imprisoned in several rooms in the dank basement of the village school — a human shield for the Russian troops based there. Ten of the captives died. Among those held inside were a baby and a 93-year-old, Ukrainian prosecutors said.

“This is our concentration camp,” said Oleh Turash, 54, one of those imprisoned, who helped bury the people who perished there. For most of the time there was virtually no light. Despite the freezing winter weather, he said, people were packed in so tightly their body warmth was all the heat they needed.

Oleh Turash revisiting the basement where he was held.

But there was never enough oxygen to breathe normally, causing some people to black out and others, mainly older, to suffer hallucinations. “They would start babbling about the need to plant potatoes, and other things that they could not do,” said Ivan Petrovich, the school’s janitor.

Mr. Turash, 54, slept in the largest room. It had the only source of air, a tiny hole the people made themselves, Mr. Petrovich said. A bucket sat at the far side of the room, a makeshift toilet for children and others who could not wait until morning, when there was hope that the Russian soldiers would let people out to use the regular toilets.

A tally on the door of the largest room noted that 136 people had stayed there, nine of them children. Originally, the number had been 139, but that had been scratched out to reflect three deaths, Mr. Turash said.

The names of villagers held there were scrawled on the basement’s walls.

“Three people died around me,” said his 73-year-old mother, Valentyna. She had broken her right arm going down the stairs to the basement, but received no medical treatment. Her wrist is still swollen three months later.

“I am still in a lot of pain, and I can’t use my fingers as well as I used to,” she said.

She said the room she was in was so crowded there was no space for her to move.

“I spent 30 days just like this, hardly moving,” she said, squatting down low to the ground. “Twice, I lost consciousness because of the lack of oxygen, but my son banged on the door to get me out. Thank God I survived.”

Mr. Petrovich and Mr. Turash brought crayons for the children to draw. Inside, they drew a mural on the wall composed of Ukrainian flags, hearts, suns and butterflies. At the top, a child had written, “No War!!!”

Children’s crayon drawings in a room where some of the villagers were held. On the left, one of the children had written “No War!”

In a smaller room, about 25 by 10 feet, there was another amended body count: 22 people, including five children, had been written in pencil. Someone writing in navy blue crayon had changed the number to 18.

On one wall was a tally of the dead and the date they had died. One man, Anatoly Shevchenko, had a question mark next to his name. His fate is still a mystery.

Every few days, if the captives were lucky, the Russians would give them permission to take the bodies into the school’s boiler room, usually several at a time.

That was also where they got their drinking water.

The men would go through an opening and climb down a ladder to a sewer line, where they would fetch water used in normal times for the school’s heating system.

Once they got the water, they would boil it over the open flame that they used to cook, when they were allowed to.

“Imagine, there were dead bodies here on this table,” Mr. Turash said. “And just next to the corpses, we were boiling the water that we drank.”

Makeshift sleeping surfaces for some of the 300 villagers who were held in the basement.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

At one point the Russian soldiers conscripted Mr. Turash and others to dig a pit at least 10 feet deep next to the boiler room.

“I thought I was digging my own grave,” he said.

Instead, the Russians eventually installed a generator there.

Every week or so, after some negotiating, the soldiers would grant Mr. Turash permission to bury the deceased outside in a communal grave. They accompanied him, as they did all villagers who got permission to leave the basement, with their Kalashnikovs raised. The residents were able to get intermittent, and inconsistent, food supplies under soldiers’ watch.

Outside, the school was surrounded by Russian tank positions. The soldiers had felled trees from the forest behind the school and dug foxholes for themselves, stealing rugs from people’s homes to put inside the mud dwellings. Mr. Turash recognized his own boots on a soldier’s feet.

A destroyed Russian military vehicle near a damaged home in Yahidne.

The occupiers told some of the residents there were plans to bring them to Russia. “They told us, ‘The men will go to Tyumen to work in wood production and the women will be sent to another part of Russia to work cleaning fish,’” said Ekaterina Balanovych, referring to a city in western Siberia.

On March 30, when the Russian forces began retreating from the north, the soldiers locked everyone inside, bolted the door and ordered them not to leave.

That night the villagers broke down the door and quickly realized the Russians had left. But they could hear heavy fighting nearby, and most remained inside, waiting to be rescued.

But they found an old phone, Ms. Balanovych said, and someone was able to reach one of the Ukrainian troops.

“When our boys arrived, we were so happy, we hugged them, and we cried,” she said. “They brought bread. We hadn’t seen a crumb of bread for a month.”

More than two months later, however, Yahidne is far from back to normal. The school is badly damaged, perhaps beyond repair. The wrecked tanks and armored vehicles have been towed away but the evidence of the occupation — underground dwellings, recently extinguished fires and the scattered belongings of those forced to live in the basement — remain.

A destroyed vehicle and battered house in Yahidne.

Some, like Mr. Petrovich, appear to be suffering depression or some form of PTSD. “After two months, we are still in shock,” he said. “There is so much work to do at home still, but you can’t lift your hand. It is scary.”

Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments

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The battle for Sievierodonetsk. As vicious street-by-street combat continues in the eastern city, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has described the battle for its control as a crucial moment in the war. Last week, Ukrainian forces appeared to withdraw from Sievierodonetsk, only to later mount a counterattack.

Prisoners of war. Russian investigators said they had opened more than 1,100 cases into “crimes against peace” committed by the Ukrainian government, paving the way for what could turn into a mass show trial of hundreds of Ukrainian service members. Two Britons and a Moroccan who had fought for the Ukrainian armed forces, meanwhile, were sentenced to death by a court in Russia-occupied eastern Ukraine after being accused of being mercenaries.

Power consolidation. As Russia continues to pound towns and villages across eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin is trying to deepen its hold on occupied territory in the south, restoring rail links and other key infrastructure to secure a “land bridge” from Russia to the Crimean Peninsula.

E.U. membership for Ukraine. Ukraine’s prime minister said that the European Parliament recommended that Ukraine be granted candidate status for membership in the European Union. The E.U.’s decision on Ukraine’s candidacy, which is expected in late June, will put to the test the bloc as it tries to figure out ways to bind vulnerable countries like Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia to Europe without creating security risks.

There is still a lot of cleaning up to do. “There is not a single house here where there was no tank or armored personnel carrier standing,” said Valentyna Sezonenko, 75, who found partly unexploded ordnance on the road in front of her house. Houses across the street and next door had been razed.

On a street next to the village’s destroyed events hall, volunteers from the capital were putting new roofs on apartment buildings. A shell from a cluster munition lay nearby.

“My soul hurts,” said Nina Shish, who managed to flee Yahidne hours before it was occupied only to be trapped in a basement by Russians in a neighboring village.

As soon as she returned to Yahidne, she went to see the local school, where she had worked and where her granddaughter had been in kindergarten.

“I have no words for my grief, the school was so beautiful before,” she said. “Now, students won’t learn there any more.”

She took a plant stand with a spider plant home and put it in her building’s hallway as a memento.

Volunteer construction workers installing wooden beams on the roof of a building damaged during shelling in March in Yahidne.

On Wednesday, Ukraine’s chief prosecutor announced eight new war crimes cases, including one against nine Russian soldiers accused of terrorizing Yahidne.

“Unfortunately, these people are not located here physically, and we are going for an in absentia trial, but it is very important for us, for Ukrainian justice, for the victims and their relatives to have this legal process,” the prosecutor general, Irina Venediktova, wrote on Facebook on Wednesday.

While Russia denies that its soldiers have committed war crimes, Ukraine has already sentenced three soldiers for related offenses. Most of the soldiers named by Ms. Venediktova come from Tuva, a remote province in southeastern Siberia.

On the road locals call Fourth Street, Ludmila Shevchenko was tending her garden. She had already buried one son, Vitaliy, 53, who was shot by the Russians in the early days of the occupation.

And she was worried about her other son, Anatoly, the man with the question mark next to his name on the list in the basement.

“I don’t know if he is alive or dead,” she said, resting against the pockmarks of the damaged house.

“I don’t know if the commander will be tried,” she said. “But I want to ask him, ‘Where is my son, Anatoly Shevchenko?’”

Evelina Riabenko contributed reporting.

Ludmila Shevchenko. Her son Anatoly is still missing.

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