Homes and lives destroyed in northern Ukraine
The people we met were astonishing. Strong and indomitable, they go on living despite their personal tragedies. They argue as they line up at the village council building to talk to us. They buy land for farming although the war continues. They brew tea and drink it with candies to keep warm since there’s no heating. They carry on trading from a small store: a generator was recently installed there and now they have light and are no longer afraid.
Distant explosions alarm them although they know that these are local bomb-disposal experts at work. They’ve returned home from abroad and gone back to work. At times they may weep, but they are alive. And they laugh, sincerely and desperately. We came from Kyiv, which today is relatively unharmed, and felt ashamed of our occasional moments of depression because there’s no electric light or shells fall from time to time.
This article is about such people and for them. How they survived and what they suffered. A line of such people forms in the morning to talk to KHPG lawyers. Each person has known tragedy. They all come from the Ivanovka district, the part of the Chernihiv Region that suffered most during the invasion.
The son of the first woman standing in line was shot before her eyes. On 24 February Russian soldiers entered their yard, pointed a gun at him and shot him dead. They did not exchange a word with him. He was not a soldier, a policeman or even an activist. The only reason they picked on him was because he was a man. Like a few others, she agreed to give an interview. She wants the whole world to know her story.
Another woman came in with her little daughter. The girl is only a year and eleven months old: her father died six months ago simply for going out into the street. He was shot because he was Ukrainian. The woman cuddles her child and feeds her sweets from the village council secretary’s table. At first sight she appears quite normal, a pretty and happy woman. Unless, that is, you see what’s written in the documents in the folder.
Another woman told us how her daughter and two grandsons tried to escape from their occupied village. They thought they had found a safe way out, but they were wrong and now their mother and grandmother is all on her own. Who will she live with now, we ask? She begins to cry … There’s no one left.
These victims show us pictures taken by the police of their dead relatives. Some of them were present during the exhumation of their bodies. It’s hard to imagine how they can view such photos and show them to us without crying. The relatives of some were buried in the garden but not immediately, only when the invaders allowed it. “It’s a good thing March was cold this year,” comments one man.
Next in line is a 76-year-old granny. Her constant jokes have the whole queue in stitches. When her village was shelled, she was severely wounded, but she jokes about that as well. She always amuses those around her and even dances, they say, when she walks outside. She’s known to the whole village and the local children adore her.
Another wounded woman describes how the Russians took her husband to Belarus to be treated. In wonder, she recounts how the doctors there released them with a discharge note in Ukrainian, on which they had added “Glory to Ukraine”.
Foreign surgeons miraculously saved another woman’s leg, but she complained that a local trauma surgeon refused to fill out the forms for her to be classified as disabled: he wanted a bribe first, she claimed.
Our lawyers and monitors worked until nightfall and even in the dark because the electric light was cut several times during our work. It was very cold in the council building: there was no heating and the windows, smashed during fighting in the village, had not been repaired. A Russian shell destroyed the club building next door, but the village council survived.
Why had the glass in the windows not been replaced? The chairwoman said that it was not worth doing when many of her fellow villagers could not reglaze their own windows. She was truly concerned for her village, you could tell; she’d suffered herself but did not want to talk about it.
After we finished recording what the villagers had to say, we went to assess the damage to buildings in the area. Travelling around the district took some time. Six villages had suffered in particular. It took almost an entire day to examine them. At first sight, it seemed that they had not been particularly damaged but no less than 271 homes in the district were totally destroyed and an equal number suffered partial damage. Over the preceding six months people had repaired a great deal but they would be unlikely to restore everything: some houses were no longer fit for human habitation.
People walk about the villages and watch with interest what we are doing. They don’t ask questions, however. They know that guests have come from Kharkiv, and show their traditional goodwill towards guests, offering them hot cups of tea and dishes of potatoes.
Finally, late at night on the road back to Chernihiv we reach a road-block. One of the soldiers carefully checks the documents of our team while his fellows throw snowballs at one another. A freezing rain is falling, and the road is covered with ice; they slide about, laugh and continue their game. Looking them and at all the people in the Chernihiv Region you realise that our country will not be defeated. We have learned how to live life to the full even in wartime. Even after the tragedies we have suffered.