In shattered Chernihiv, Russian siege leaves a city asking, ‘Why?’

‘We don’t know what we did to deserve this,’ says one resident

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Women with bicycles pass a damaged church in the village of Lukashivka, near Chernihiv, Ukraine, on April 4. The church was partially incinerated after a Ukrainian drone strike hit a pile of weapons next to it.
Women with bicycles pass a damaged church in the village of Lukashivka, near Chernihiv, Ukraine, on April 4. The church was partially incinerated after a Ukrainian drone strike hit a pile of weapons next to it. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

CHERNIHIV, Ukraine — This city endured weeks of Russian siege, but just barely.

Officials here, 90 miles north of Kyiv, buried hundreds of civilians in makeshift coffins and hastily dug trenches. Families held mass funerals, fearing they could be killed if they lingered in the cemetery. Water and electricity were almost entirely cut off, and no aid could come in.

More than half of the city’s prewar population of 300,000 fled. Those who stayed behind spent much of the last five weeks huddled underground as Russian forces pounded residential neighborhoods with missiles and mortar fire. The civilian death toll remains unclear, but Mayor Vladyslav Atroshenko said at times the city buried up to 100 people in a single day.

“They were not fighting the army here,” he said in an interview from his office in the city’s historic center, which was damaged when two missiles struck nearby on Feb. 27. “They were bombing civilians.”

Chernihiv, a regional capital, is the largest Ukrainian city besieged by Russian troops to come back under complete Ukrainian control, though residents are preparing for what they fear could be a Russian return in the coming days.

On Monday, the first day a route from Kyiv to Chernihiv reopened, Washington Post reporters interviewed local people who provided accounts of atrocities that echo those emerging in other cities Russians have occupied, from Kyiv’s suburbs to wide swaths of the country’s east and south that remain under Russian control.

Residents here described violence and brutality by soldiers that added to the growing litany of potential Russian war crimes committed during the war in Ukraine.

A mother and father of three children describe the suffering inflicted on them by Russian forces during the occupation of their village near Chernihiv. (Video: Jon Gerberg, Alice Li/The Washington Post)

Russian troops arrived outside Chernihiv soon after the war’s start, only having to travel 45 miles by road from the border with Belarus, where they had been stationed. But the Ukrainian military managed to keep them outside the city, even though it was fully encircled.

Villages ringing Chernihiv became the front line. Locals said Russian troops repeatedly and indiscriminately deployed cluster munitions, and inflicted extreme brutality. On Monday, remnants of those weapons littered fields outside the city, alongside dozens of burned-out Russian and Ukrainian tanks and military transport vehicles.

Residents of one village near Chernihiv said that on Sunday and Monday they buried 12 civilians and that humanitarian workers removed more than 100 bodies, mostly of soldiers, both Russian and Ukrainian. They said most of the Russians were pulled from a century-old church they had been using as a place to sleep. It had been partially incinerated after a Ukrainian drone strike hit a pile of weapons next to it.

And in the city, where it was finally safe to do so, another 56 bodies were moved out of a morgue on Monday and buried in a trench.

Unlike in towns outside Kyiv such as Irpin and Bucha, where there is a sense that Russian forces have abandoned their push on the capital, officials in Chernihiv fear that Russian troops are simply regrouping and may soon be back at the city’s edge.

The last Russians left the city’s vicinity only a few days ago, said Viacheslav Chaus, the head of Chernihiv’s military administration. He added that the military was trying to quickly establish and secure aid and evacuation corridors that it was calling “roads of life,” in anticipation of a Russian return.

“We don’t have that feeling of peace or calm here because the Russians can come back as quickly as they left,” Atroshenko, the city’s mayor, said. “I don’t even understand the future of the war — whether this is the end of war for us or if we just need to repair water and electricity before another attack.”

The mayor was working in his third-floor office when a missile landed just outside.

His windows shattered, sending glass flying through the room. He dove to the floor before escaping outside. Another missile struck soon after. The two attacks damaged a children’s dentist’s office across the street and a historic cinema next door. The strikes also left Atroshenko convinced Russian forces intended to assassinate him.

On Monday, he surveyed the scene of damage outside his office and described how he now keeps his phone on airplane mode, to make it harder to track. He changes locations regularly and sleeps close to three bodyguards tasked with keeping him alive.

When he was first elected mayor in 2015, he never imagined his duties would include finding refrigerator trucks for morgues to preserve the unidentified dead. He never pictured Russian troops occupying the city’s main cemetery on its outskirts.

The strike on the mayor’s office came as Russians intensified their shelling, spurring many residents to flee to surrounding villages where they had extended family, hoping they might escape the worst of the battle for the city.

But facing stiff resistance, Russian troops were only able to encircle Chernihiv. That meant once-bucolic villages on the city’s perimeter, like tiny Lukashivka, were not a safe haven. Instead, they endured weeks of fierce artillery battles punctuated by Russian cluster bombing.

Cluster munitions, which disperse “bomblets” across a large area, are banned under a United Nations convention. So many cluster munition carriers littered the village that in the days since the Russians withdrew, residents had stacked them in piles.

By March 9, Lukashivka — former population 288 — had come under control of a Russian battalion led by a man known as Titan, who residents said terrorized them with vicious beatings and mock executions.

Alexey Pavliuk, 26, described one incident in which Titan and two other soldiers stormed into his house, dragged him and a friend into the backyard, hung them by their arms with rope from a tree branch and stripped them naked before pressing guns to their chests.

“It was below freezing, but I didn’t even notice,” Pavliuk said. “I was saying goodbye to life.”

The soldiers left them hanging while they rifled through Pavliuk’s house and stole everything of value, Pavliuk said. Then, unexpectedly, they cut the ropes.

The harassment became a daily routine. Residents said they were lined up and had their phones and passports confiscated. Others said Russian soldiers stole even their carpets and pillows.

“They put our mattresses on top of their tank and drove away with them,” Iryna Horbonos said. “After that we slept on the cold floor of our basement cellar for three weeks.”

Much of the violence was gratuitous.

As Russian losses in the village mounted, the violence against civilians worsened. Titan found Horbonos’s father-in-law, Anatoly, 70, walking one evening. Anatoly recalled how Titan forced him to guzzle from his vodka bottle, then slammed his rifle butt into his stomach twice, rendering the old man unconscious.

“We’ve lost 30 men today, so now you will suffer for it,” he remembered hearing Titan say before he lost consciousness.

On a cattle farm on the edge of the village that Russian troops took over from Ukrainians who had been using it as a defensive position, Titan’s men executed dozens of cows and calves, shooting them in their throats and eyes at point-blank range and even beheading some, leaving the heads in a pile. Residents described the killings as violence for its own sake.

The carcasses of the cattle had been rotting for a week before Olla Korobka entered their holding pen on Monday with Iryna Horbonos and her son, Nikita, 25. They rescued the only survivor, one barely alive calf stuck under the rubble.

“This is Titan’s work, too,” Korobka said.

Inside the city, as the siege dragged on, volunteers risked their lives to deliver water. Using a portable generator, they let desperate residents charge their phones to call family to confirm they were still alive. Despite their efforts, many residents died not only from shelling but because they were unable to access essential medicines, hospital employees said.

Town by town, Ukrainian prosecutors build Russian war crimes cases

Many of those wounded in Russian attacks inside the city remain inside Chernihiv City Hospital No. 2 — their families often staying there with them because their homes were destroyed.

Bohdan Rozhylo, 40, who leads the hospital’s trauma unit, said the past month has been “the hardest of my life.”

His patients include Volodymyr Shyk, who on March 16 joined a queue of some 100 civilians waiting in line for bread. After around an hour of waiting, Shyk said, intense shelling hit the wall of the supermarket, throwing him to the ground. Shrapnel tore through his knee and broke his shin.

“I saw blood everywhere,” he said. “Twelve people didn’t stand up. They were killed instantly.” Bystanders helped evacuate him and dozens of others who were wounded to the hospital.

But even there, they had no respite.

The next day, Russian shelling and mortar fire struck the hospital, shattering windows and doors, filling the corridors with smoke and wounding some patients and staff in what hospital director Vladyslav Kukhar said he believes was an intentional attack. Russian forces have repeatedly struck hospitals throughout the country.

“I am 63 years old and have never witnessed such a thing,” Shyk said of the two attacks. “I would classify it as an atrocity against civilians.”

Medical workers picked shards of glass out of the faces, arms and legs of civilians wounded in the bread line. On Monday, the windows of the hospital remained boarded up and artillery damage was visible on the walls and ceilings inside.

The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine issued a statement decrying the March 16 attack, accusing Russian forces of killing at least 10 civilians. Russian officials said footage of victims amounted to a “hoax launched by the Ukrainian Security Service.”

On Monday, Shyk lay in a hospital bed, surrounded by other civilian men wounded in the city. One had been struck with shrapnel while bringing fresh produce to his wife. Another said a cluster munition landed a few feet from him while he delivered water to civilians.

Gregory Liudnyi, 63, had just biked home from a food handout around 7:30 p.m. on March 4 when he heard explosions in the distance. Rockets struck a telephone pole outside his house, sending a hail of shrapnel flying toward him.

More than a month later, he remains in the hospital — his right leg amputated at the knee despite two surgeries to try to save it. The brutality of the war has left him with “a hard feeling in my soul,” he said. To find work with just one leg, he said, will be nearly impossible.

In the bed next to him lay Valentyn Osypenko. On March 15, he and his wife, Svitlana, heard the roar of a jet pass over their house on the outskirts of town. With the power out, no air raid sirens went off. Still, they fled outside with their son and two neighbors to try to reach a nearby shelter. But they became trapped outside just as three cluster munitions fell in their backyard.

They covered their son, Ruslan, 17, with their own bodies. He escaped without injury, but the parents were both badly wounded.

Ruslan had to apply a tourniquet to his father’s leg as they waited for a ride to the hospital. One of their friends lay dead beside them.

“I think it was intentional that they hit civilian targets,” Valentyn said, showing the wounds to his right leg that remained covered in bloody bandages weeks later. “Our house is destroyed, our car is burned down.”

Svitlana, whose foot was broken, hobbled into Valentyn’s room on crutches and sat beside Ruslan on the next bed.

“We don’t know what we did to deserve this,” she said.

At the morgue behind the hospital, 13 bodies remained unclaimed in a refrigerator truck Monday, wrapped in blankets and plastic sheets. The victims still wore the clothes they were killed in — boots, sweaters, a black winter coat. A passport lay on one’s chest.

Relatives have been unable to collect them, maybe because they fled, or are still too afraid to venture out into the city — or because they too were killed.

Just outside, row after row of empty plywood coffins sat waiting.

Jon Gerberg, Kostiantyn Khudov, Serhiy Morgunov, Serhii Korolchuk and Anastacia Galouchka contributed to this report.

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