Ukrainian villagers describe cruel and brutal Russian occupation

Alla Shapovalovna recounts the terror of a Russian air bombardment that destroyed her home, on March 31 in Kashpero-Mykolaivka, Ukraine.
Alla Shapovalovna recounts the terror of a Russian air bombardment that destroyed her home, on March 31 in Kashpero-Mykolaivka, Ukraine. (The Washington Post)

LOTSKYNE, Ukraine — When the Russian soldiers came to town, they went door to door confiscating residents’ guns, cellphones and sometimes even their homes. They asked everyone to identify the “Nazis” in the neighborhood, also referring to them as “Banderites” — a group of Ukrainian nationalists formed during World War II.

Then, in one southern Ukrainian village, the Russians stormed through the front yard of a 59-year-old math teacher and took him away in their armored vehicle, his wife said.

Tatiana Bozhiko said they accused her husband, Serhii, of sympathizing with Ukraine’s right-wing Azov Battalion. But Serhii never served in the military or belonged to any militias, she said. Tatiana suspected his real crime was that he had the most pro-Ukrainian viewpoints in town and didn’t hide them.

When Tatiana saw her husband the next day, his face was covered in bruises and his arm was in a sling, she said. He had been shot in the elbow. The Russians still didn’t release him.

“They promised me he’d be home in the evening,” she said.

The city of Mykolaiv has been defended fiercely by Ukrainian forces blocking Russia’s attempts to advance toward the strategically key Black Sea port of Odessa, about 70 miles to the southwest. When Russian forces couldn’t go through Mykolaiv last month, they tried to go around it, storming into an area of small, rural towns north of the city.

From top: Tatiana Bozhiko visits her husband's grave in Lotskyne, Ukraine. A Russian shell casing in the village of Kashpero-Mykolaivka. A Russian military uniform next to trenches dug by the Russians outside Vynohradivka, Ukraine. A Russian truck with the “Z” symbol that was destroyed by Ukrainian forces. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Russians arrived in columns of armored vehicles and occupied these hamlets for about 10 days before Ukrainian military forces ejected them. In interviews with The Washington Post in recent days, residents recounted how they were terrorized by their new Russian overlords. Their stories offer a glimpse of abuse and violence against unarmed civilians that could be used as evidence in potential war crimes cases against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military.

Similar stories have been emerging in recent days from areas around Kyiv that were under Russian control until recently. In places like Irpin and Bucha, residents are also describing abuse, torture and killings at the hands of occupying Russian soldiers.

Villagers here in the Mykolaiv area said soldiers repeatedly threatened them at gunpoint. They broke into the stores and looted ice cream and produce, locals said. Some people said their cars were stolen. Others described the soldiers forcing them out of their homes so they could live there.

Everyone had a story about the Russians searching for people the Kremlin and Putin have claimed are fascists — part of Moscow’s false propaganda that was used to justify starting an unprovoked war against Ukraine. People in the villages said they told the soldiers there were no Nazis there.

In Lotskyne, a farming village of some 2,000 people, Tatiana Bozhiko continued searching for her husband even after the Russians suddenly left the area on March 18. Her neighbors found his dead body buried the next morning. She said they spotted the grave because one broken arm was sticking up from the freshly piled mound of dirt.

Serhii’s corpse was so mangled that the local doctor didn’t let his wife see it. Her son, Volodya, said pictures of the body he reviewed later showed that Serhii had multiple gunshot wounds and broken limbs, indicating that he was probably tortured before he was killed.

Tatiana stood next to her husband’s grave in the cemetery, where his body had been reburied. She wore a black shawl over her hair, her hands clasped together over her heart, as she spoke to a reporter in a whisper.

“We were supposed to celebrate his 60th birthday in a few months,” she said. “Instead, there’s a funeral.”

[Ukraine’s Mykolaiv holds the line against Russian forces and delays assault on Odessa]

‘New authorities’

On March 12, Svetlana Fedurko nervously peered out her bedroom window as four soldiers with machine guns approached her door. When she greeted them, her hands were clenched in fists in her pockets. She must have looked scared, she said, because the first thing they told her was not to worry.

“We’re the new authorities here,” she said they told her. “We have come to restore order.”

“Do we have disorder?” she replied.

“Well, we want you to live better,” she said they told her.

Fedurko said the soldiers identified themselves as being from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic — a Russian-led separatist area in eastern Ukraine. They seemed to already know that she was the Lotskyne village head, a position similar to that of a mayor but without any legislative power. Another woman, Natalia, said she also got the impression that the soldiers generally knew who everyone in town was and where they lived.

Fedurko had the most interaction with the soldiers. They asked her how many children lived in the area and who owned firearms. They came to her house every morning and again every night, she said. The morning visits were to give her tasks and the evening ones were to see if she had completed them.

One of the things the soldiers asked Fedurko to do was distribute “humanitarian aid,” she said, but that was just potatoes and onions the soldiers had stolen from some of the farmers in town. Often with a gun pointed at her, she said, they instructed her to do things such as find a water supply and help them force an industrial grain mill to make bread for them.

“I don’t have any cell service, so how do you expect me to look for this?” she asked them. She said they responded that she had one night to figure it out.

Soldiers from the Russian military arrived three days after the separatist forces, Fedurko said. They forced her to open the filing cabinets at the town hall and confiscated documents inside. They never took down the Ukrainian flag hanging in front of the building, as they normally do to demonstrate that they are in charge. No one knew why they didn’t this time.

From top: Small farming villages north of Mykolaiv were occupied by Russians. A bombed building next to a playground. A woman named Natalia in Lotskyne describes the occupation. Svetlana Fedurko, the village head, recounts her pain at not being able to protect her neighbors. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Then one day, an armored personnel carrier pulled up to the front of her house, she said, and the soldiers told her that their commanding officer wanted to speak to her. The Russians had found a gun and two magazines for it in the home of one man in the village. Fedurko had repeatedly told the soldiers that eight people in town had permits for hunting rifles, but this individual wasn’t on that list. Now they held her responsible.

They interrogated her for more than three hours, she said. It turned out the man had received the gun when the government offered weapons to everyone who wanted one to help defend the country. But it had never been fired. Fedurko pleaded with the soldiers to let him go. The commander responded that he’d think about it, she said. But, he insisted, “the old man, we won’t let go.”

That was the first time Fedurko heard that someone else had been taken captive by the Russians. She asked for the name of the “old man,” but the officer would say only that he was “a drug addict.”

“There are no drug addicts in the village,” she said.

Only after his corpse was discovered did Fedurko realize that the “old man” the Russian mentioned was her friend and neighbor Serhii Bozhiko, with whom she had worked at the local school for nearly a decade.

“This was a person who never did any harm to anyone,” Fedurko said. “He was a teacher, not just for the kids but for all of us.”

With Ukraine’s forces closing in, the Russians left town about a week after they arrived. There was no battle for the village; the soldiers stole several residents’ cars, buses and even tractors on their way out.

“I feel guilt because I couldn’t protect my people,” Fedurko said, holding back tears. “They took everything they could.”

‘You could hear their screams’

About 30 miles northwest of Lotskyne, Russian aircraft dropped at least four bombs near one residential area in the village of Kashpero-Mykolaivka. Three landed in a field where cows typically graze. The impact left craters that were about 12 feet deep. The shock waves splintered walls of houses. A whole street is now in ruins. One woman died from the blasts, local residents said in interviews.

People saved some of the twisted metal shrapnel as evidence. One of the pieces weighed more than 20 pounds.

Over the next three days, columns of Russian military vehicles packed with troops crossed the small bridge over the Hromoklia River. They parked their tanks on cropland. The town of 700 people had been invaded by “thousands” of soldiers, residents said.

Several miles of unpaved roads lead into the town from east and west, giving it a middle-of-nowhere feel. Locals said they got the impression the soldiers were lost. They had paper maps for the neighboring Kherson region but none for the Mykolaiv area where they were, people said.

But the Russians settled in for 10 days. They dug defensive trenches in the nearby forest, around the village’s “House of Culture” — a small community center — and beside a children’s playground. They parked their armored vehicles in fields and in an abandoned warehouse.

Green paper lunchboxes with “Russian Army” printed on them are still scattered around town. One woman saved hers — she said she now stores dog food in it.

From top: Part of a Russian tank that was blown apart during a Ukrainian rocket attack in Kashpero-Mykolaivka. An unexploded shell head in a front yard in the village. A dog passes in front of a destroyed home. A man surveys a home damaged by a bomb. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

The soldiers turned the town’s school into their headquarters. When they first arrived, they detained all the men and made them line up against a wall with their hands behind their backs and their eyes looking at the floor. They asked each one if they owned any weapons. Those who admitted they had unregistered guns were beaten, multiple people said.

“You could hear their screams,” said Ivan, who like others interviewed offered only his first name out of fear for his safety.

Soldiers ransacked houses and took everything, including children’s toys, clothes, and kitchen pots and pans, residents said. Some said the Russians killed their chickens for food. Serhiy, who lives near the school in Kashpero-Mykolaivka and owns a small store, has a bullet hole in his bedroom window and where his front-door knob used to be. The Russian soldiers shot it off before telling him they planned to live there, he said, forcing him and his wife to move to the basement for 10 days.

Serhiy’s car — a new Mitsubishi SUV — was parked in the garage. One night, he said, the soldiers broke the lock off and shot out the windshield. The dashboard is still covered with shattered glass, and there are bullet holes in the hood. The garage wall has dents where bullets ricocheted.

Some residents wrote “People live here” on their front gates. They were concerned that the Russians were using them as human shields. Whenever the Ukrainian military approached, the Russian soldiers would move their armored vehicles onto residential streets and into driveways.

[Ukraine’s Mykolaiv has held off Russian forces. Bodies are piling up anyway.]

“They knew that if their equipment was in the neighborhood and next to our houses, our soldiers wouldn’t shell,” said Alla Shapovalovna, whose house was destroyed in the first Russian air bombardment. A few days after she moved to a relative’s house, artillery hit there, too. Some shrapnel smashed the window and hit the wall next to where she and her children were sleeping.

From top: Geese cross the road in Kashpero-Mykolaivka. Neighbors embrace outside their damaged homes. Alla Shapovalovna describes a Russian bombardment. A home damaged by a bomb. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Yuri, a medic, said the soldiers visited him “five times a day” demanding to know who was “the coordinator.” Yuri said they were paranoid that someone in the village was revealing their positions to Kyiv’s forces, even though the soldiers confiscated residents’ cellphones and SIM cards on the first day of their occupation.

“They told us that if they found out we were hiding a phone, they would shoot me without asking any questions,” Shapovalovna said.

Shapovalovna said over and over that she was afraid no one would believe her and the other villagers. In interviews, she begged Post journalists to tell their stories to the world.

Just as in other nearby villages, the soldiers appeared to be searching for Ukrainian nationalists. One history teacher was accused of being a sympathizer because Russians found a “History of Ukraine” textbook when they searched her home. Other residents explained that it was part of the school curriculum, and the soldiers let her go.

Some people said the Russians asked them if they knew where the “Nazis dressed in black” were in the neighborhood.

“The soldier must have seen the bewildered look on my face,” said Nadezhda, a retiree. “He was like, ‘All right then, we’ll ask the next house.’”

‘If only I had known’

In Lotskyne, Tatiana and Serhii Bozhiko were working on remodeling their home when the war started. They were worried about what would happen if the Russians came to town. Serhii’s social media didn’t hide his ardent pro-Ukrainian stance, which they knew could cause them trouble with the Russians. But Tatiana’s mother is disabled, so they chose to stay in town anyway.

Along with accusing Serhii of being a member of the Azov Battalion, the Russian soldiers were angry that he had taken grenades and ammunition out of one of their abandoned military vehicles as trophy keepsakes, Tatiana said. But they didn’t release him even after he returned them. Others in the neighborhood had also taken some items from the deserted armored personnel carriers, Tatiana said, but Serhii had been singled out.

She was allowed to see him after he was beaten and shot in the arm. She then returned home and gathered some medical supplies to treat his wound so that it wouldn’t get infected. But when she went back to where he was, he was gone. She rode her bike from one end of town to the other, stopping by the Russian trench positions and the headquarters in various abandoned buildings. They either told her they didn’t know where her husband was or to come back later.

The next morning, the Russians were gone. Still no word of Serhii.

“We didn’t even know what direction they went in, but I still thought that maybe they just took him with them,” Tatiana said. “I was trying to think of how we could look for the car that he was in.”

The marker on Serhii’s grave at the town’s cemetery says he died on March 18. But Tatiana doesn’t know exactly when her husband was killed — it could’ve been earlier, when soldiers were still assuring her that he would soon be home.

As she stood over his grave last week, she cried about how sweet a grandfather he was — stern but cheerful. She regretted that when the Russians first dragged him away, she didn’t pay enough attention to what he was wearing. She should have checked that he was dressed warmly enough, she said.

“If only I had known that was the last time I was going to see him,” she said. “But now I’m going to be like him. I’m not going to keep silent either.”

Story by Isabelle Khurshudyan. Photos by Michael Robinson Chavez. Oleg Oganov contributed to this report.

Updated April 4, 2022

War in Ukraine: What you need to know