Saturday, June 25, 2022

Amidst death, destruction and Russian atrocities, the inhabitants of Chernihiv never gave up

Nina Pinchuk examines the soup prepared to feed hundreds of people who are sheltering from Russian bombings at bomb shelters in Chernihiv, Ukraine. ‘When it got louder, we bowed down – but we kept on cooking,’ she says.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Beneath the classrooms of a vocational school, hundreds of Ukrainians cling to life in the darkness of an unlit boxing gym for weeks as Russian forces surrounded their city, blasting it with rockets and bombs.

At one time about 500 people took shelter at this place. In Chernihiv, a city without electricity or running water, during the winter months when many houses did not have heat.

He made candles out of sunflower oil, pieces of cloth and sardines. They sat on mattresses next to the boxing-ring ropes playing Monopoly and playing cards. They divided into teams, each with their own leader, and divided tasks: cleaning the basement. Maintenance of excavated outhouse in school grounds. Emptying room utensils provided for children and people with mobility problems. Sourcing water from a nearby river.

And he cooked.

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Across the street from the school, Nina Pinchuk and Lydmila Solokhnenko feed hundreds of people from three pots standing on concrete blocks over a wood fire. They boiled pasta and made soup out of sliced ​​potatoes, shredded carrots and lentils as rockets screamed overhead and mortar shells crashed into the surrounding town.

“When it got louder, we bowed out – but we kept on cooking,” said pizzeria cook Ms. Pinchuk. Once, the attacks on a nearby military base were so close that they lay on the ground in fear. The second time, a rocket hit a nearby house, leaving shrapnel in the neighborhood.

Still, he kept the pots running. “We are here cooking for the children,” said Ms. Solokhnenko, who worked as a cleaner at a military base before the war. “If we didn’t cook, I don’t know how it would all end.”

Amidst death, destruction and Russian atrocities, the inhabitants of Chernihiv never gave up

Marina Momot displays a candle made using sunflower oil, pieces of cloth and a sardine can inside a bomb shelter in Chernihiv.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Chernihiv, a city of 250,000 that is one of the most historical centers of Ukraine, is located 60 kilometers from Belarus. It was one of the first places Russian forces reached in their invasion of Ukraine. When the city refused to bow down to an initial attack, Russian forces surrounded it, stopping the flow of goods and firing on the evacuees.

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This week Russian forces withdrew and the route from Kyiv to Chernihiv reopened on Monday.

The work of reconnecting the city had started on Wednesday. The crew hung the power transmission wire back to the poles. Municipal corporation water started seeping back from some taps. Mobile-phone service flickered in and out. Some residents raised their hands to cheer on Ukrainian soldiers carrying tanks and other heavy equipment through the city.

But many holes in Chernihiv are so deep and so wide that they cannot be easily fixed. The main highway of the city is still closed due to the collapse of the bridges. On Wednesday, the crew also discovered a mine placed under a burnt-out car.

Meanwhile, the dungeon of the vocational school is filled with people unable to return to homes that no longer exist – and unwilling to leave, fearful Russian forces will regroup and withdraw.

The outside world no longer feels safe.

Amidst death, destruction and Russian atrocities, the inhabitants of Chernihiv never gave up

Fighting teacher Igor Biletsky, who served as a reservist in Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, has witnessed the horrors of the aftermath of the Russian invasion. ‘Nobody with a conscience would ever act like this,’ says Mr. Biletsky.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Igor Biletsky, a teacher who fought as a reservist in Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, said the mother of one of his students had died while trying to leave the city. The student broke both his legs. He himself was 100 meters away from the attack on people queuing for bread, in which 14 people were killed. 57 people were killed in another attack on the line outside a pharmacy. The Globe and Mail saw a hospital that was badly damaged.

“No man of conscience would ever act like this,” said Mr. Biletsky.

Oksana Ohenko, a local police officer, read a list of neighborhoods in the Chernihiv region that have been badly damaged: Novoselivka, Kiselevka, Kineka, Ivanivka, Kolychivka, Yaginde, Lukashivka, Bilaus, Sloboda, Voznesensky, Rivnopilya.

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“It was hell here. Really,” he said. What the Russian military did is what “ordinary people, a normal nation, would never do. They just killed people,” she said. “Half the schools in the city, they just got destroyed. And our villages near the city – it’s like we never had these villages.”

Ms. Ohnenko leads a youth police unit. “From the beginning of the war, I looked into every child’s eyes: Why? Why? What bad did we do?”

Amidst death, destruction and Russian atrocities, the inhabitants of Chernihiv never gave up

Oleksandr Vasilenko stands in a crater nearly three meters deep after a Russian air raid in his neighborhood on the outskirts of Chernihiv, Ukraine.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

One of the first rockets that fell on the village of Trisvyatska destroyed the swing set in the backyard of Alexander Vasilenko.

“The most strategic site in this neighborhood is a playground for the children,” said Mr. Vasilenko, his voice bitter with irony.

Later a bomb dropped on their neighbor’s backyard left a crater about three meters deep. It created such a powerful wave that he blew the door of his neighbor’s fridge and broke the doors inside Mr. Vasilenko’s house. Other bombs turned homes completely into rubble leaving residents with little more than a few socks.

Mr. Vasilenko, a local shopkeeper, laid siege to deliver goods to others. When cars stopped passing through the checkpoints, he cycled to transport flour, butter, and oil. “When you get into a routine like this, there’s no time for tears,” he said.

As he spoke, his wife cleared the debris from the family garden. Soon they will plant potatoes and cucumbers. The green garlic shoots have already emerged. “Life goes on. And we will continue as long as we live,” he said.

Yet for him and others, the Russian retreat brought only silent bliss. The silence of peace also brought worry. During sieges, gunfire and other sounds of fighting often subsided before shelling and airstrikes began. “After the silence came the bombing,” he said. Now, it remains “too scary to hear the silence”.

Amidst death, destruction and Russian atrocities, the inhabitants of Chernihiv never gave up

Alla Sukretnaya sits with her dog Mukhtar, while her husband Leonid rests in the basement of a bomb shelter in Chernihiv. Russian mortar attacks reduced their two-storey house to rubble.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

For others, the destruction of personal life has become so complete that it is difficult to imagine a future life. Alla Sukretnaya and her husband, Leonid, were on the first floor of their two-story house when it was hit by mortar. They fled with only their dog Mukhtar. Everything else burned to the ground.

“I built this house with my own hands,” said Leonid, a retired trolley-bus driver. Now, he finds the idea of ​​rebuilding almost incomprehensible. “With what? We have nothing,” he said.

Standing on the street where Alla had laid herself, the couple looked at the remains of the house. The sight of what used to be a house caused “pain”. Pain, ”said Alla.

“I’m angry,” said Leonid, kicking a piece of metal. “I speak Russian, and they came here to ‘free me’.”

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