Deep below the classrooms of a vocational school, hundreds of Ukrainians clung to life in the darkness of an unlit boxing gym for weeks as Russian forces held their city under siege, pounding it with rockets and bombs.
At one point, nearly 500 people took shelter in this place in Chernihiv, in a city without electricity or running water, during winter months when many homes had no heat.
They fashioned candles out of sunflower oil, bits of cloth and sardine cans. They sat on mattresses playing Monopoly and card games beside the boxing-ring ropes. They divided into teams, each with its own leader, and apportioned work: Cleaning the basement. Maintaining the outhouses dug into the school grounds. Emptying the chamber pots provided for children and people with mobility problems. Sourcing water from a nearby river.
And they cooked.
Just across the street from the school, Nina Pinchuk and Lydmila Solokhnenko fed hundreds of people from three pots, propped up 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 city.
“When it got loud, we crouched – but we kept cooking,” said Ms. Pinchuk, a pizzeria cook. Once, the attacks on a nearby military base were so close they lay on the ground in fright. Another time, a rocket slammed into a nearby house, flinging shrapnel through the neighbourhood.
Still, they kept the pots going. “We are cooking here for the children,” said Ms. Solokhnenko, who before the war worked as a cleaner at a military base. “If we didn’t cook, I don’t know how this all would have ended up.”
Chernihiv, a city of 250,000 that is one of Ukraine’s most historic centres, is situated 60 kilometres from Belarus. It was among the first places Russian troops reached in their invasion of Ukraine. When the city refused to bend to an initial attack, Russian forces encircled it, stifling the flow of goods and firing on those who evacuated.
The Russian forces retreated this week, and the road to Chernihiv from Kyiv reopened on Monday.
On Wednesday, the work of patching the city back together had begun. Crews strung electrical transmission wire back onto poles. Municipal water began to trickle back out of some taps. Mobile-phone service flickered in and out. A few residents raised hands to cheer Ukrainian troops moving tanks and other heavy equipment through the city.
But many of the holes in Chernihiv are so deep and so wide they cannot be easily fixed. The city’s main highway is still closed, because bridges have been blown out. Crews on Wednesday also discovered a mine planted beneath a burned-out car.
The vocational school basement, meanwhile, remains full of people unable to return to homes that no longer exist – and unwilling to leave, fearful Russian forces will regroup and return.
The world outside no longer feels safe.
Igor Biletsky, a teacher who has fought as a reservist in Ukraine’s Territorial Defence Forces, said the mother of one of his students was killed trying to leave the city. Both of the student’s legs were broken. He was himself 100 metres away from an attack on people queuing for bread that killed 14. Another attack on a line outside a pharmacy killed 57. The Globe and Mail saw one hospital that was badly damaged.
“Anyone with a conscience would never act this way,” Mr. Biletsky said.
Oksana Ohnenko, a local police officer, recited a list of Chernihiv area neighbourhoods that have been badly damaged: Novoselivka, Kiselivka, Kienka, Ivanivka, Kolychivka, Yaginde, Lukashivka, Bilous, Sloboda, Voznesenske, Rivnopilya.
“It was hell here. Really,” she said. What Russian forces did “normal people, a normal nation, would never do. They just killed people,” she said. “Half of the schools in the city, they were just destroyed. And our villages near the city – it’s like we never had these villages.”
Ms. Ohnenko leads a youth policing unit. “From the beginning of the war, I saw in every child’s eye: Why? For what? What bad did we do?”
One of the first rockets to fall on the village of Trisvyatska destroyed the swing set in Oleksandr Vasylenko’s backyard.
“The most strategic site in this neighbourhood is a playground for children,” Mr. Vasylenko said, his voice bitter with irony.
A bomb that was dropped later on his neighbour’s backyard left a crater nearly three metres deep. It created a percussive wave so powerful it blew the door off his neighbour’s fridge and shattered the doors inside Mr. Vasylenko’s house. Other bombs reduced houses to rubble so completely that residents could salvage little more than a few socks.
A local shopkeeper, Mr. Vasylenko spent the siege delivering goods to others. When checkpoints barred passage to cars, he delivered flour, butter and oil by bicycle. “When you get into a routine like this, there is no time for tears,” he said.
As he spoke, his wife cleared debris from the family’s garden. Soon, they will plant potatoes and cucumbers. Green garlic shoots have already emerged. “Life goes on. And we will continue on while we live,” he said.
Yet for him and others, the Russian retreat brought only muted joy. Even the quiet of peace brought anxiety. During the siege, the gunfire and other sounds of battle often hushed before shelling and air strikes began. “After the silence came the bombing,” he said. Now, it remains “very scary to hear the silence.”
For others, the destruction of personal lives has been so complete that it is difficult to conceive a future life. Alla Sukretnaya and her husband, Leonid, were on the first floor of their two-storey home when it was struck by mortar. They fled, taking with them 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 nearly incomprehensible. “With what? We have nothing,” he said.
Standing on laneway tile that Alla laid herself, the couple looked at the remnants of the house. The sight of what used to be home produced “pain. Pain,” Alla said.
“I feel anger,” Leonid said, kicking a piece of metal. “I speak Russian, and they came here to ‘liberate me.’”
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