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Ukrainians held captive for a month by Russian troops in a school basement

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The names of the dead are scrawled on the peeling wall of a school basement where residents say more than 300 people were trapped for weeks by Russian occupiers in Yahidne, a village north of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.

Halyna Tolochina, a member of the village council, struggled to calm herself as she went through the list scrawled in black on the plaster on either side of a green door in the gloomy pen where she and hundreds of others were imprisoned.

To the left of the door were scrawled the seven names of people killed by Russian soldiers. On the right are the 10 names of people who died due to the harsh conditions in the basement, she said.

“That old man died first,” Tolochina said, pointing to Muzyka D’s name, for Dmytro Muzyka, whose death was recorded on March 9. “He died in that big room, that one.”

Residents of Yahidne are seen in the basement of the school a day after the Russian troops left

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Ivan Balanovych is in the basement of the school

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She said Muzyka’s body lay in a boiler room for a few days before a lull in the shelling allowed some people to bury the dead in hastily dug graves in the village cemetery.

Seven residents of Yahidne said a total of at least 20 people died or were killed during the Russian occupation, although villagers’ reports have not been independently verified. The Ukrainian authorities have not released an official death toll.

Reporters saw a freshly dug grave in a field near the village and two bodies wrapped in white plastic sheeting. The Kremlin did not respond to requests for comment on the events in Yahidne.

Reports of what happened in the village add to the growing testimonies from Ukrainian civilians of the suffering in towns around Kyiv during weeks of occupation by Russian forces following the February 24 invasion.

The entrance to the school’s basement is marked with the words “Caution, children”.

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Serhii Bondarenko is sitting in a room in the basement of the school

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The last victim listed on the walls of the basement, Nadiya Budchenko, died on March 28, Tolochina said, two days before Russian troops withdrew from the village as their advance towards the Ukrainian capital stalled.

In addition to the mostly elderly people who died of exhaustion in the suffocating, cramped conditions, Tolochina named others who she believed were killed by Russian soldiers, including Viktor Shevchenko and his brother Anatolii, known as Tolya.

“This one was buried in the yard,” she said, pointing to the name of Shevchenko V. “And this one, they said it’s there [buried in the village]somewhere,” she said, pointing to the name of Shevchenko T, whose body was not recovered.

Six other residents confirmed Tolochina’s testimony and described being held in the bare concrete rooms in the basement with about 60 children, little food or water, no electricity and no toilets.

A drawing with the words “Subway, Bank and Boom” can be seen on a wall in the basement of the school.

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Halyna Tolochina writes on a wall in the school’s basement while Tamara Klymchuk, 64, looks on

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Ukrainian authorities have accused Russia of war crimes after mass graves were uncovered in towns around Kyiv, including Bucha and Motyzhyn, and bodies were discovered with their hands tied and shot in the head.

Russia has denied allegations of extrajudicial killings, torture and ill-treatment of civilians. The Kremlin said its forces are not targeting civilians and has accused Ukrainian authorities and the West of fabricating evidence.

Two of the villagers said that initially some Russian troops who arrived in early March behaved well, offering to share their rations and expressing surprise at the village’s prosperous appearance. But others immediately began looting.

“They started looting, taking everything they could get their hands on,” said 71-year-old Petro Hlystun, who witnessed the scene. “There was a flashlight, a tablet computer that my son brought from Poland. They took everything.”

On March 5, villagers said they had been ordered down to the school’s basement, where they would spend the next 25 days, with only brief breaks to relieve themselves or stretch their legs.

Improvised beds can be seen in the basement of a school

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Tamara Klymchuk, 64, sits in the school’s basement

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The Russian soldiers told them the detention was for their own protection, villagers said. They described sharing buckets for a toilet and taking turns sleeping in the small, crowded rooms as there was not enough space to lie down.

“It was almost impossible to breathe,” said Olha Meniaylo, an agronomist who said she was in the basement with her 32-year-old son, his wife and their children — a 4-month-old boy and an 11-year-old girl .

She said the Russian soldiers demanded a list of the people in the basement to organize groceries and she counted 360. Two other villagers said there were more than 300 people.

“It was difficult for the elderly to be there in the dark without fresh air, so mostly the elderly died.” She said the first funeral — a man killed by the soldiers and four elderly people who died in the basement — was on April 12 took place in March. Russian soldiers allowed some youths to dig shallow graves.

“As soon as they started digging, there was shelling,” Meniaylo said. “People digging had to lie down on the bodies in the graves to protect themselves from the shelling. My husband was there.”

A woman who had a cow was led under escort one morning to fetch milk for the children. Others were occasionally let out at the whim of the Russian soldiers. When they returned to their homes, the villagers found that everything from televisions to women’s underwear had been taken.

Ukrainian soldiers check a damaged Russian military vehicle

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Hanna Khlystun stands between destroyed houses

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Tamara Klymchuk, 64, and her dog stand next to a local’s grave

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It wasn’t until the Russians began retreating on March 30 that those locked in the basement finally ventured out, said 64-year-old Tamara Klymchuk. “We opened the door. We got out like we were born again.”

A small farming village of just five streets, Yahidne was a popular place for city dwellers from nearby Chernihiv to rent a vacation home. It’s now a desolate ruin of burnt-out houses littered with discarded military equipment.

There is an abandoned tank hidden opposite the school. Ukrainian military, police and demolition technicians are sifting through the rubble, exhuming bodies and recovering unexploded ammunition.

“We had a very good life,” said Klymchuk, whose son-in-law was 50-year-old Viktor Shevchenko, one of two brothers who villagers say were killed by Russian soldiers. “We never thought that so much grief would come over us.”

Vitalii Udod, a Kyiv volunteer, stands next to a van loaded with two bodies

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People stand in front of the damaged school

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Viktor, she said, was shot dead on March 3rd. He stayed behind to guard his home after sending his wife and two children to the school’s basement. Russian soldiers had told villagers that Viktor was wearing a military uniform and was armed with a shotgun.

Klymchuk did not witness the murder himself but said she saw Viktor’s body after sappers exhumed his body from a mass grave at her request after the city was retaken by Ukrainian forces. He was dressed in blue jeans and a black jacket, she said. “They just shot him in the head.”

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/photography/ukraine-russia-army-invasion-basement-troops-b2062411.html Ukrainians held captive for a month by Russian troops in a school basement

JOE HERNANDEZ

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