Russian Su-34 shot down over Ukrainian Chernihiv (March 5, 2022) | PHOTO: DSNS / wikimedia (CC BY 4.0)
Our train is heading from kyiv to the relatively calm part of Ukraine. But the guide is afraid. As soon as it gets dark, he begs us to turn off the lights and lower the window curtains. I persuaded a woman in her forties to turn on the dictaphone. “I found myself here in another world,” he finally sighs. His fear and stress are not difficult to understand. It was only yesterday that she left Chernihiv, transformed at the end of February into a battlefield after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “You wouldn’t even want to know how we lived there.”
Chernihiv, the capital of the Chernihiv region in northern Ukraine, became one of the first targets of Russian military aggression in late February. The main roads from the Russian border to Kyiv pass through this regional metropolis. For almost fifty days the town was fiercely fought over, and it was not until mid-April that the Ukrainian army pushed the Russian occupiers back to the border. According to Mayor Vladyslav Atrosenko, seven hundred people died here as a result of the Russian invasion. Bombings and airstrikes have become daily occurrences for the inhabitants. For weeks people hid in shelters and cellars. In conditions difficult to imagine in the Europe of the 21st century.
Weeks in the cellar and in the bread queues
The woman I met on the train eventually described my experiences of Chernihiv being besieged and bombed by the Russians as follows:
“I couldn’t stand it in the basement. At least sometimes I went to get water and bread. The water hadn’t been there for days, we let it come out of the radiator, so at the less we had something. But then someone remembered that there were old wells not far from the city. You throw a bucket in them and you can get at least some water. It was with sand, but if you wait a bit, the sand will sink to the bottom. So we went there sometimes. Compared to the water from the radiator, it was very good water! Only then , when it calmed down a bit, when volunteers came to see us from time to time and brought us something.
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There was no water, no electricity, no gas, we simply had nothing. Sometimes it was possible to cook something over a normal fire if the day was calmer. There was also no chance to wash properly, let alone shower. It was hard for me, I’ve worked with people on trains all my life, I just have to wash up.
Then volunteers from Lutsk, young boys and girls, came to prepare broth and rice for everyone, brought a lot of disposable dishes, and people stood in line for several hours to get something to eat. We were terribly hungry. I was lucky to have money with me. I recently celebrated a birthday and my friends brought me some money as a gift. We just finished repairs in the apartment and we still wanted to finish something, so my friends wanted to help me. So I had money and I could buy bread for everyone if they came to town. Even during the bombings, I ran between stores and bought what I could. We have the apartment as in the picture, the money won’t help anyway.
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Sometimes they would bring us at least a few pastries. A van arrived and people lined up for several hours to get at least half the bread. And once the Russians bombed that front. (On March 16, Russia bombed the bread front in Chernihiv, at least ten people died – RM) It exploded once, but people were afraid to run. I understand that sounds weird, but they didn’t want to leave the line so they would lose their bread. We were terribly hungry. The second time it exploded and the third time they hit the forehead. It was terrible. People lay without arms or legs, their entrails directly on the ground. All blood. Later, it rained a little in the city. The rain gradually washed away the blood.
The Russians also destroyed the cemeteries. Especially those where Ukrainian soldiers killed during anti-terrorist operations in the Donbass were buried, whose graves displayed Ukrainian flags. They drove through cemeteries and straight through these graves with armored cars and tanks. They knocked down monuments, memorial plaques and bones. They executed everyone they could. After blowing up the bridges around the city, people tried their best to escape from Chernihiv. The Russians shot at the cars, at everyone. Next to this cemetery is a church where people were hiding. They also bombarded it. They contaminated the destroyed cemetery and the bodies of those killed. Terror. How can they bomb the church? What type of person are they? ”
A city in the triangle of “brother nations”
Chernihiv is a regional city located in the triangle of three nations. This Ukrainian region directly borders Belarus and Russia. As at each border, the Chernihiv region has maintained very strong ties with neighboring states. Either by kinship, or by economic cooperation, or by language. It is this supposed affinity between the nations on the borders of the three states that has led to a certain sense of security among the inhabitants.
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“Tonight (February 24 – MR) we weren’t ready. The Russians just blew up the smaller fortifications we had and advanced towards the town. Those who had weapons went straight into battle. And those who had nothing took axes and hammers. But you won’t stop the army. It was a shock for us. Nobody just believed that war would come. Of course, we read the news, but we were convinced that Russia was just showing up again. You know, ‘brother nations’, and then it all happened.
I often went to Russia, it’s my job. Moscow, Adler, Kislovodsk, St. Petersburg… After all, we drove together, across borders: customs officers, border guards – they seemed like normal people. There is nothing more to say to them now.
We are not “brothers”. They thought we were “brothers”. They imposed it on us. We are completely different nations. You know, Belarusians have always come to Chernihiv for shopping. They arrived, selling their sausages or their condensed milk. And then they went shopping at Epicenter (one of the largest hypermarket chains in Ukraine with food and economic needs – RM). And the Russians razed the epicenter of our country. What’s with that? We seemed to be friends. But we never really were. They came to our house, murdered here, raped and robbed. Is this their “brotherhood”?
Do you know how people speak here in Chernihiv? A little Ukrainian, a little Russian. Nobody solved it. But now it’s different. I don’t want anything to do with them. I know my Ukrainian is not perfect, but I will read books in Ukrainian, I will watch movies. Only Ukrainian. I don’t want to have that language in common anymore.”
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As with most Ukrainians who left the temporarily occupied territories, either in western Ukraine or further afield in Europe, this is only a temporary solution for my traveling companions. He intends to return home as soon as possible. Her husband and mother-in-law are waiting for her in the devastated neighborhood of Chernihiv.
“Everything is destroyed there. But I have to go home. My husband is struggling. He is a former soldier, but he has poor health. After a few weeks in the shelter where we sat in the dirt, his blood pressure increased and his knees swelled, he could barely walk. And he has an even older mother there. I will come home and help, we have a lot of work to do. Just to drive out all the Russians. They are real fascists. Russian fascists.
We wanted peace, because we lived quietly, went to work, raised children. But now we have to win. Ukraine has never attacked anyone. But now we have to hunt them. And I would be happy if the ‘racists’ were taken to Moscow. »
After turning off the recorder, my wife again asks me not to mention her name in the article. He is always afraid. The Russians allegedly intercepted phone calls and feared that this would harm his family, who remained in Chernihiv. Finally, he emphasizes on several occasions: “And tell them to be on our side. After all, we didn’t attack anyone, we want peace for our country. »
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I try to convince her that the vast majority of people in the Czech Republic sympathize with Ukraine and that the outpouring of support is huge. He doesn’t seem to trust me very much. “Try to explain to them that we just want peace and a home. But we have to win.” I think millions of Ukrainians could repeat this sentence today.
Msgr. Radomyr Mokryk, Ph.D., is a Ukrainian Slavic scholar and culturologist based in the Czech Republic. He teaches at the Institute of East European Studies at Charles University’s Faculty of Arts, where he focuses primarily on Ukrainian intellectual and cultural history of the 19th and 20th centuries. He is currently based in Ukraine, from where he sends his reports and essays for FORUM 24 and FORUM Weekly.