CHERNIHIV OBLAST – After Russian troops have withdrawn from Ukraine’s northmost region, an expected, yet no less horrific destruction was uncovered.
Russian airstrikes targeted both high-rise buildings in Chernihiv and small houses in nearby villages, leaving many people in the regional capital and its suburbs dead, injured, and without a home.
According to local authorities, 700 people including 200 civilians have been killed in the regional capital alone. The death toll in neighboring villages is impossible to count as many are still left under the rubble.
The house of Natalya Solomennyk, a nurse, was hit three times. First, an artillery shell landed, then a bomb, and a mine.
She and her family survived thanks to an old bomb shelter in their village just outside Chernihiv, Novoselivka.
“This bomb shelter was built in 1941. Villagers were hiding there during World War II,” said Solomennyk.
“Now, during this war, it was our turn to hide there,” she went on.
Nothing left but hope
Novoselivka, a village that was home to 800 people, is practically gone. It seems that every house has been damaged or destroyed.
Local residents say that they spent 21 days hiding — either in their small basements or in the Soviet-made bomb shelters last used 80 years ago.
Electricity and gas have been out since late February. Yet, many stayed put, having nowhere to run.
Among them was Solomennyk with her husband and son, who survived the Russian bombardment and shelling in a local bomb shelter.
The bomb shelter fit 15 people, including children, the elderly, and a pregnant woman. All of them survived while many of their neighbors were killed.
Some bodies are still under the rubble of their houses, villagers and local authorities said.
“There were people in the nearby dormitory when it was bombed. We don’t know what happened to them,” Solomennyk told the Kyiv Independent.
Three days later, a bomb landed next to her house and the entire lane caught fire.
The house where she lived for 36 years was gone.
“I gave birth to my kids there, I raised them there, my grandchildren were born there,” Solomennyk said, bursting into tears.
“I managed to untie the cow to save it. Frankly, I have no idea where it is. I feel sorry for it, of course,” she added.
When their house was hit, the family decided it was time to flee.
They walked four kilometers to the nearby village, where Solomennyk’s mother lives. They carried nothing — they had nothing left to take with them.
“I borrowed underwear from a friend. I was left with nothing,” she said. “I feel crushed.”
Solomennyk’s neighbors suffered a similar loss.
The family of Larysa Chuhay put all their money into their house that now lies in rubble.
Chuhay told the Kyiv Independent that she, her husband and their two children decided to flee the village when the first bombs landed nearby.
After sleeping at her husband’s workplace in Chernihiv, they returned on March 8 to check on their house and take additional clothes.
“We came and there was no house,” she said.
Now that Russians have withdrawn from Chernihiv Oblast, many villagers come back to Novoselivka to clean up the debris left from what used to be their homes and try to recover at least some of their belongings.
Some stay in the empty houses in nearby villages.
“I fled to Voznesenske,” Raisa Kirusha, who works as a guard, said of a village several kilometers east of Novoselivka.
“People hosted me, many thanks to them,” she went on.
Kirusha is back home now to work in the garden, or what is left of it.
“It’s sowing time,” Kirusha said. She is hoping to grow a harvest on the scorched soil.
Bombing the city
While the outskirts of Chernihiv are in ruins, the regional capital of 285,000 people is also heavily damaged.
Russian air strikes have destroyed apartment buildings, a local stadium, a kindergarten, several medical facilities, grocery stores and even a library located in a 19th-century building.
“The building of the library is historical. It survived World War II, but did not make it through Russian aggression,” said Chernihiv Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Chaus.
“They only attacked civilian facilities,” he went on.
According to Chaus, hundreds of residential buildings have been destroyed in the city, hundreds of civilians killed and even more injured.
The attacks have been clearly targeting civilians. On March 16, shelling killed 14 people who were queuing to buy bread, including a U.S. citizen.
One of the darkest days in Chernihiv was March 3 when Russian planes dropped bombs on several buildings, killing 47 people at once.
“We heard two planes,” recalled a local citizen Vyacheslav Kuts, who lives near the bombed site. “The shock wave threw me together with the door into the entryway.”
“I grabbed my kids and carried them to the basement amid the air strikes,” Kuts said, pointing to the entrance to the shelter that has been hit with bomb fragments.
The explosion was so massive that the glass broke in all the windows in the entire neighborhood. Since then, the neighborhood has had no gas or electricity.
"When it was minus 13 degrees outside, it was minus 2 degrees in my apartment,” Kuts recalled.
Together with neighbors, Kuts covered the windows with wood and metal to keep warm.
Until a few days ago, when the electricity got fixed, they cooked on a gas burner.
Soon after the March 3 attack, both planes bombing Chernihiv have been shot down by the Ukrainian forces. One pilot, Alexander Krasnoyartsev, was captured and acknowledged that Russian planes have deliberately bombed residential areas.
“I understand it’s war, but to bomb in such a way…” Kuts goes on swearing at the Russian army.
Like others in Chernihiv, he understands that the lull may be temporary and new air strikes can happen.
“We are all scared,” Kuts said of potential attacks.
“But we keep smiling. Because we are alive.”