Without running water or electricity in most of Chernihiv, Serhii Andreev could not wash the bodies that arrived at the morgue in the harshest days of the intense Russian siege of this northern Ukrainian city. “The fridge didn’t work, but at least it was cold outside. Now at least the burials are decent, but the funeral homes were closed then. We had 150 corpses with which we did not know what to do, so the City Council decided to make these coffins”, he says while pointing to some simple unvarnished wooden boxes, made up of planks held together with nails and finished off with a piece that preserves the bark of the tree. There are twenty empty ones in front of the morgue where Andreev works – head of the Department of Pathological Anatomy at the Regional Hospital Number Two in the town – and in front of which a refrigerated truck with ten corpses is waiting, only some of them identified.
The around 100,000 residents who remained in Chernihiv (from 280,000 before the war) today lick the wounds of the siege. Due to its proximity to Belarus, just 50 kilometers to the north and west, it was the first large city to be reached by the Russian troops stationed there after the beginning of the invasion, on February 24. They never managed to take it, but they bombarded it with missiles and mortar shells, surrounded it as of March 10 and practically cut it off by destroying the bridge over the Desna River that connects it with kyiv and that was used to evacuate civilians and introduce humanitarian aid. The battle was fought in the neighboring towns – on whose shoulders you can still see charred armor from both sides – until in early April the Russian forces withdrew to focus their offensive on the south and east of Ukraine. A part of the bridge is still sunken.
In Chernihiv, the destruction is less – and more dispersed, as it is already a medium-sized city – than in some places around kyiv. There are also no accounts of executions, as in Bucha. The vast majority of deaths, in fact, were not caused by bombing, but by consequences of the siege, such as lack of medicine or medical care, cold due to lack of heating or difficulties in obtaining food and running water, explains Andreev. , which has just prepared a report on the causes: 63% due to heart failure, 13% due to covid and pneumonia, 7% due to stroke, 5% due to bombing injuries and the remaining 7% due to other causes. . “800 deaths have passed through this morgue, only 40 of them from bombings. This is an aged city, from which many young people had left before the war. And with no option to go to the doctor, no electricity, no gas, there were quite a few heart attacks and pneumonias, ”says Andreev, with a perennial smile that collides with his story and a small earring with the coat of arms of the Ukrainian flag.
It’s not even noon and Volodimir Tkachuk, a priest at a local Orthodox church, has already officiated at five funerals. “Now I have a lot of work, because during the siege it was not possible to bury. Two of today would not have died if they had had access to medication, ”says Tkachuk, who continues to live with his wife and children in the church because his house was partially destroyed by a bombardment. During the siege, the basement of the temple served as a shelter.
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One of the relatively few killed by bombing was Pavlo Yeremenko. His parents, Oleksii and Svitlana, set foot for the first time since that March 11 the half-razed soccer stadium in which his 24-year-old son was buried in the stands.
Father and son were part of the Territorial Defense Forces, a militarized division of tens of thousands of reservists and volunteers charged with protection and local control. The father had military experience – he fought on the Soviet side in the Afghanistan fiasco (1979–1989) – while the son was an artist and actor in social theater for children and the elderly who used to ski and spend time on the Gold Coast, a urban beach on the banks of the Desna River, says the mother. “I tried to teach him to load a gun and use it, but he never got to shoot,” adds the father. Svitlana and Pavlo’s fiancée, Oksana, 21, together prepared food and Molotov cocktails for the Territorial Defense Forces.
The Russian position was three kilometers from the stadium. “We were getting ready to serve at the checkpoints when they told us we had to watch that corner,” Oleksii recalls as he points to a grandstand where seats have been blown up. “We were afraid that the Russians would take advantage of the soccer field to drop paratroopers or land. We had to be at that point at 01.00. At 00:30 they woke me up and said: ‘They are attacking us!’ I ran to wash my face and at that moment I noticed how a bomb exploded on the other side of the wall of the auditorium, which collapsed. The blast wave knocked me down and I stayed under the rubble, but I had one arm out, with which I was able to brush rubble off myself to breathe and respond to the comrades from the Territorial Defense Forces who asked me if I was alright. They told me: “We are going to help Pavlo first”. “Yes, yes, I’m fine, help Pavlo”, I answered. I heard how they managed to exchange a few words with him,” he says.
The two were evacuated to the hospital, where there was no electricity and the operations were carried out thanks to a generator that did not light the corridors, which people walked with flashlights. “The body was intact, but a huge stone had fallen on its head. He died hours later.” Those who were in front were the mother, without the strength today to remember it, and Oksana, whom Pavlo was going to marry this summer and who crossed to Poland a week later.
With both parents silent, the participants in the debris removal tasks find 10 and 20 kilo weights from the gym under the stands under the rubble. A few meters away, a library next to the soccer field is barely standing, with a huge crater at the entrance.
“It is very difficult to be here, it is the grave of my son. Maybe later, when we rest, we will see him as a hero”, says Svitlana. “Right now what we have is a lot of hate for the Russians,” Oleksii says as he limps from injuries to his legs and back from rubble and shrapnel, and spent four weeks in hospital.
During the three weeks in which Chernihiv still had the umbilical cord of the bridge with the capital, Viacheslav Hrischenko, 54, was one of the Red Cross employees who managed to get humanitarian aid on buses. “Sometimes there were about 1,000 people waiting for her. They needed food, water and hygiene products,” he says. The convoy arrived from the capital with humanitarian aid (such as diapers, soap, compresses or anti-tuberculosis drugs) and traveled the other way with wounded, due to the state of the hospitals in Chernihiv. Hrischenko assures that eight volunteers were killed by Russian fire while transporting medicines: “It was four in the afternoon and my vehicle had to leave at six, just after.” With the bridge down, Hrischenko also managed to evacuate a girl who has lost a leg to kyiv.
reuse the graveyard
The death toll in Chernihiv during the month-long siege is unclear. In the old cemetery – which was in disuse and had to be reopened because the Russian forces had control of the new one – there are around half a thousand buried with a date after February 24. They are in rows of burial mounds from which a small wooden cross or a metal plate stands out with the name and the dates of birth and death written in marker. Four friends leave vodka and sweets for one of the dead, as is the local tradition. An area of the cemetery is dedicated to the military, barely fifty. They stand out for the crosses wrapped in the national flag. The morgue allocated the twenty lacquered coffins that remained from before the war to them.
Andreev says that the day the hospital received the most dead bodies (40) was March 3 after the bombing of the tall residential building in which Natalia Velianinova, 45, lived. There, one of the unguided bombs launched simultaneously from a Russian plane hit residential areas. 47 people died, according to regional authorities. “The blast wave threw a door against me and I think that was what protected me,” he says today in what remains of his apartment, which from the outside looks like an opening framed in black and from the inside a jumble of charred objects and burnt clothing, magazine pages and quilt feathers. To cross, he removes from the entrances several doors without hinges that he has collected from the street, as if they protected a house in which he can no longer live.
Velianinova’s apartment is on the fifth floor and the impact, still clearly visible, was at the height of the second. “I heard something very heavy coming this way, like an iron machine coming through the air,” she recalls. “Some kind of survival instinct kicked in and I sent my mother and daughter into the hallway. I told them: ‘Don’t be afraid’. And just then was the sound of the attack. A few seconds later we understood that it had been right against the building. When I got up and looked out the window, I remember something like pieces of furniture coming out of the windows and five cars burning in front of it,” she says as she strings cigarettes. Already on the street, and next to the charred chassis of the vehicles, Velianinova says goodbye with three words and little conviction: “Everything will be fine”.
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