Return to Yahidne, the Ghosts of a Human Shield

Anne and Laurent Champs-Massart are travel writers who have traveled the world. Since 2023, they have settled in Kyiv, where they work for various NGOs and provide testimonies. Here, they recount the ordeal experienced by the inhabitants of Yahidne, a small locality north of Kyiv, during the Russian occupation.

Like in a Prévert song, it was raining that day. However, everything was different, the places, the times; it was April 2024 in northern Ukraine. It was raining that day, a mourning rain, desolate, washing away the road between Kyiv and Yahidne, a four-lane highway with the central guardrail removed in some sections to create a military airstrip, intended for the F16s that are still awaited.

In the small vehicle transporting us, two journalists from India looked wide-eyed at the landscape with destroyed buildings, remnants of the 2022 occupation, and the words, painted in huge letters on the gates: Люди, дети, written in Russian because they were addressed to the Russians: “Don’t shoot, there are people here, children, civilians.” Something of the horror was gradually emerging from the ground. Its climax would come soon.

Not far from Belarus, and 140 kilometers north of Kyiv, lies the small village of Yahidne. Before the large-scale invasion began, the village of about 400 inhabitants was peaceful and unknown. Now, journalists, politicians, volunteers, investigators, and people concerned with testimony come here. And all of them, upon arriving, go directly to the municipal school where the crime took place. It was in this school, specifically in its basement, that the village’s population was detained by the Russians. A detention that lasted 27 days and that many describe as hell.

Standing outside the school with all its windows broken, Ivan Polhui does not seem to feel the falling rain. To greet you, he embraces you, as is customary in Ukraine. A well-trimmed gray mustache, intense blue eyes, fixed, as if with a violated innocence, he was waiting for us. Ivan Polhui begins to recount what happened in Yahidne from March 3 to March 30, 2022. Every detail he mentions is, if not a reparation, a beginning of justice.

It all started on March 1, a week after the invasion began. On that date, the 55th Mountain Motor Rifle Brigade1, entering Ukraine through the Belarusian border, captured the village of Yahidne, 20 km south of Chernihiv. The sequence of events was so sudden that the inhabitants did not flee. Those who tried to escape, by car to the south or on foot in the forest, paid with their lives. As elsewhere in Ukraine, the Russians prevented the evacuation of civilians by targeting those who risked moving away from the fighting.

From March 1, the inhabitants of Yahidne were at the mercy of the occupiers. The villagers first found refuge in their cellars. But the soldiers visited the houses one by one, looted, destroyed, assaulted, and threatened, settling in. The high command took its quarters in the school, which had a ground floor, an upper floor, and a basement. An idea occurred to them: to gather all the inhabitants of the village in this basement to use them as human shields.

Dragged from their homes at gunpoint, civilians were crammed into this basement, all mixed together, neck and neck, women, men, children, from the oldest, aged 93, to the youngest, one month old. There were 367 people for 198 square meters — the result of the division is always the same: that makes half a square meter per person, for a captivity that lasted 27 days.

Ivan guides us through this basement where he himself was herded, dehumanized, and wounded. At the foot of the stairs were grouped the buckets used as latrines. Then we reach a corridor. On the right, two tiny rooms. They were so crammed — and unhealthy, like tombs, since no air entered — that the condensation from their breaths seeped down the walls and dripped from the ceiling. The prisoners in these rooms had to make makeshift gutters to channel this moldy rain into plastic jugs, cut off with who knows what tool. At the other end of the corridor, an equally small room, where liquid also dripped from the ceiling. In addition to the condensation of breaths, there were leaks from the toilets used by the high command.

On the door of the smallest room, measuring 8 square meters, the Russians engraved the number of prisoners they had crammed in: 19 + 9 children. On the doors of other slightly larger rooms, one can read: 22 + 5 children, 35 + 8 children. And finally, on the doorframe of the largest room, 75 square meters: 136 + 39 children. The individuals were so tightly packed together that they could not lie down to sleep.

Naturally, their phones were confiscated. Journalist Roman Nejyborets, a native of the village, was brutally murdered while trying to alert his relatives.

As a light source, a few candles or rare flashlights. As a source of information, the Russian press that the jailers distributed to them. Through the pages of propaganda, the detainees read that Kharkiv was conquered, that Kyiv had surrendered to the Russians. That President Zelensky had fled. That their country no longer existed. All hope had vanished. The threat of imminent death haunted every mind. Only the vital instinct remained: to hold on.

In such terrible and nauseating conditions of detention, disease did not take long to appear. A chickenpox epidemic broke out; the humidity, lack of ventilation, and unhealthy heat of the air triggered high fevers. Several went mad. No care was provided to them. Food was reduced to what they could carry on the first day, to a few canned goods that some were allowed to fetch from their homes.

There were school supplies in the school’s basement. A woman, Olha Meniailo, recorded the memory of the hours in a notebook. With colored pencils, the children drew houses on the walls, strangely narrow, meteors crashing onto twisted roads, small Ukrainian flags. Adults also wrote or engraved on the walls. Numbers: the frenzied counting of days. Names: the identity of those who died among them. Ten people, in total, perished in this basement. One death every three days.

Sometimes the bodies remained among the crowded living for a whole night and day. Then they had to be passed hand-to-hand to the stairs, the only exit. The bodies were then placed in the small building housing the boiler, outside the school. The Russians waited a long time before allowing a few men from the basement to bury their dead in the village cemetery. The day they were granted permission, the cemetery was targeted by gunfire. The prisoner-gravediggers had to take shelter in the graves intended for their neighbors, their friends.

Ivan reads aloud the names and dates of death inscribed on the walls with a point or pencil. It makes columns. Then comes a date. It is surrounded by a heart. It is 03/30/2022.

On that day, the Ukrainian army liberated Yahidne. The villagers’ ordeal gradually ended, many fainting upon beeing in the open air. They had only one desire at first: to go as far as possible. Within a few days, 90% of the population fled. Only the military equipment abandoned by the Russians, the ruins, the atrocious carcass of the cursed school remained in Yahidne.

When we leave the basement, the rain has stopped. Ivan looks at the clearing sky. He shows us the village, which is gradually being rebuilt. He is proud to say it: three-quarters of the inhabitants have returned. It is their village. They want to revive it. A new school will have to be built. But destroying the old one is out of the question. This one will serve as a museum. They will put in it the objects that were downstairs with them during the nightmare. Chairs, dismembered books, Russian propaganda newspapers. Plastic dishes. Broken toys, pencils, rotten stuffed animals. Some tattered clothes; dented water bottles still full of suspect liquids. The cardboard they tried to lie on. Ripped-open cans; and several of those olive-green packages, the size of a shoebox: the food rations used in the Russian army. A museum they call among themselves “the museum of our suffering,” “the museum of the basement of death”… They are preparing it eagerly. They want no one to forget what was inflicted on them. They also know that the Russians are more than ever a threat and that denying their crimes allows them to better repeat them.

At the time of writing, in May 2024, the head of the police in Kharkiv oblast reports that dozens of inhabitants of the city of Vovchansk are crammed and forcibly detained in basements by the Russian army. The 55th Mountain Motor Rifle Brigade, for its part, is deployed on the Bakhmut front.

Our thanks go to Pen Ukraine, Maksym Sytnikov, and Anna Vovtchenko, who organized this trip. Thanks to the inhabitants of Yahidne who share their story despite the pain.

Anne & Laurent Champs-Massart are French authors, poets, novelists, and travelers. Their artistic approach is centered on duo writing and exploring the world.


  1. This brigade is from Tuva, in Siberia.

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