Local residents greet the Ukrainian military in the Chernihiv region, April 2, 2022. Photo: Serhii Nuzhnenko / Reuters
Chernihiv, a Ukrainian city with a population of 285,000 near the Belarusian border, has been shelled since the very outbreak of the war. On the 23rd of March, Russian aircraft destroyed the bridge over which the highway to Kyiv ran. Both the evacuation route and the delivery of humanitarian aid were cut off, and Chernihiv was increasingly referred to as “the second Mariupol”. Early in the morning of the 4th of April, the head of the Chernihiv regional administration announced that lines of communication with Kyiv had been restored and that Russian troops were retreating. Residents of Chernihiv told Mediazona how mutual aid and self-organisation helped them to survive in the besieged city.
On the first day of the war, Natalia Koren, together with her husband and mother-in-law, decided to leave Chernihiv for their dacha. They hoped that everything would be resolved in a day or two. But they ended up staying for a month, and only returned to their apartment in the city centre in late March.
Natalia recalls that the first days in the village were “relatively bearable”. Then, “they began to just bomb us with Grads [rocket artillery systems]. We hid in the basement, the houses around were burning because the surrounding area was heavily shelled. In our neighbourhood, two houses burned down”. After returning to Chernihiv, Natalia learned that in a neighbouring village, one of her relative had been killed during the shelling. “Now it is so dangerous that they are figuring out how to bury him”, she sighs.
Natalia’s daughter flew to Egypt for a holiday just a couple of days before the war, and she has not been able to return since. “It’s for the best, probably, at least I am not worried about her safety,” says Koren. Her sister and her family live in Kyiv, while other relatives live in the village of Pavlivka near Chernihiv.
There is no electricity in Chernihiv or its suburbs. When someone turned on a generator in the village, neighbours charged their phones and tried to call relatives — mobile connection is almost nonexistent too. Mediazona managed to talk to Natalia on a rare day when she had internet access.
No one went hungry at the dacha, she admits: “A village is a village. There were potatoes, some preserved food, cereals, and pasta. There were reserves. It hasn’t been that long.” At some point, volunteers brought food, neighbours shared with each other and those who were leaving would give away the keys to their home and ask others to finish any leftovers so that they would not be wasted. When she decided to return to the city, Natalia did the same: “There is a really poor family there, so we gave their children half of our food. We couldn’t eat everything we had and otherwise it would have just gone to waste. So we shared it.”
“But there was no water supply to the village”, says Koren, “until the neighbours remembered the well that was abandoned fifteen years ago”. “They started to use it, no one was afraid of getting poisoned. That is how people have been surviving so far,” she says.
Now Natalia, her husband and mother-in-law have returned to Chernihiv and are living in an apartment in a multi-storey building. According to her estimates, about half of the apartments are empty. Koren wanted to leave too, but she continued to believe that “tomorrow it would all be over”. After the Russian aircraft bombed the bridge over the Desna river on the 23rd of March, it was impossible to leave the city: “People began to use boats, it all got shelled, it got shelled twice, people were killed. There were corpses just lying in the field, burned cars, so it was very dangerous.”
Koren hopes that now, as “these Nazis seem to be retreating”, Chernihiv’s connection with the rest of Ukraine will be restored, “so that people can at least get out.”
Despite the shelling, many managed to escape Chernihiv before the Russian military destroyed the bridge. Among the refugees was Lesya Fedorenko, who left a couple of days before the city was completely blockaded. According to her, the official evacuation in Chernihiv was never announced because the authorities didn’t manage to agree on humanitarian corridors.
— We had to go through fields. The fields were also dangerous. Sometimes it was impossible to pass, and on the highway to Kyiv people got blown up. There were people killed even among my acquaintances who tried to leave. Our authorities said: “You can pass, but only at your own risk. We do not take responsibility and cannot guarantee green corridors,” says Lesya.
Her house in Chernihiv is intact, but the heating was turned off in February, followed by electricity two weeks later. Then the water supply stopped. Lesya was constantly going down to the bomb shelter due to the shelling. On the 17th day of the war, she got a fever and had pulmonary pains. She then decided to leave: “There was little reason for me to stay because it was very difficult to do the volunteering and humanitarian aid work in those conditions I was in.”
Fedorenko’s mother and husband both remained in Chernihiv; her mother is ill, and her husband takes care of her. Lesya says that some of her friends who stayed in the city “were pretty lucky”, they only have broken windows in their apartments, while others “practically live in bomb shelters.”
She argues that those who left did the right thing because the city could not bear the burden. “It would have been a far worse humanitarian catastrophe. Now, the authorities estimate that only half of the city’s population remains, the other half has left. Of course the death toll is increasing, and the conditions are getting worse. The sanitary, hygienic and humanitarian situation in the city has become extremely difficult. Those who survived the Second World War say that it is worse now than it was then."
45-year-old Sergey A., who has lived in Chernihiv his whole life and has been there since the beginning of the war, says that the scale of destruction is colossal: “You can see here that the Russians are doing to Ukrainian cities exactly what the fascists did. In fact, the whole of Chernihiv has been completely bombed, including its centre.”
He lists the buildings destroyed by shelling: the Ukraine hotel, the Central Post Office, the Gagarin Stadium and the Shchors Cinema, which survived World War II. The city park has been destroyed, the remnants of rockets lie on the beach, a number of schools and kindergartens have been damaged. “The villages near Chernihiv have been erased from the face of the Earth. In the villages of Ivanivka, Kolychivka, Novoselivka, practically nothing was left alive”, says Sergey.
Continuing the list of what has been destroyed, Natalia Koren “tours” her district: “A sweet factory nearby — damaged. A furniture factory — damaged. The house next door, my mother’s house — bombed, but it hit the elevator shaft and, thank God, didn’t explode. It’s literally across the street. A shell also hit the neighbouring house, where the windows and doors [were destroyed] — it’s basically inhabitable, not too bad.”
On the same day that Natalia returned to Chernihiv, Russia announced a “drastic reduction of its military activity” in the direction of Kyiv and Chernihiv. As Koren recalls, the next night the city was hit by a powerful bombardment: “A shell hit the building next-door, it punched through the top floor. Three floors down, the windows were shattered and the balcony frames blew out. The district library nearby also got hit. There is a shopping centre across the road — also hit. The central market — half of it burned down. This horrific destruction literally happened the night before last. We were hiding in the corridor because we didn’t have time to run to any bomb shelter. We just sat in the corridor, hoping that the two walls would save us.
She points out that the suburbs of the city were the worst affected: “Everything has been destroyed. Where we were, the neighbouring villages, Kyinka, Bilous, Zarichny, Oleksandrivka district, they’re just like Khatyn, everything has burnt down.” The rest of Mediazona’s interviewees said the same about the villages in the western suburbs of Chernihiv; Sergey even said that they were “wiped off the face of the Earth”.
Of the utilities, gas is the only one left, though, according to Sergey, only in 10-15% of the houses. One of these is Natalia’s house. Drinking water is collected in a separate tank, by a well, while for washing, she uses rainwater collected with a bucket under a drainpipe. Many citizens go to the river for water. While she has gas, Koren can heat her water and wash her clothes. “We try to look after ourselves as best as we can and to somehow look neat,” she says.
According to the inhabitants of Chernihiv, the sewer system does not work and so people are putting wooden toilets near apartment blocks. “People use a bucket or a cardboard box filled with newspaper and then throw it all out,” says Sergey. Natalia clarifies: when the plumbing is turned off, water in the toilet or bath does not drain and so you need to pour everything out onto the street.
According to her, people don’t even think about heating: “We think that at least there would be no shooting, no bombs or rockets falling. That’s what we think about. Everything else, you know, we can get through.”
Sergey adds that the Russian troops deliberately bombed the CPP [Chernihiv Power Plant]: “It was smashed to rubble and cannot be repaired. Employees and city authorities estimate that it will take about two years to restore it to working condition. I do not know how we will survive next winter.”
Where there is no gas, people cook on bonfires or stoves built with bricks and barrels. Trees are being cut down and chopped up because the supply of dry firewood is already running out.
In addition to their own reserves, people have been surviving on the humanitarian aid that volunteers managed to bring in before the bridge was bombed. One of the last batches, if not the last, was delivered on a 20-ton truck, which was organised by Victoria Veruga, the head of the volunteer organisation “Palyanytsia”. She comes from Chernihiv and her relatives are still there, but she herself lives in Kyiv and coordinates the work of the team from there. Under her supervision, dozens of volunteers negotiate bringing in supplies from abroad and delivering products to people in need throughout the Chernihiv region.
Victoria recalls that sending the truck was pure luck. She saw a post on Instagram by some of her former colleagues who were asking if anybody needed help in Chernihiv. Victoria texted them and they replied that 20 tons of humanitarian aid were about to arrive in Kyiv, but that there was no transport to send it to Chernihiv. Veruga was then contacted by her friend’s brother who said that he was looking for something to load onto a 20-ton truck heading to Chernihiv. Victoria quickly found friends who helped to load the supplies. The next day the bridge was blown up. “I don’t know what we’d have done without those 20 tons of food,” she says.
Immediately after that, international charities contacted the volunteers, and in the space of two days they provided volunteers with almost 40 tons of supplies for the besieged city. “Where were you before?” Victoria now asks. In order not to waste the cargo, “Palyanytsia” distributed it in the villages that it was possible to reach.
She estimates that in five days the volunteers reached 30 villages and distributed about 50 tons of food. In some places, it was the first food supply since the beginning of the war. Victoria recalls that at times they used a method where rural leaders would make a list of items that they and their neighbours in occupied villages required. Volunteers would then bring everything, and the local residents would take food to their neighbours.
— In villages, basically, the situation [in terms of food] is somewhat less critical, because people have a vegetable garden and some supplies. But things are bad when it comes to medicine. When we offered them medicine as well as food, they were very happy, says Veruga.
It is sensible to only send products with a long shelf life and which are easy to cook into the conflict zone. Cereals and canned food are best of all, while there is a huge demand for instant noodles. She adds, “Everything else either requires time or a large amount of water, like vegetables or potatoes”. Frozen meat and fish are not in demand in the city as cooking them is a long and difficult process. Where possible, volunteers include sausages in the aid packages. “The simplest and most ordinary food is needed: cereals, canned food, stew and perhaps fruit”.
Victoria adds that she also takes into account whether there are children and pregnant women among those who will receive the aid packages. Volunteers take cookies and sweets for the children and condensed milk for the young mothers. “Apparently, due to stress, women who have recently given birth are unable to produce breast milk. You have to eat condensed milk and halva to avoid that. Though we never have halva, we still have condensed milk,” explains the coordinator.
In the city, several shops still open but only intermittently. Natalia Koren says that people get in line without knowing what for: “We will buy whatever they have there.” Fish, eggs, sausages are being sold, while bread is brought to apartment blocks where an appointed person distributes it among the apartments. “There are no issues with bread. As for everything else... People do not fuss over their food now. Now what’s important is to survive, to get through this,” says Natalia.
Sergey says that he has been shelled several times on his way to the bakery to get bread for his neighbours. He is sure that the Russian troops specifically target the bakeries to deprive the city of bread.
Lesya Fedorenko describes the daily routine in besieged Chernihiv: “The day begins with everyone waking up and making sure, for example, that the house is still intact. Any further plans depend on the situation. Then the search for the essentials — water and bread. Bread is delivered to certain distribution points, where there are queues. It is dangerous. Half a day is spent in the search for necessities. Then some sort of routine. And now it’s warming up a bit, it’s spring. Friends send photos as they slowly begin to clear their courtyards from rubbish and debris from. People continue to live, you know, day by day. As my mother says, as many say: “We live with the hope that we will win.”
“Palyanytsia” was evacuating people from Chernihiv while it was still possible. Victoria Veruga says that the volunteers raised money for a minivan and managed seven trips with it, carrying around one hundred people out of the city. When the van got stuck in the city it came in very handy. Volunteers had chosen a diesel model, meaning that the military were able to share fuel with them. There is no petrol in Chernihiv and the small reserves that some residents have are for generators.
Victoria says that her aunt has one such generator. Once a day, she turns it on to recharge the freezer, which is where the residents of the entire neighbourhood, about 30 households, keep their food. Then the food is thawed and grilled .
Towards the end of March, it began to get warmer and a new problem arose, people needed suitable clothes for the season. “We finally collected a lot of warm clothes, but then everyone abruptly started asking for summer stuff because lots of people ran away from destroyed homes, not taking anything with them. So people are now walking around in winter boots, while it is +15°C outside. Fungal infection has become very common. As such, people are asking for lighter clothes, socks and underwear are now the most popular products in Chernihiv,” says Victoria.
Mobile communication, especially in the private sector of the city, is almost completely nonexistent. Residents say that it is only possible to talk to relatives once every two or three days. Sergey says that Russian troops were destroying cell towers in the first days of the war, but then stopped shelling them because they were unable to get signal themselves. Signal can be found where “literally two or three towers are powered by generators”, he explains. He went to one of those places specifically in order to talk to Mediazona .
Victoria’s volunteers carry three or four phones with them in the hope that at any given time at least one will work. This tactic, the coordinator assures us, often works. She recounts how residents of Chernihiv have managed to get signal during the war. For example, her aunt marked an area on the ground where the phone somehow gets signal. “She never takes it out of that area because she has children, relatives and friends who worry about her,” says Victoria.
In another case, a girl on Victoria’s team would go to a specific point at a specific time every day for several weeks, from where she could reach her. Victoria says that the situation is a little better now, someone even has Wi-Fi. But she is still unable to contact the volunteers more than once a day .
“Palyanytsia” publishes daily photo reports of its work on its Instagram page. Volunteers hope that people outside of Chernihiv will see pictures of their relatives, whom they have not been able to contact.
After the bridge was destroyed, volunteers tried to bring humanitarian aid into the city but came under fire. Sergey describes the incident that took place on the 30th of March. He says that five volunteer buses with red crosses and plates, marking humanitarian aid and the presence of children, were on the bank of the Desna. The plan was for volunteers to carry the cargo to the city by boat, but they were shelled.
As a result, three people died, including Bogdan Stefanishin, husband of deputy Olga Stefanishiina. “Nastia, a local girl from Chernihiv, was also killed. She was a young girl, a student, with a whole life ahead of her. The buses were all destroyed. And the worst part is that the bastards knew exactly who they were shooting at because they could see them. Even with the ordinary binoculars, it would have been clear that there were no uniformed people there, that they were civilians with humanitarian supplies and a humanitarian mission. All of it was targeted and blown up,” says Sergey.
All the residents of Chernihiv with whom Mediazona spoke noted a “simply extraordinary” sense of mutual assistance and solidarity among citizens. Sergey talks about friends who bring food to an old man they barely know every other day: “They feed him, and charge up his phone and hearing aid because he is practically deaf. Without the hearing aid he is both blind and deaf.”
There are lots of abandoned or lost animals in the city; so there are people who each take in and care for 15-20 dogs or cats. Sergey says that they are usually living in a private sector, so there is no connection with them — once every couple days volunteers bring them food and, if they can find it, some spoiled cuts of meat for the animals .
Those who have gas at home let the neighbours use it for cooking. Sergey says that in the queues for bread and water, good order is maintained and arguments are rare. He brings food and water to two old ladies in his building whose children are in Kyiv and cannot help them.
Natalia reveals that her neighbour, who lives alone with her 80-year-old mother, does not have a phone and so she gave them her own. When her battery runs down, she goes outside and listens for the sound of a working generator. There she asks to charge her phone, and people don’t refuse .
— If someone needs water, we bring it to them, especially if they are elderly. The girl who is in charge of distributing bread writes a list and then distributes it among the apartments. Someone moved out and left their keys, no one is afraid of any theft or dishonesty. They ask you to look after their things, to enjoy their food, while it is still fresh. We are not starving. People help each other. And volunteers also help,” Natalia says.
Residents of Chernihiv say that people in the city invite strangers, who have lost everything, into their homes. They used to try to evacuate these people, but now that the bridge has been destroyed, everyone understands that it is impossible.
— The hospitals too, you know, they are also shelling the hospitals. The maternity hospital was shelled too. The hospitals are working on generators, which they need for all the surgeries, life support, and water supply. You know, we were looking for some 200-500-litre barrels of water so that the surgeons could wash their hands. Just think about it”, says Sergey, overcome with emotion.
He does not deny that there has been some looting in the city. For example, someone can order humanitarian aid to an apartment block and then take everything for themselves. But it is discovered as soon as the same building asks for help again. “Then people quickly find those rats and deal with them themselves”, says the man.
He adds that over the last month the neighbours have become so close that they often picture how after the war they will take their tables outside and “will celebrate the victory in great big groups, right there in the courtyard”.
The children of Chernihiv are the chief concern of the organisation “Palyanytsia”. Victoria tells of how the other day, volunteers found a pre-war warehouse stocked with marshmallows, and brought them to bomb shelters where dozens of children are now living. A little later, a similar story came out, this time involving ice cream.
“Literally the day before yesterday, in the area near where one of our drivers lives, the lights went out, as far as I could understand. He found a lot of ice cream somewhere. And he quickly texted me: “Vika, I’ll only have a phone signal for the next two minutes, quickly tell me where there are children”. So he brought the children ice cream, and then brought some to the nursing home too. At least we could bring these people some joy.” recalls the coordinator.
Last week, Sergey helped organising a package for his friend’s soon-to-be-born baby. His friend’s wife, who was eight months pregnant, had refused to leave Chernihiv. “Volunteers provided everything: bottles for feeding, follow-on milk, pacifiers, diapers, and powders. Luckily all that stuff made it into the city beforehand.
Victoria says that when it comes to the children in Chernihiv, it is hard not to think of the film “Life is beautiful”, where a father is brought to a concentration camp with his son and convinces the child that everything is a game. “In order to hide the truth of the situation from his son, the father makes the whole thing into a game, and tells the son he will get a tank if he wins. The son is living in the concentration camp and thinking that the whole thing is a game. I think now everyone is in some way imitating the movie. Parents, of course, try to shield their children from it all, they try to find positives in everything.”
Veruga describes a relative who is raising a 13-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son by herself. The boy cried for the first time on the 14th day of the war, and before that he “held on, grim-faced.” This family now lives in a large commune with their neighbours, where they distract themselves by playing the guitar and singing .
“Families are brought under one roof, with 20 people to a house. This makes it easier psychologically, as well as making it easier to feed yourself. Some guy arrived who plays the bandura. The children have a tent in the basement — they have a 100-year-old cellar to themselves. And the children are having fun in there,” says Victoria. At the same time, she notes, it is increasingly difficult for parents to sustain this illusion for their children.
According to Sergey, about one child in five in Chernihiv is frightened and aware of the situation, and the rest are “playing peacefully outside.” Most children, in his opinion, simply do not realise the danger — and it “protects them psychologically, a little.”
Victoria Veruga admits that she has occasionally called Chernihiv “the second Mariupol” but only ever when she was distraught; when she’s calmer, she can’t accept such a comparison.
“In Mariupol, the troops went in, it was totally bombed. It is a completely different situation in Chernihiv. In Chernihiv, the troops couldn’t get in. The only thing they managed to do is to interfere with the logistics of the city. It’s difficult for me to believe that my hometown is in the same state as Mariupol. I know that children there died from dehydration and lack of food... I do not want to compare Chernihiv with Mariupol,” she repeats.
Sergey finds the comparison with Mariupol perfectly apt: Chernihiv, he believes, “was preparing itself for the same fate” — the city was cut off from communications and was subjected to massive shelling, but the enemy just “did not have enough time”, and the Ukrainian army resisted them.
Natalia Koren says that she can only judge the situation in Mariupol by what she sees on the news, but believes that in Chernihiv the situation “is not as catastrophic”. At the same time, she admits, in the outskirts of the city you can indeed “see the same things you see in Mariupol.”
On February 24, she says, the lives of the Chernihiv residents stopped.
“We’re not living, we’re just existing. We’re constantly looking out the window, expecting some kind of bomb or missile to land, all the time. At first, we were afraid of the explosions, then we began to get used to them. After that, we began to fear silence. We are scared of what the next five or ten minutes will bring. It’s the silence that frightens us. We don’t sleep, we just lie there with our eyes closed, we’re only ever half asleep. Because we expect them to shoot at us, or to bomb us, and we’ll have to hide. We never undress. This is the second month now that we’ve been sleeping in our clothes. So we can run away and hide in time,” says Natalia.
Many people living here, she says, have gotten used to the war and walk around outside.
— But that won’t last. Some people went to the pharmacy for medicine; a plane shot at them and more than 40 people were killed. Then others went out for bread — 17 people died. No one knows how it happened. Then some people were standing near the shop again — and four people died. Nobody knows what to do. What will be, will be — some people are already living by this dictum. To be in hiding, all the time? I don’t know, that’s probably no longer an option, although it’s better to be safe than sorry,” Koren sighs heavily.
Lesya does not like the comparison of Chernihiv with Mariupol, because she doesn’t want her native city to be associated with destruction and death, “but essentially, yes, the comparison is correct”, she admits.
She continues: “While I was in Chernihiv, the mayor announced: “Guys, we need carpenters.” Why carpenters? To make coffins, because we didn't have enough of them. To the extent that, as far as I know, people are being buried in mass graves. So that’s it. That's the situation."
At the end of the conversation with Sergey, he admits that he only agreed to an interview so that he could send a message to the Belarusian military, and delivered a long and emotional monologue. Mediazona quotes it here, slightly reduced:
— Please, tell the Belarusian soldiers, the officers, please, tell them not to even think about coming here. I haven’t seen such hatred — such cold, sober hatred — in people for a long time. The attitude towards Belarusians has changed a lot, they are called bastards and cunts if they are referred to at all. The only thing preserving you from hatred is that, though you provided a springboard for our attackers, you haven’t actually come here with your own troops. If your troops come in, believe me — the military said that there will be dead draniki [Belarusians]. (There will be a lot of dead Belarusians.) Stop the military from coming here. If it’s true that there’s some kind of guerilla railroad war situation going on in Belarus, then it’s a little more understandable… But believe me, the missiles bombing us are coming from your land, and there are constant air raids on Ukraine’s territory coming from your airfields, and these air raids are murdering civilians, it isn’t the military installations that are being bombed. We’re not ‘brother nations’ anymore, believe me.
Please, tell the Belarusian people and the Belarusian military: this is not their war, they should not come here. But if they come, then fine, it’s their choice. We don’t want the blood of Belarusians on our hands either, Belarusian men that two dickheads want to send to Ukraine. Let the sabotage continue — there are plenty of ways of not following orders or following them ineffectively.”
Translation: Ivan Hanbury and Lily Samarine