Together with volunteers, Ukrainian publication Livy Bereg traveled through the community settlements to see how this town 42 miles south of Chernobyl is trying to regain normalcy.
A peaceful sky
We leave Kyiv in a convoy with humanitarian aid and a military escort. Explosives experts often overtake us.
Kozarovichi, north of Kyiv, is the first village where we stop. A Ukrainian soldier approaches an elderly woman wrapped in a warm scarf.
“Good afternoon. Don't be afraid of me. Is there anything you need?”
“Yes, bread and water, maybe. Thank you. Glory to Ukraine!”
“Glory to heroes! God bless you.”
The people, mostly elderly, gather surprisingly quickly. People look tired and anxious. They are suspicious of new cars in the village. Everyone receives food kits, hygiene products.
“What is this, humanitarian aid?” a confused woman asks.
“Yes. What shall I give you?”
“Nothing is needed anymore. Except for a peaceful sky.”
Further along the road, we see three tanks with Ukrainian soldiers. Our companion, Dmitry, territorial defender, passes cigarettes, sausages and canned food to the soldiers. They smile gratefully and show the sign of victory.
Hunting for Ukrainian soldiers
We stop at Kolentsi, a village the Russian military has visited twice. According to the locals, the enemies tried to find out if Ukrainian soldiers were hiding there.
“The Russians used the address lists to catch participants of the Anti-Terrorist Operation in Donbas. They knew people by name who lived here. Some were taken out with sacks on their heads, held captive for two days and released, but one man was never found,” says one man.
A retiree named Hanna Oleksandrivna says she believes a local woman, a citizen of Russia, snitched on the former Ukrainian soldiers. She says the latter ran out to meet the enemy column with the words: "Hurray, the liberators came!" She offered them her help and was rewarded with a pack of cigarettes. Now, according to the peasants, the Security Service of Ukraine is dealing with the issue.
People say the occupiers did not miss a single house in the village.
An elderly woman recalls with tears: "The Russians stayed with us for the first time for six hours. They set up their patrols every three meters and came to us with machine guns. In houses without owners, they tore out doors, took everything from the cellars, and then kicked the dog. They knocked on my door. I went out and burst into tears. My granddaughter said, ‘Don't shoot!’ And they answered that they came to liberate us. I wanted to ask from whom, but I decided to keep silent. A fellow villager, Leonid, was shot dead just like that when he was driving his car. They could kill a person for the question: ‘Guys, what are you doing here?’"
A member of the Ukrainian military asks her not to cry.
"Perhaps, from happiness that you are here now,” she replies.
Volunteers are distributing humanitarian aid near the surviving church. According to a local woman, a month ago, three young men were interrogated in front of the whole village here: “The Russians caught and undressed them completely under the church, looked for tattoos and beat them. They released the men in an hour and then stole wine from the priest, intended for the communion."
Locals say the village has a quiet life now: People work in gardens and fields. Although there are many hunters among the people, nobody sets foot in the woods. The invaders set lots of mines there and stole weapons from locals.
Leaving the village, I notice dirty and hungry dogs running to the church. The locals feed them, getting products from the packages.
Acts of torture
At the entrance of the next village, Termakhivka, there is a cross torn from the ground. On the left is a village house that was formerly used as a Russian base. The owner recalls that they took her home, saying: "This is no longer your land; this is all ours."
The yard is littered with rubbish left by the enemy army: boxes of their rations, packages of juice with the name "Guest". There is a hut with the inscription "Three Heroes", etched for unknown reasons. Inside the house, there are piles of garbage and unsanitary conditions.
In March, civilians were tortured here for 15 days.
In Termakhivka, people say that the occupiers did not even spare women and children
This is Oleg's testimony:
The Russians captured five young men: my classmate Bohdan, another Bohdan, a neighbor Ruslan, Andriy and Denis. These are ordinary boys … Bohdan was shot twice in the legs, he got no medical treatment. They were beaten and taken out to be shot one by one. The invaders fired into the air and then interrogated others to frighten them and force them to say something. The boys said nothing. Then higher rank soldiers came and kicked them in the face. They could not even go to the toilet properly because their hands were always tied with wire. Once the Russians brought a man without one ear, with a military ID who’d been shot in all limbs. The prisoners were forced to dig a grave and bury the corpse. There is even a grave here. And the Russians looted our entire village. They went to people's homes and took away everything, even lingerie, sneakers, children's clothes. They stole cars. And they kept saying they came to liberate us.”
During the occupation, a man with his young wife and nine-month-old child were hiding from shelling in the basement. And when the fighting intensified, his friends were captured and he ran away with his family through the woods to hide from the enemy.
In Termakhivka, people say that the occupiers did not spare women and children: They were mocked and constantly intimidated. Residents of a two-story house in the village center were often lined up and told they had one way: either walk to Belarus or be shot.
Documenting war crimes
Halyna Serhiivna says, “Once two of their guys went missing. The Russians came to us and said: ‘Children stay, but you leave.’ They put everyone in a row: women, mothers, retirees, and reloaded their machine guns. My daughter never spoke Russian, but there she began to ask in Russian-Ukrainian words not to shoot because the kids were small. Children looked out the windows and cried. The Russians said: ‘If we don't find two of ours, then we will shoot you all!’ At night, they pointed at the windows and shouted ‘Maksimov! Ivanov!’ Those drunks had just wandered somewhere. And if they hadn’t found them, they would have shot our house.”
The woman's hands are trembling. While we are talking, her 10-year-old grandson arrives on a bicycle, notices people in camouflage and immediately hides behind his grandmother. The old woman tells the kid not to be afraid because they are Ukrainian soldiers. The boy and the soldier shake hands.
Police officers talk to locals and document war crimes and crimes against humanity.
At the turn to the city of Malyn, we see the ruins of ten houses. Some houses were completely destroyed. Here, on February 26, the Russians dropped two bombs and killed five civilians.
Sergey says, “The first blow was to the pond, and the second to my house. It’s lucky that I jumped into the far room and fell to the floor, otherwise I wouldn't be here. My mother was disabled; here is her wheelchair. And my mother's sister was thrown out of the house and cut in half. People helped to bury them in the garden because Russian soldiers didn’t allow us to do it in the cemetery. And if we had jumped into the basement, we would have survived, the door resisted. But who knew it would happen? I think that the Russians did not come here to fight, but to loot and kill. This is murder, what else can you call it?”
He leads us to the graves of his relatives and falls silent. He says he is waiting for forensic experts for exhumation and proper reburial in the cemetery. Near the graves, there is a recently plowed piece of land.
“What will I do now? I have planted a garden, and then we will see,” he says.
In the opposite yard, a couple is buried in the same pit. A neighbor says he found a woman near his house. Apparently, having heard the rumble, she ran to him in the basement, but did not have time. She had her head cut off and her husband's leg was torn off. Soon after, the Russians looted their house.
The only living things in this yard are yellow flowers that broke through the ground sown with air bomb debris.
Too old to rebuild
There are many soldiers in Ivankiv, houses that still survive, and a crowded square in the center of the village. Diagonally from the village council is a five-story building, burned to the ground, apparently by a mortar or tank shell.
Local resident Andriy says, “Chechens came to Ivankiv on the first day of the war. I identified them by their beards and impudence. The destroyed apartment in my house is a result of their arrival. They shot it to get people under control. Thank God, we were in the basement at the time. The siren went off in the house, there was still light and water.”
On Feb. 25, the Russians dropped two powerful bombs on Ivankiv. No one was killed because the residents were hiding in the basement. One of the owners of a destroyed house smiles bitterly when he hears the words: "The main thing is that everyone is alive."
“I am too old to rebuild almost from scratch. Everything is broken, everything is destroyed,” he says. “I had no contact with the occupiers, but I heard they shot people: for example, a priest who was leaving the service and allegedly wanted to stop a column of Russian equipment. Those who fed his dogs were also shot. The bodies lay for a very long time, until they were allowed to be taken away and buried."
Resurrection after invasion
According to official data, the Russian army killed 45 people in the Ivankiv community. Ten residents went missing, says the head of the Ivankiv village council Tetyana Svyridenko.
We are talking in her office, where there is a portrait of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko and the emblem of the community with the motto "In the name of life".
According to Svyridenko, on the first day of the full-scale attack, almost no one had time to leave Ivankiv. From the exclusion zone, Russian equipment was coming around the clock. There were no evacuation corridors; the community lived under full occupation.
Tetyana Dmytrivna recalls how she managed to survive despite the Russians’ hunt for government officials. “They began to look for the anti-terrorist operation participants and heads of local self-government bodies. I thank the people who hid me and knew where I was every hour until March 31. They saved me from the occupiers."
Svyridenko admits that there were traitors in the area. They handed over the ATO participants and showed the addresses of employees of local governments. Some of them came to live here a few years ago and some a few months before the full-scale invasion.
We understand that there will be a great restoration of Ukraine.
Now Ivankiv is coming back to life. Utilities work in the district, and the court and the treasury have resumed their work. Electricity was restored in 55 settlements. Water supply was restored in 50% of the rural area. There are shops and ATMs. National postal service employees deliver pensions.
At present, 50% of the area has been demined. Explosives experts come every day because there is work on the road, in the field, and in private houses and yards.
“We are waiting for full de-mining so that everyone in the agricultural region can cultivate their piece of land. We understand that there will be a great restoration of Ukraine. Everyone must completely plant their field, and this field must feed not only its owner but those in the neighborhood. I hope that by May 9, the Armed Forces of Ukraine will make mincemeat out of the 'orcs' and everything will be fine. And then we will rebuild the country.”
On the way back, the sun rises and illuminates the green field. We see storks returning to their nests, the ones that have survived.