‘Thank you for not killing us.’

Corpses are exhumed from a mass grave near St. Andrew Church in Bucha, Ukraine, April 8, 2022. (Daniel Berehulak / The New York Times)

BORODIANKA, Ukraine – The first sign of trouble was when a group of Chechen soldiers burst through the gate.

They jumped from their jeeps, combat boots hit the sidewalk hard, and ordered the 500 patients and staff of Borodianka’s special needs home in the yard with gunshots.

“We thought we would be executed,” home director Maryna Hanitska said in an interview this week, a few days after Russian forces withdrew from Borodianka.

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She told how the soldiers pulled out a camera. They barked at Hanitska to make everyone smile. Most of the patients cried.

“We command you to say to the camera: ‘Thank you, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’ ‘, demanded the soldiers Hanitska.

With several weapons in her face, she said, she quickly ran through her options. She would never thank the President of Russia, whom she had called “a liar” and “a murderer.”

But she did not want the soldiers to hurt anyone. So she managed to utter, “Thank you for not killing us.”

And then she fainted.

Thus began a nightmarish ordeal at a Ukrainian mental health facility in Borodianka, a small town with a few apartment blocks located at a strategic intersection about 50 miles northwest of the capital, Kiev.

In more than a dozen interviews conducted in the last two days in Borodianka and other cities in the devastated areas around Kiev, villagers described the Russian soldiers as brutal, sadistic, undisciplined and young. The villagers’ reports could not be independently verified, but they were consistent with other reports and visual evidence of Russian behavior in the region.

The siege of psychiatry dragged on for weeks, with the building losing heat, water and electricity, and more than a dozen patients losing their lives. What unfolded there represents the depth of despair and at the same time fantastic picking during a brief but shocking Russian occupation.

Everywhere in the areas of Ukraine that have recently been liberated from a month-long Russian occupation, a large number of disturbing stories of terror and death that Russian soldiers have inflicted on unarmed Ukrainian civilians appear under their control.

Every day, Ukrainian investigators enter a damp basement or muddy field or someone else’s backyard and discover the bodies of villagers who have been shot in the head or bear signs of torture. Several accounts emerge of civilians being held back as human shields, and some dying from lack of food, water or heat. On Friday, Ukrainian officials said Russian forces had killed at least 900 civilians as they withdrew from the Kyiv region.

Much of this misery was measured in small towns near Kiev, where the Russians occupied a large shard in the early days of the war, but were driven out two weeks ago by less-equipped but much more determined Ukrainian forces.

Administrators at Borodianka’s mental health home said Russian soldiers robbed their pharmacy of alcohol. Villagers elsewhere said they stole bedding and sneakers, and they marred many of the homes they took over with childish graffiti. Workers at the psychiatric home also said that Russian soldiers on their way out wrote profane messages on the walls – in human excrement.

“I threw up when I saw it,” Hanitska said. “I do not understand how they were brought up, by whom, and who could do this.”

Lypivka, a glimpse of a village overshadowed by huge wheat fields, was occupied by Russian soldiers until March 31st. Here villagers said the Russians crossed them twice.

Some village women had begged Russian commanders for permission to evacuate, and the Russians seemed to agree. So on March 12, a group of elderly men, women and children piled into 14 cars and slowly started driving to what they thought would be safety.

“We all had white flags and we had permission,” said Valriy Tymchuk, a store owner who was driving a minibus in the convoy.

But then Russian armored personnel carriers turned their towers towards them, villagers said. A grenade ripped into the first car. And then another. And then another.

The convoy turned into a fireball.

Tymchuk said he saw a family of four, including a small child, trapped in their car and engulfed in flames. Many of the carved-in cars are still on the road. The charred bones of that child are still in the back seat, Tymchuk said. What appeared to be bone fragments were scattered among the black metal and ash heaps.

Next to the cars lay two dead dogs, their fur sung.

Tymchuk barely escaped after his minibus was hit and shrapnel cut into his face.

He shook his head when asked why he thought the Russians were doing this.

“They are zombies,” he said.

These villages were on the front lines, part of Russia’s failed attempt to encircle and conquer Kiev. The same was true of Bucha, another village north of Kiev and the site of the worst atrocities yet discovered. All these places are quiet now, allowing forensic investigators to carry out their work. And the more they look, the more they find.

In Makariv, another small town near Kiev, authorities said they have recently discovered more than 20 bodies in various farms and homes, many with marks of torture. In the Brovary area, further east, police officers found just six bodies in a basement, all men who had apparently been executed.

“We have seen corpses with stab wounds and marks from beatings, and some with their hands tied with tape,” said Oleksandr Omelyanenko, a police officer in the Kiev region.

“The places hardest hit,” he added, “were occupied the longest.”

That was the story of Borodianka and Borodianka Psychoneurological Nursing Homes.

Hanitska, a 43-year-old former school principal, said she watched from the windows of the three-story building with special needs as Russian trucks poured in. She counted 500.

Then, worried about snipers, the Russians began shelling apartment blocks along the roads, and dozens of residents died during a cascade of rubble, according to emergency services officials.

The shock waves rattled the home with special needs, built in the 1970s to provide adults with neurological and psychological disorders. Hanitska said some of her patients became aggressive, and three even escaped and have not yet been found. Others were terrified and curled up under their beds and in their closets.

“It was more than 10 times scary,” said Ihor Nikolaenko, a patient.

On March 5, it got worse.

That was when the Chechens appeared. Chechen troops are particularly feared, believed to be more ruthless than other Russians, a consequence of years of their own failed separatist war against Russia’s central government.

Hanitska and other staff said they could tell the troops were Chechen on their bright beards and the language they spoke to each other. The Ukrainian authorities posted messages on social media, referring to the Chechens and warning them not to hurt the patients.

“These are mostly sick people with developmental disabilities,” Oleksandr Pavliuk, a senior Ukrainian military official, said in a statement. “But these are our people, and we can and will never leave them.”

At this point, it was too late for some people inside. Hanitska said her first patient died of exposure to cold in late February. In early March, half a dozen more died. In all, she lost 13.

It was 20 degrees Fahrenheit inside the building, even colder outside. There was no heat, no electricity, no running water and little food. After all, Borodianka was under siege.

“We started drinking water from the pond,” Hanitska said. “We all got sick.”

The Chechen contingent mysteriously withdrew the same day it arrived, but other Russians took their place. They did not allow anyone to leave the building, even to go outside to search for food, and they surrounded the building with artillery, mortars and heavy cannons, knowing that the Ukrainians would be reluctant to hit it.

“We became human shields,” said Taisia ​​Tyschkevych, the home’s accountant.

The Russians took everyone’s phone. Or almost everyone.

Hanitska said she hid hers and used it to communicate secretly. She would look out the window of the nurse’s office and spot Russian vehicles, she said, and then text the details to the Ukrainian forces. “They beat the Russians,” she said. “If we had not done this, the fighting would take place in Kiev.”

Many Ukrainian civilians have helped like that, Ukrainian officials said.

While spying on the Russians, Hanitska also made meals on bonfires outside, threw patients into the basement when the artillery became deafening, arranged sleeping places in the corridors of dozens more people fleeing the bombed-out buildings in the city, and flocked to her facility. for shelter, and – more than anything else – helped calm everyone’s nerves.

On March 13, Hanitska looked out of the same window and saw for the first time in several weeks something that lifted her heart: a convoy of yellow buses. She burst out of the gate.

“I would either be shot,” she said. “Or save people.”

Humanitarian workers had organized a rescue, and the Russians finally allowed the patients to leave. They were driven to other facilities in less challenging areas.

Hanitska is tough but humble with a dry sense of humor.

When asked how long she had worked at home, she laughed.

“Two months,” she said. “You could say I’m lucky.”

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