BORODIANKA, Ukraine — The first sign of trouble was when a squad of Chechen soldiers burst through the gate.
They jumped out of their jeeps, combat boots slamming hard on the sidewalk, and ordered the 500 patients and staff of Borodianka’s specialty nursing home into the yard at gunpoint.
“We thought we were going to be executed,” Maryna Hanitska, the director of the home, said in an interview this week.
The soldiers pulled out a camera, Ms. Hanitska said, and then barked at her to make everyone smile. Most patients cried.
“We order you to say to the camera: ‘Thank you, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin,'” the soldiers demanded of Ms. Hanitska.
With multiple guns to her face, she said, she quickly went through her options. She would never thank the Russian president, whom she had called “a liar” and “a murderer.”
But she didn’t want the soldiers to hurt anyone. So she brought it out: “Thanks for not killing us.”
And then she passed out.
Thus began a nightmarish ordeal at a Ukrainian psychiatric facility in Borodianka, a small town of a few blocks of flats located at a strategic crossroads about 50 miles northwest of the capital, Kyiv.
In more than a dozen interviews conducted over the past two days in Borodianka and other towns in the devastated areas around Kyiv, villagers described Russian soldiers as brutal, sadistic, undisciplined and youthful. Their reports could not be independently verified but were consistent with other reports and visual evidence of Russian behavior in the region.
The siege on the psychiatric facility dragged on for weeks, during which the building lost heat, water and electricity and more than a dozen patients lost their lives. What unfolded there represents the depths of despair and, at the same time, the amazing courage under a short but harrowing Russian occupation.
In the areas of Ukraine recently liberated from months of Russian occupation, a long string of disturbing stories of terror and death inflicted by Russian soldiers on unarmed Ukrainian civilians under their control are emerging.
Every day, Ukrainian investigators enter a damp basement, muddy field or backyard and discover the bodies of villagers who have been shot in the head or show signs of torture. Increasingly, reports are emerging of civilians being held as human shields and some dying from lack of food, water or heat. On Friday, Ukrainian officials said Russian forces killed at least 900 civilians while withdrawing from the Kyiv region.
Much of this misery was played out in small towns near Kyiv, where the Russians occupied much of the country in the early days of the war but were driven out two weeks ago by less equipped but much more determined Ukrainian forces.
The administrators of the Borodianka psychiatric facility said that Russian soldiers robbed their dispensary with alcohol for drinking. Villagers elsewhere said they stole bed sheets and sneakers and defaced many of the homes they took over with childish graffiti. Staff at the psychiatric home also said that Russian soldiers scrawled profane messages on the walls — in human excrement — on their way out.
“I threw up when I saw that,” Ms. Hanitska said. “I don’t understand how they were raised, by whom and who could do that.”
Lypivka, a village dwarfed by vast fields of wheat, was occupied by Russian soldiers until March 31. Villagers said the Russians betrayed them.
Some village women had asked 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 began driving to where they felt safe.
“We all had white flags and we had permission,” said Valriy Tymchuk, a shopkeeper who drove a minibus in the convoy.
But then Russian infantry fighting vehicles swung their turrets towards them, villagers said. A grenade hit the first car. And then another. And then another.
The convoy turned into a fireball.
Mr Tymchuk said he saw a family of four, including a young child, trapped in their car and engulfed in flames. Many of the singed cars are still on the road. That child’s charred bones are still in the back seat, Mr Tymchuk said. Between the blackened metal and the piles of ash lay bits of bone that looked.
Two dead dogs with singed fur lay next to the cars.
Mr Tymchuk narrowly escaped after his van was hit and shrapnel slashed his face.
He shook his head when asked why he thought the Russians did it.
“Those are zombies,” he said.
These villages were on the front line, part of Russia’s failed attempt to encircle and capture Kyiv. The same was true of Bucha, another village north of Kyiv and the scene of the worst atrocities yet discovered. All of these places are now quiet, allowing forensic investigators to do their jobs. And the more they seek, the more they find.
In Makariv, another small town near Kyiv, authorities said they had recently discovered more than 20 bodies in various yards and houses, many showing signs of torture. In the Brovary area, further east, police just found six bodies in a basement, all men who appeared to have been executed.
“We saw bodies with knife wounds and marks from beatings, and some with their hands tied with tape,” said Oleksandr Omelyanenko, a police officer in the Kyiv region.
“The hardest-hit places,” he added, “have been occupied the longest.”
That was the story of Borodianka and Borodianka Psychoneurological Nursing Home.
Ms Hanitska, 43, and a former headmistress, said she watched the Russian trucks pour in from the windows of the three-storey building. She counted 500.
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Then the Russians, fearing snipers, began shelling blocks of flats that lined the streets, and dozens of residents died under a cascade of debris, according to emergency services officials.
The shockwaves shook the special needs home, built in the 1970s to care for adults with neurological and mental illnesses. Ms Hanitska said some of her patients had become aggressive and three even escaped and have yet to be found. Others were frightened and curled up under their beds and in their closets.
“It was scary more than 10 times,” said Ihor Nikolaenko, a patient.
On March 5th things got worse.
Then the Chechens showed up. Chechen troops are particularly feared and considered more ruthless than other Russians, a result of their years of failed separatist wars against the Russian central government.
Ms. Hanitska and other staff said they could tell the troops were Chechens by their light beards and the language they spoke to each other. Ukrainian authorities posted messages on social media referring to the Chechens and warning them not to hurt the patients.
“These are mainly sick people with developmental disabilities,” Oleksandr Pavliuk, a senior Ukrainian military official, said in a statement. “But these are our people and we can’t and never will leave them.”
At that point it was too late for some people inside. Ms. Hanitska said her first patient died from the cold at the end of February. Half a dozen more died by early March. In all, she lost 13.
It was 20 degrees Fahrenheit inside the building, even colder outside. There was no heating, no electricity, no running water and little food. Eventually Borodianka was besieged.
“We started drinking water from the pond,” Ms. Hanitska said. “We all got sick.”
The Chechen contingent mysteriously withdrew the same day it arrived, but other Russians took their place. They didn’t allow anyone to leave the building, not even go outside to look for food, and they surrounded the building with artillery, mortars and heavy artillery because they knew the Ukrainians would be reluctant to hit it.
“We became human shields,” said Taisia Tyschkevych, the home’s accountant.
The Russians took everyone’s phones. Or almost everyone.
Ms. Hanitska said she hid hers and secretly communicated with it. She would peek out the window of the nurses’ office and spot Russian vehicles, she said, and then text the details to Ukrainian forces. “They attacked the Russians,” she said. “If we hadn’t done that, the fighting would take place in Kyiv.”
Many Ukrainian civilians have helped in this way, Ukrainian officials said.
While spying on the Russians, Ms. Hanitska also cooked meals outside on a fire, herded patients into the basement when the artillery became deafening, set up sleeping quarters in the corridors for dozens more people fleeing the bombed buildings in and around the city Crowds fled to her facility for shelter, and she did more than anything to calm everyone’s nerves.
On March 13, Ms. Hanitska peered out of the same window and for the first time in weeks saw something that made her heart skip a beat: a convoy of yellow buses. She stormed out the gate.
“I would either get shot,” she said. “Or save people.”
Humanitarian workers had organized a rescue and the Russians finally allowed the patients to walk. They were bussed to other facilities in less contested areas.
Ms. Hanitska is tough but humble with a dry sense of humor.
When asked how long she had been working at the home, she laughed.
“Two months,” she said. “I guess you could say I’m lucky.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/15/world/europe/ukraine-russia-occupation.html Ukrainians describe the terror unleashed by Russian soldiers near Kyiv