A building that was destroyed during battles at the start of Russia's full scale invasion, in Yahidne village in Chernihiv, Ukraine.
A building that was destroyed during battles at the start of Russia's full scale invasion, in Yahidne village in Chernihiv, Ukraine. © Ed Ram/Getty Images

Yahidne: Court Hears Villagers’ Testimony

Nearly 400 civilians were crammed into a cellar and used as “human shields” by the Russian forces.

Tuesday, 26 September, 2023

Residents of Yahidne, a village 15 kilometres south of north-eastern city Chernihiv, testified in court about the appalling conditions they had to endure during the Russian occupation in March 2022. The villagers are among the 368 civilians, who according to the investigation, were held hostage in a school basement and reportedly used as human shields. Ten of them died during the ordeal. 

The Chernihiv District Court is trying 15 Russian soldiers in absentia for the cruel treatment of the civilian population, committed by a group of persons, in violation of  the laws and customs of war. Fourteen of them are from southern Siberia’s Republic of Tuva and one from the eastern Saratov region.  

On September 20, the court, presided by Judge Svitlana Maiboroda, heard the testimonies of 20 villagers. 

On September 20, judge Svitlana Maiboroda presided over the Chernihiv District Court during the testimonies of 20 residents of Yahidne who were kept in a school basement by Russian forces for about a month. Ten 10 of them died as a result of the living conditions. Fifteen Russian soldiers are tried in absentia for violating the laws and customs of war. © Irina Domashchenko


Dmytriy Muzyka, 91, was the first civilian fatality. He died on March 9; his wife, Mariya Muzyka, died a week later, on March 17. Their daughter, Tetyana Kalinchuk, asked for permission to bury them immediately but the Russians reportedly allowed burials only when there were more than five dead. 

At first, the bodies lay in the basement alongside the living. The soldiers subsequently allowed the bodies to be stored in the boiler room.

“Do you think that if your parents had not found themselves in such conditions and had been given timely medical assistance, they would have survived?” prosecutor Serhiy Krupko asked Kalinchuk.

“Yes, they would have survived,” the 51-year-old told the court.

Witness Anzhela Predko said that her grandparents struggled a great deal in the basement.

“They were constantly sitting, they were without strength, just like living corpses,” Predko told the court. “They began to fall [from their seats], they talked nonsense…”

She and her parents asked the Russians for medical help and they offered them sedatives but did not allow them to go home.  

“Home, no. They said we would be killed there,” Predko recalled. 

Anzhela’s father, Yuriy Predko, decided to take the risk and one day he transported his parents home, in a wheelbarrow. There was no explanation in court about how he had managed to leave the basement, or how he managed to leave again the following day to visit them with his daughter.

“When we arrived, we saw my grandfather, dead on the floor. There was no time to think about what to do next. My dad just took him to the barn,” the young woman told the court in tears.
Once the Russians allowed the civilians to leave the basement to bury their dead, Yuriy described how they came under fire in the village graveyard. 

“There were about three explosions, [so] we got into the graves… I was wounded in the leg, my daughter had a scarf, I wrapped it around it,” said Yuriy. Anzhela was injured in the back. They believe that it was the Russians who fired at them, because they knew where the civilians were and the shelling was directed at the cemetery.

“We started to run away quickly, we didn't finish burying grandfather, people took my dad and me in a wheelbarrow to the basement to ask for help there,” said Angela, adding that Russian doctors stitched up and bandaged their wounds in the school premises. 

They saw lots of equipment, including for communication, in line with the prosecution’s statement that Russian forces set up their headquarters in the same building where civilians were held. 

A Russian officer with the call sign Maple seemed to be in command.

“I can’t say the name, but I’ve clearly recognised the guard in the photo who was standing at the door and didn't let us out… The second one who came to us was drunk, behaved terribly, with a grenade in his hands and said that he would throw it at all of us. He spent the night with us,” said Anzhela.


Olena Menyailo, 33, was in court with her son, who in March 2022 was only four months old. As she waited for her turn to testify, the toddler played with toy cars; Menyailo asked journalists present in court not photograph the boy’s face. 

“My child was always in my arms for the whole month [we were in the basement]; either with me or with my husband. We sat in the corridor, on a small school bench, everyone was passing by us [trying to get out, the space was narrow],” Olena recalled, adding that she had breastfed her child. “I tried to avoid looking at the Russian soldiers in the eyes [while there].” 

Witness Victoria Gatsura testified that she had been sexually molested by one of the accused, Buyan Dadar-ool, on the evening of March 9.  That evening, a drunken soldier came down to the basement and said he was looking for a girl in a red coat. 

“For what purpose was he looking for the girls?” prosecutor Krupko asked.
“What could be the goal? Just for sex,” replied Gatsurg. 
“Did he touch your body?”
“[He] tried.”
“Did you, as a woman, want this?”
“No, of course not.”

Defence lawyer Mykola Kashuba asked questions about what the soldier did.

“He spread his hands towards me,” she said, her voice trembling. “Well, how can I say…He simply wanted…”
“Hug you?” continued Kashuba.
“No..It's not called a hug... He started touching my chest. Is this considered violence? This is violence, when they touch the chest, the lower part of the body?” replied the 30-year-old woman. 
“Did he touch your private parts?” asked judge Svitlana Maiboroda.

Gatsura recognised the soldier from a photo shown to her in the pre-trial investigation. 

Those in the cellar kept track of time using charcoal to mark the days on the door, while the walls bore the names of the villagers, including those killed during the occupation and those who died in the basement. 

Lyudmila Vashchuk, 58, told the court that her daughter, who had fresh stitches following a recent operation, had to sleep on the ground.

“We were captured, we had no right to leave. The hardest thing was to look at the children and grandchildren… when my grandson was starving…when the daughter's stitches started to fester,” she said, adding that she remembered well the face of the soldier who kicked the family out of the basement of their house, just across the school. 

“I will remember him all my life…He climbed in and pointed the machine gun at the children…But what is his name? My daughter and I recognised his face, but who is he?” she said. 


Defence lawyer Kashuba, appointed by the state’s free legal aid, said his meticulous questioning aimed at avoiding investigating those with no criminal responsibility. 

“All victims say that the Russian soldiers followed the commanders’ orders,” Kashuba told IWPR. “Could a serviceman of the Russian Federation disobey an order? He probably couldn't. Thus, commanders…should be responsible for giving such an order. Of those 15 people, there is not a single commander. 

“The prosecutor’s office identified [officers with the call signs] Spider, Maple and Gluhoy, but none of them was brought to criminal responsibility. Three sergeants, one junior lieutenant, private and corporals are involved, those who carried out the orders.”

Krupko said that Russian military documents with photographs found in the village after the Russians fled on March 30, helped the investigation to identify about 60 Russian soldiers who had been in Yahidne.

“We identified only these 15 [for war crimes]. We could not bring charges against those who had not committed anything,” Krupko told IWPR. “If the victims recognised them [saying that] they saw them in the village, we could not press charges, because [that] is not a war crime. Cruel treatment of the civilian population is a crime.”

The Russian military knew they were carrying out a clearly criminal order as they herded people into the basement and used them as “human shields,” the prosecutor continued.

“Their justification that they supposedly protected the civilian population is refuted by the victims’ testimonies, they say they were placed in terrible conditions. The persons who carried out such an order are equally responsible as those who gave such an order,” Krupko said.

The prosecutor noted that the investigation has not yet fully established the identity of the Russian commanders with the civilians in the basement; a separate investigation is ongoing. He added that "Maple [is] 99 per cent identified”.

The next hearing of the case, including victims’ testimony, is scheduled for November 27, 2023. 

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