“We sat and prayed”: detention in a Russian concentration camp
In the first week after Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago, Moscow’s forces rolled into the small northern village of Yagodnoye where they rounded up more than 350 locals, some at gunpoint, and led them into a cramped basement where they were detained for weeks in what has been described as a concentration camp.
Olga Menyailo, one of the Yagodnoye residents captured by Russian soldiers who was forced to spend 25 days in the facility – which was situated in the basement of a local school, where Russian forces’ had converted into the local headquarters – says that their captors treated them “like cattle” and subjected some of them with threats of execution.
“We just sat and prayed … the military came to our house and drove us to the school basement at gunpoint,” said Olga, who kept a diary throughout her ordeal. “I thought: if we all die, then someone might find this diary.”
There were about 350 locals detained in the concentration camp in total, 77 of whom were children, the youngest just over a month old, and the oldest 93 – all crammed into four more small rooms and narrow corridors.
Olga says that most of the prisoners first expected the ordeal to last just a day or two. But as more and more locals were brought into the makeshift prison, she said, they realised that the situation was bleaker.
The Yagodnoye prisoners did not have any means to wash and were restricted access to clean water. Sometimes drunken Russian soldiers descended into the basement and handed grenades to little children, a sinister form of psychological torment.
Then came death.
“On the third day, people began to die,” Olga recalled in an interview with Context.ro, adding that some of those who died became hysterical from a lack of oxygen. “If they died in the evening, (the detainees) had to sleep with the corpses all night.”
Ten of the captives did not survive the horrors of detention.
When five corpses had gathered there, she said, the Russian soldiers allowed a burial at a local cemetery. Five corpses were loaded onto a wheelbarrow, wrapped in a blanket – and deposited into just two holes dug into the frigid earth.
For Ivan Petrovich, who was detained along with his wife, son, daughter-in-law, and two young grandchildren, the ordeal amounted to what he describes as a living “hell.”
“Civilians at gunpoint were herded into the basement of the school, while they set up headquarters on the first floor,” said Petrovich, who worked at the school as a supply manager before the war. “Those who resisted were shot.”
“Sometimes I slept standing up,” he said, to stop him from falling over. “My legs were swollen, and the skin began to crack and fester.”
In April last year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke about the Yagodnoe ordeal “This is how the Russian military had fun. This is the kind of impunity they felt”, said the President of Ukraine in the Assembly of the Republic of Portugal’s Parliament.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine last February, countless cases of war crimes have been recorded by both Ukrainian authorities, and journalists who hope one day to hold to account those responsible.
The ordeal in Yagodnoye ended on March 30, when Ukrainian troops rolled in. But many local residents returned to homes that had either been looted and destroyed in the occupation. In January, the Chernihiv Regional Prosecutor announced that two Russian servicemen involved in the grave incident have been charged in absentia for violating the laws of war.
Olga said that after the Russian soldiers fled their village. “Some residents stayed in the basement for another week … they just had nowhere to go,” she said.
Of the 180 houses in the village, 148 were damaged and 16 were destroyed, according to the Cernihiv Regional Prosecutor’s Office.
In January, the Chernihiv Regional Prosecutor announced that two Russian servicemen involved in the grave incident have been charged in absentia for violating the laws of war.
Today, almost a year after their harrowing ordeal at the hands of Russian occupiers, the school building stands eerily empty but locals say the horrors remain, and that they want to open a museum to record and remember Russia’s crimes against them.
“Everything that happened to us, is impossible to forget,” Olga said.
Edited by Stephen McGrath
Photos source: Olga Menyailo
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