oDR: Feature

Face-to-face with killers: how a Ukrainian village endured occupation

When Russian forces entered Dmytrivka, residents were faced with an agonising choice. How did they survive?

Klz82U17_400x400.jpeg
Kateryna Semchuk
16 June 2022, 9.32am
This village outside Kyiv was occupied for several weeks - and residents fear that Russian forces could return
|

Image: Diana Poladova

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, residents of Dmytrivka never thought they would see enemy soldiers entering their out-of-the-way village.

The quiet settlement of pensioners, small farmers and people escaping big city life – essentially a single street that finishes in a dead end – had no strategic interest, locals thought.

Indeed, some were so sure that their village, with its 150 residents, would be a safe place to wait out the Russian attack that they moved their families here from Kyiv.

But as the Russian military’s initial dash for Kyiv was rebuffed, its forces stalled west of the city. Dmytrivka, like other settlements, found itself on the frontline, with residents living face-to-face with Russian soldiers.

Get the free oDR newsletter

A weekly summary of our latest stories about the post-Soviet world.

What followed was a brutal and unsettling encounter. Over the past month, openDemocracy has interviewed more than a dozen residents of Dmytrivka, as well as Ukrainian soldiers who fought to liberate the village. We also identified several Russian soldiers who were stationed there, but did not receive responses to requests for comment.

Many villagers eventually fled, but those who stayed reported witnessing the execution of several Ukrainian soldiers captured by the Russian unit. Locals lived under constant suspicion, including threats of execution, as they tried to survive the occupation and protect their homes.

According to interviews, the Russian soldiers behaved as if the Ukrainians they were occupying were no different from them – as if they were the same people.

Some even sought empathy and solace from the very people whose land they were occupying.

IMG_3639.jpg

Residents in this village outside Kyiv lived next to Russian soldiers - and some fear the Russians could return

|

Image: Diana Poladova

“It won’t be safe here. You should leave”

On 5 March, Viktoria – who asked for her surname to be withheld – was working in the garden of her Dmytrivka home, which leads onto an open field. She and her husband Ihor had moved to the village last December from the city of Bucha, to expand her goat cheese business.

Throughout the previous week, Viktoria, 51, had heard the sound of fighting close by. At 2.30pm that afternoon she saw a column of military vehicles driving towards Dmytrivka. At first, she did not know if they were Ukrainian or Russian.

But as they drove along the main road, she saw the letter ‘V’ on the vehicles – the symbol used by Russian forces that attacked Ukraine from the north, by crossing from Belarus.

The Russians were coming from the direction of Ozirshchyna, a village two kilometres to the south of Dmytrivka. To the villagers’ disbelief, the troops did not simply pass through. On reaching Novyy Korohod, a village to the west of Dmytrivka, the column was halted by fallen trees that locals had placed across the road.

After finding their path blocked, the Russians killed four residents who had taken it upon themselves to act as Novyy Korohod’s local defence unit, the head of that village told openDemocracy.

An hour after she first spotted the Russian vehicles, Viktoria heard them returning towards Dmytrivka. She and her husband rushed outside to hide in a nearby ditch, turning off the lights and locking the doors of their house. Also hiding in the ditch was a Ukrainian army veteran from Dmytrivka, Vova Kucherenko, who fled to Ozirshchyna later that night.

“I left my husband in the ditch. I thought, at least someone will stay alive. If they kill me, he can run away”

From the ditch, Viktoria saw Russian soldiers parking their vehicles in people’s front yards and entering homes with torches. When Viktoria saw Russian soldiers in her own yard, she knew that she had to go and face them.

“I realised that there was no other way. I have goats, and either way I needed to go to [the Russians],” she recounted. “I left my husband in the ditch. I thought, at least someone will stay alive. If they kill me, he can run away. I hoped they wouldn't touch a woman; I thought that a woman would provoke less aggression and fear.”

When the Russians found Ihor, who works as a security guard at a warehouse in nearby Borodianka, they interrogated him in the couple’s outdoor kitchen, where Viktoria normally feeds her goats. They did not harm Ihor. (The day after, the Russians found out that a Ukrainian veteran had escaped, and became very angry, according to Viktoria.)

IMG_3671.jpg

Viktoria, a Dmytrivka resident, decided she had to confront the Russian soldiers herself

|

Image: Diana Poladova

Russian soldiers then proceeded to check all the houses in Dmytrivka, with troops taking up residence in the homes. The six soldiers that arrived at Viktoria’s house didn’t kick her and Ihor out, but invited themselves into their cellar. They were joined in the outdoor kitchen by four conscripts aged 18-19.

Villagers interviewed by openDemocracy said that the soldiers were not wearing insignia, and it appears they gave false names. This meant that Ukrainian civilians could not identify them or their unit.

First battle

For the first few days of the occupation, Dmytrivka residents tried to sit tight, thinking that they might be able to live through what was to come.

“Why aren’t you leaving? It won’t be safe here. You should leave,” Russian soldiers would say to people in Dmytrivka. They seemed ignorant to the fact that it was they who had brought mortal danger to this quiet corner of the Kyiv region.

Still, the Russians quickly turned Dmytrivka, with its cellars full of provisions, into a defensive position, where several units coordinated operations and rotated between Borodianka and Andriyivka village, as Russian forces attacked the Ukrainian capital. At one point, according to a Ukrainian soldier who was present, there were more than 100 Russian military vehicles in the village.

IMG_3437.jpg

The signs of occupation and fighting remain in Dmytrivka

|

Image: Diana Poladova

Fighting soon enveloped Dmytrivka. On the evening of 7 March, two days after the Russians arrived, the village was shaken by clashes with a Ukrainian unit from the country’s 14th Separate Mechanised Brigade.

Nadiya Zamryha, press officer for the 14th Brigade, told openDemocracy that its troops did conduct a “bloody” but “successful” offensive coming through the road from Ozirshchyna that day.

“Poltava”, a tank commander from the 14th brigade who fought in Ozirshchyna later on told openDemocracy that the battle on 7 March “was not a fight”.

“That was people going to slaughter, like meat, without any intelligence or preparation,” he recalled. “I personally knew four or five tank crew members who died there.”

How many people died fighting in Dmytrivka?

It is difficult to estimate the exact number of Ukrainian soldiers who died on 7 March. Resident Maria Fedorenko says that she saw three soldiers killed. Father Borys Kovalchuk, from another village nearby, says that he evacuated 11 bodies from the village. Following liberation; Ukrainian soldiers extracted six bodies from a pit and three from a grave. Ukraine's 14th Brigade refused to state the exact number as they cannot “disclose the total number of losses until the end of the war”.

The Ukrainian General Prosecutor’s Office is now investigating alleged Russian crimes in the village.

Hide

This wasn’t the only group of Ukrainian soldiers sent to Dmytrivka that day, it appears.

Danylo Melnyk, a 19-year-old Ukrainian chief platoon sergeant, told openDemocracy that his unit, which consisted of a Russian tank – seized from the occupiers – and seven combat vehicles, arrived in the village between 4am and 5am on the morning of 8 March.

The unit had no idea where it was going, according to Melnyk, before it stopped in Dmytrivka. There, the soldiers, who were armed with assault rifles (and left their anti-tank weapons inside the vehicles) “got out [and] had a smoke” before the Russian unit started to “butcher” them, Melnyk recalled. According to him, around 30 members of the 100 or so-strong company “got out alive”. Melnyk himself was not so lucky: he was seriously injured and captured.

IMG_3140.jpg

Remains of a dugout outside Maria Fedorenko’s house where a Russian soldier called “Anton Litvinchuk” would sit

|

Image: Diana Poladova

One of the flashpoints in the fighting was immediately outside the one-storey home of Maria Fedorenko, which sits at the junction between Dmytrivka’s main street and the road to Ozirshchyna. From her cellar-turned-shelter, Fedorenko, 77, could see and hear what was happening outside her home.

Fedorenko told openDemocracy that her recollection of events in March had become disorganised. She recounts her memories out of order and cannot pin them to specific days. But she clearly remembers seeing Russians execute two Ukrainian soldiers in broad daylight, shortly after the clash.

As Fedorenko tells it, early on the morning of 8 March, she looked out of her cellar and saw two Ukrainian soldiers surrender to a group of Russians.

pjimage (4).jpg

Maria Fedorenko shows the cellar where she saw and heard the fighting in her village

|

Image: Diana Poladova

Fedorenko said she saw one Russian soldier tell the two Ukrainians “lozhys, lozhys” (“lie down, lie down” in Russian). The Ukrainian soldiers then said “zdayemsia” (“we surrender”’ in Ukrainian), raised their hands and laid down on the ground. The Russian soldier then shot them “immediately”.

Fedorenko saw the shooter remove the two men’s wedding rings and take a mobile phone from the pocket of one.

“He said: ‘Oh, his wife must be calling’ and put the phone in his pocket. This is what I saw,” said Fedorenko, who was the only villager to witness these events.

She told her story to openDemocracy while sitting on a bench in her front yard, speaking steadily and almost enjoying the attention she has received since the village was liberated. But for the most part, Fedorenko seems glad that people want to know what happened in Dmytrivka.

IMG_3302.jpg

The crossroad near Maria Fedorenko's house. A burnout Russian tank can be seen in the background

|

Image: Diana Poladova

Fedorenko said that after she went back into her cellar, she could hear the voice of a third Ukrainian soldier pleading for help outside her home. One of her neighbours, Oleksandr Mazhuha, said that he also heard the man, who screamed in pain until nightfall.

“He was saying: ‘I don’t have legs. I don’t have a weapon. Help me,’” Fedorenko said, who heard the third soldier through a vent in her cellar.

“I heard [a Russian soldier] start shouting something at him, swearing at him, saying: ‘Why did you come here?’ I said to myself in the cellar: ‘Why did you come here, who invited you here?’ And then I heard [the Russian soldier] shoot him,” Fedorenko recounted. openDemocracy could not verify who shot the third soldier.

“He was moaning, and then there was this ‘kliok, kliok, kliok’ noise in his lungs as he was breathing”

Later that night, Fedorenko said, she came out of the cellar and walked over to the fence in her front yard. She looked over the fence and saw the body of a Ukrainian soldier lying behind a boulder.

“He was moaning, and then there was this ‘kliok, kliok, kliok’ noise in his lungs as he was breathing,” she remembered. “I wept and left.”

Fedorenko showed openDemocracy where the body lay, explaining that there was so much blood that she had to cover it with sand so as not to see it. She teared up as she told the story, as if for a moment she was back in that day in March. Then she stopped and regained her composure – an understandable coping mechanism for a woman who has spent her life on the edge of poverty, outliving her husband and her son.

IMG_3047.jpg

Fedorenko shows the spot where the injured Ukrainian soldier lay before, she says, he was shot

|

Image: Diana Poladova

Face to face with a killer

Fedorenko said that three bodies in all were left on the road outside her house – although she doesn’t know whether they were the bodies of the soldiers she saw executed. After dogs tried to eat the remains, Fedorenko persuaded the Russians to bury the bodies in the sandy soil in front of her home.

Later, Fedorenko got to know the man she saw execute the two Ukrainian soldiers. He told her that his name was ‘Vasily’, 22 years old and from Stavropol in southern Russia.

Fedorenko said she also saw ‘Vasiliy’ set the body of one of the Ukrainian soldiers on fire.

“I screamed at him: ‘I'm gonna stab you. You bastard, what are you doing, today you do it, and tomorrow you will be set on fire,’” she recalled. ‘Vasily’s response was to “stand and smile”.

When Russian soldiers found Melnyk, the chief platoon sergeant, lying injured in a stable two days after the fight, they did not kill him. They told him that if he survived the night he would be taken to Belarus. Melnyk did survive, although he lost his left arm, the fingers of his right hand, and both of his legs. He came back to Ukraine via a prisoner exchange in April.

IMG_20220615_193634_750.jpg

Danylo Melnyk

The Security Service of Ukraine told openDemocracy that according to their information, Dmytrivka was occupied by the third company of Russia’s 104th Airborne Assault Regiment, plus units from Russia’s Fifth Tank Brigade.

I showed Melnyk photos of several soldiers in Russia’s Fifth Tank Brigade known to have died during the invasion of Ukraine. He recognised a photograph of Dmitriy Lebedev, a commander in a howitzer self-propelled artillery battalion – who Melnyk said was the “least pleasant” of the men who interrogated him.

According to the city administration of the Siberian town of Bodaybo, Lebedev, 35, died fighting in Ukraine and was posthumously awarded Russia’s Order of Courage.Later, Dmytrivka resident Viktoria recognised another Russian tank operator stationed in the house across the street from hers: Andrei Nazarov, from the 57th Guards Motorised Rifle Brigade. He has been identified by InformNapalm, a volunteer open-source intelligence initiative. Nazarov’s latest profile photo on VKontakte suggests that he has continued to fight, now in the Luhansk region.

281618985_705903850464432_8659847397227805956_n.png

Danylo Melnyk identified Dmitry Lebedev as the Russian officer who interrogated him in Dmytrivka

Borys Kovalchuk, a local Orthodox priest, told openDemocracy that he transported 11 bodies from Dmytrivka to a regional morgue in Zhytomyr. Kovalchuk was driving at the head of an evacuation convoy, from his own village of Pylypovychi, which is close to Dmytrivka, after the battle in early March.

As the convoy left Dmytrivka, Father Borys said, he noticed three bodies lying in a field near the road to Ozirshchyna. Two of the dead were wearing Ukrainian uniforms and had been shot, while a third was badly burned.

On another evacuation run that went through Dmytrivka, on 17 March, Father Borys asked for permission to retrieve the bodies, and the Russian soldiers agreed. On 24 March, the Russian soldiers asked the priest to remove eight more bodies from beneath a tree in the village.

20220519_114756.jpg

The place where Russian soldiers burnt eight bodies

According to Fedorenko, these bodies were piled together across the road from her house, where she kept hay and wood. The Russians stripped them of their uniforms and underwear, then covered the bodies with hay and set them on fire.

The bodies did not burn completely, so the soldiers then tried to dig a pit to bury them in.

Later, it seems, they decided to ask Father Borys to take them.

“I noticed that they were scattered in a small pile, in two rows randomly lying on top of each other,” Father Borys said.

“We took a tarpaulin from the neighbours, and cut it into pieces the size of a sheet so we could load bodies, because they were very charred.”

Nelia Vinshchyk, Fedorenko’s neighbour across the street, told openDemocracy that she remembers seeing at least two dead Russian soldiers lying in her yard, and two on the street. The regional morgue in Zhytomyr declined to comment on whether Russians were among the people whose bodies it received.

Close contact

After the initial battle in early March, reinforcements from Ukraine’s 14th brigade arrived in Ozirshchyna, occupying the position facing the Russians. They fought back Russian advances until the end of the month.

With the constant shelling and shooting, without electricity and windows – and with Russian soldiers living in their houses – life for villagers in Dmytrivka became impossible.

On 12 March, 12 of Fedorenko’s neighbours managed to evacuate in a van that a Dmytrivka resident had parked in his yard. A few more residents managed to get out of the village on their own.

Others like Fedorenko stayed in the village. Viktoria and Ihor, who could not leave their goats behind, were also among those who stayed – as was Tanya, another villager who didn’t want to abandon her animals (she declined to give her surname publicly). The soldiers kept them in isolation, so they were unaware of each other’s presence.

IMG_3469.jpg

Tanya moved to Dmytrivka in 2021. She bought herself a decent patch of land, where she kept two horses and a number of dogs before the war

|

Image: Diana Poladova

Tanya, 41, remembered being under constant suspicion as the occupation wore on: shortly after the Russians arrived, they found her with a backpack full of mobile phones, which she had been charging for neighbours at a friend’s generator. According to Viktoria Khyzhna, another villager who stayed behind to care for her sick father, the soldier who found the bag was ordered to “get rid of” Tanya. He apparently ignored the instruction.

Fedorenko probably came into the closest contact with the occupiers. While troops rotated their manning of the positions surrounding Fedorenko’s house, two of them often sought her company: ‘Vasiliy’, who shot the Ukrainian soldiers, and another who said his name was ‘Anton Litvinchuk’. The crew of an armoured personnel carrier who lived with Viktoria, by comparison, were distant, disdainful and never let their guard down.

On one occasion, ‘Vasiliy’ came to Fedorenko to ask to dry his socks, as his feet were soaking wet. As he warmed himself for an hour by the stove, ‘Vasiliy’ told Fedorenko a bit about himself. He claimed his father was in the military, separated from his psychologist mother. His brother (“smarter than him”) was an IT programmer; his grandfather, now dead, was also in the military.

‘Vasiliy’ even told Fedorenko that when he married he wanted to build himself a cellar, just like hers. Other residents said that the Russians were amazed by the fact that Ukrainian villages had asphalt roads and that houses had boilers.

“He said to me that he has an uncle somewhere in Ukraine. ‘I won’t shoot,’ he said, ‘I don’t know whom I’m shooting at, my cousins or my uncle,”

On another occasion, ‘Anton Litvinchuk’ hid in Fedorenko’s cellar from heavy shelling. ‘Anton’ told Fedorenko that he was Buriat-Ukrainian. His father was Ukrainian and had died a year and a half ago aged 57, while his mother’s name was Tamara. He said he had four other siblings.

‘Anton’ also said that he did not feel comfortable fighting against Ukrainians, according to Fedorenko.

“He said to me that he has an uncle somewhere in Ukraine. ‘I won’t shoot,’ he said, ‘I don’t know whom I’m shooting at, my cousins or my uncle,’” she said.

Fedorenko recalled that on another occasion while ‘Anton’ was taking shelter, a voice on his walkie-talkie asked: “Why aren’t you shooting?” According to Fedorenko, ‘Anton’ responded that his rifle was jammed, while he sat smoking.

IMG_3106.jpg

Maria Fedorenko shows cigarettes left behind by "Anton Litvinchuk"

|

Image: Diana Poladova

“They were friends with me,” said Fedorenko. “They said: ‘She’s a good grandma, don’t hurt this grandma.’ That’s why I’m alive.” According to residents, the Ukrainian army also knew that Fedorenko had stayed in the village and avoided shelling her house – which is why hers is the only one still standing on her side of the street.

When asked if she felt anger or fear towards the soldiers, Fedorenko answered: “Why, so they would shoot me? I was afraid for my life, my family’s life. I talked to them nicely, asked them not to bomb my daughter’s house in Ozirshchyna.”

‘Vasiliy’ even came to say goodbye to Fedorenko when word spread that Russian troops had received an order to move out.

“He even took my phone number. He said: ‘When I get home, babushka, I’ll call you together with my mother,’” Fedorenko said. She has not yet received a call.

On 30 March, at around 11pm, Russian tanks and APCs started their engines. Under cover of night, with their lights turned off, they left Dmytrivka – shortly after setting fire to an ammunition store in one of the village houses.

Maria recalled thinking the explosions were so loud, she believed her own house would go up in flames.

Russian documents

Tanya, meanwhile, is keen to piece together what happened during the occupation of her village. She has gathered information here and there, and hopes one day to identify the soldiers she spoke to. She is also looking for information on a missing friend, Mykola Vlasov, who she thinks might have been killed or captured when he was on his way to check on her in the early days of the occupation.

Tanya showed openDemocracy items left in the Russians’ wake: a Russian army newspaper, a torn blue backpack with “Ukr” written on it and a small pair of children’s boots. The last two items belonged to a Ukrainian soldier, Mykola Ukrainets, who died in Dmytrivka. His brothers visited Tanya to collect the pair of boots, which belong to Ukrainets’s seven-year-old son.

IMG_3357.jpg

A copy of "Red Star" Russian army newspaper

|

Image: Diana Poladova

Tanya also showed openDemocracy a pit from which the bodies of six Ukrainian soldiers were recovered by the Ukrainian army; a pile of broken mobile phones; a cellar where one of the commanders lived; the destroyed ammunition store; and photos of documents of a Russian soldier that were found in one of the trenches.

The documents – a Russian military identity passport, a military identity card and two bank cards – belonged to a soldier called Garrik Kolomoyets, born in May 1999. His military identity document stated that Kolomoyets served in military unit 30632-B, the 240th Training Tank Regiment based in Anastasyevka, Khabarovsk Krai, in the Russian Far East.

According to Kolomoyets’s VKontakte social media profile, he last refreshed his profile photo on 16 May 2022 – indicating that he may still be alive – and judging from picture (a military cap with a “V” sign and holding a rifle) he seems still to be an active combat participant.

openDemocracy contacted Garrik’s older brother Konstantin, who said he didn’t know anything about Garrik fighting in Ukraine.

IMG-77b1bdea0eddac2bf884d8c59133f676-V.jpg

A Russian military ID belonging to soldier Garrik Kolomoyets, from Russia's Far East Amur region

Forever shaken

The few villagers who stayed in Dmytrivka were able to keep their houses standing. Other homes were broken into, looted, destroyed or bombed.

Luba and Volodymyr Hrusha, a married couple from Dmytrivka, evacuated the village by bus. At the first checkpoint on Ukrainian-controlled territory, they gave Ukrainian soldiers their house number and details of the positions of Russian soldiers.

Where residents evacuated, the Ukrainian army was able to hit Russian positions harder, as they knew that people had left their homes. When the Hrushas came back to Dmytrivka in April, they found their house in ruins.

“I have no complaints about being shelled by Ukrainians. I could have died there and I would have had zero complaints”

“Ukrainian soldiers did a craftsman’s job,” says Slavik Drapey, a member of Ozirshchyna’s local defence group. “With the arsenal they used they might have done more damage than they did. Look at Ozirshchyna – the Russians brutally destroyed it.”

Tanya didn’t have a cellar of her own, so she sheltered in a neighbour’s one during the occupation – which was near Russian positions and therefore frequently shelled.

“I’m only bitter that the people who evacuated didn’t tell the Ukrainian forces about me staying in that cellar,” Tanya told openDemocracy. “But to be clear, I have no complaints about being shelled by Ukrainians. I could have died there and I would have had zero complaints.”

IMG_3605.jpg

Dmytrivka residents are still recovering from the damage caused by Russian occupation

|

Image: Diana Poladova

Since the village was liberated, residents – those who stayed and those who returned – have spent two months dismantling debris, repairing houses, restoring fences, filling in Russian trenches in their yards and gardens and recovering belongings dragged by Russians into their cellars.

They have survived, but their homes have been looted. They are left with empty cellars, less livestock and expensive bills – after the Russians used their gas heaters. Before leaving, the Russians mined every inch of Dmytrivka, leaving numerous booby traps around people’s houses.

Residents will receive financial aid from the Ukrainian government for the damage caused to their village. But they are forever shaken by the fact that in just a few days, Russian soldiers managed to destroy what they had spent their whole lives building.

Many of them are worried that the Russian army might come back.

We've got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you're interested in, there's a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here

Comments

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData