BORODIANKA, Ukraine – The first sign of trouble was when a squad of Chechen soldiers burst through the gate.
They jumped from their Jeeps, combat boots hitting the pavement hard, and ordered the 500 patients and staff of Borodianka’s special-needs home into the courtyard, at gunpoint.
“We thought we were going to be executed,” Maryna Hanitska, the home’s director, said in an interview this week, days after Russian forces withdrew from Borodianka.
She told how the soldiers pulled out a camera. They barked at Hanitska to make everyone smile. Most of the patients were crying.
“We command you to say to the camera, ‘Thank you, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin,’’’ the soldiers demanded of Hanitska.
With several guns in her face, she said, she quickly ran through her options. She would never thank Russia’s president, whom she had called “a liar” and “a killer.”
But she didn’t 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 that lies at a strategic intersection about 50 miles northwest of the capital, Kyiv.
In more than a dozen interviews conducted in the past two days in Borodianka and other towns in the devastated areas around Kyiv, villagers described the Russian soldiers as brutal, sadistic, ill-disciplined and juvenile. The villagers’ accounts could not be independently verified, but they were consistent with other reports and visual evidence about Russian behavior in the region.
The siege at the mental health 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 amazing pluck under a brief but harrowing Russian occupation.
Throughout the areas of Ukraine recently liberated from a monthlong Russian occupation, a long string of disturbing stories is emerging of terror and death that Russian soldiers inflicted on unarmed Ukrainian civilians under their control.
Every day, Ukrainian investigators step into a dank cellar or muddy field or someone’s backyard and discover bodies of villagers who were shot in the head or bear signs of torture. More accounts are surfacing of civilians being held 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 meted out in small towns near Kyiv, where the Russians occupied a large swath 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 rubbing alcohol to drink. Villagers in other places said they stole bedsheets and sneakers and they defaced many of the homes they took over with childish graffiti. Workers at the mental health home also said that on their way out, Russian soldiers scrawled profane messages on the walls – in human excrement.
“I threw up when I saw that,” Hanitska said. “I don’t understand how they were raised, by whom, and who could do this.”
Lypivka, a blip of a village dwarfed by immense wheat fields, was occupied by Russian soldiers until March 31. Here, villagers said the Russians double-crossed them.
Some village women had begged Russian commanders for permission to evacuate, and the Russians seemed to agree. So on March 12, a group of older men, women and children piled into 14 cars and slowly began to drive to what they thought would be safety.
“All of us had white flags and we had permission,” said Valriy Tymchuk, a shopkeeper, who drove a minibus in the convoy.
But then Russian armored personnel carriers swiveled their turrets toward them, villagers said. A shell 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 young child, trapped in their car and engulfed in flames. Many of the singed cars are still on the road. The charred bones of that child are still in back seat, Tymchuk said. What appeared to be pieces of bone were scattered among the blackened metal and heaps of ash.
Next to the cars lay two dead dogs, their fur singed.
Tymchuk barely escaped after his minibus was hit and shrapnel sliced into his face.
He shook his head when asked why he thought the Russians did this.
“They 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 site of the worst atrocities yet discovered. All these places are quiet now, allowing forensic investigators to do their work. And the more they look, the more they find.
In Makariv, another small town near Kyiv, authorities said they recently discovered more than 20 corpses, in different yards and homes, many bearing marks of torture. In the Brovary area, farther east, police officers just found six bodies in a cellar, all men who apparently had been executed.
“We have seen bodies with knife wounds and marks of beatings, and some with their hands tied with tape,” said Oleksandr Omelyanenko, a police official in the Kyiv region.
“The places hardest hit,” he added, “were occupied the longest.”
That was the story for Borodianka and the Borodianka Psychoneurological Nursing Home.
Hanitska, a 43-year-old former school headmaster, said she watched from the windows of the three-story special-needs building as the Russian trucks poured in. She counted 500.
Then, worried about snipers, the Russians began shelling apartment blocs lining the roads, and dozens of residents died under a cascade of rubble, according to emergency service officials.
The shock waves rattled the special-needs home, built in the 1970s to provide for adults with neurological and psychological disorders. Hanitska said some of her patients became aggressive, and three even escaped and have yet to be 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’s when the Chechens showed up. Chechen troops are especially dreaded, 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 members said they could tell the troops were Chechen by their light-colored beards and the language they spoke among themselves. Ukrainian authorities posted messages on social media in which they referred to the Chechens and warned 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 cannot and will never leave them.”
By this point, for some people inside, it was too late. Hanitska said her first patient died from exposure to the cold in late February. By early March, a half-dozen more passed away. In total, 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. Borodianka was under siege, after all.
“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 ringed the building with artillery, mortars and heavy guns, knowing 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’s.
Hanitska said she hid hers and used it to communicate secretly. She would peek out the window of the nurse’s office and spot Russian vehicles, she said, and then text the details to Ukrainian forces. “They were hitting the Russians,” she said. “If we hadn’t done this, the fighting would be happening in Kyiv.”
Many Ukrainian civilians have helped like this, Ukrainian officials said.
While spying on the Russians, Hanitska also cooked meals on a fire outside, hustled patients into the basement when the artillery became deafening, set up sleeping spaces in the corridors for dozens more people who fled the bombed buildings in town, and flocked to her facility for shelter, and – more than anything else – helped calm everyone’s nerves.
On March 13, Hanitska peered out the same window and for the first time in weeks saw something that lifted her heart: a convoy of yellow buses. She burst out the gate.
“I was either going to get shot,” she said. “Or save people.”
Humanitarian workers had organized a rescue and the Russians finally allowed the patients to leave. They were bused to other facilities in less-contested areas.
Hanitska is tough but humble with a dry sense of humor.
Asked how long she had been working at the home, she laughed.
“Two months,” she said. “I guess you could say I’m lucky.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.