‘You’re lucky it was us Chechens who found you' The story of a Ukrainian man whose home was occupied by Russian troops as he took shelter underneath
Bohdan is an airfield service employee at Hostomel Airport, which was the site of heavy fighting at the very start of the war. For three weeks, he and his family lived in the basement of their apartment building, right across from the occupied airport. The building, which came under heavy fire at times, was occupied first by Chechen riot police, then by an airborne assault unit from Omsk. In mid-March, all of the basement’s inhabitants were forcibly taken to Belarus. Bohdan told Meduza his story.
On February 23, the eve of the war, I was on duty until one in the morning, and then I went home — we live only about 150 meters [about 500 feet] from the airport. The next day, at six in the morning, the [airport’s] deputy director called me and told me about the situation in Kherson — [Russian troops] had launched a strike on the Chornobayev airfield.
Around lunchtime, we started to hear the hum of helicopters. I saw that the helicopters had the letter V on them, so they clearly weren’t ours. My wife and I took our daughter and ran down to the basement along with many of our neighbors — 40 people were packed in down there. When the last person was running in, he was literally blown in by a blast wave. A shell had landed right in front of our building — meaning they were directly shelling a residential block.
After that, the helicopters pounded a National Guard base 100 meters [330 feet] from residential buildings and set off for the airport. According to witnesses, they launched strikes on the runway itself. Four of our firefighters were killed. After that, a Russian airborne unit touched down. Some of the fighters dropped down where our cemetery is, right next to the airport. And some of them landed on airport territory.
My boss, who was in the airport, wrote to me that all of the people who were in the facility at that point were searched, then given white rags, and then released to walk towards Bucha, which is about five kilometers [about three miles] away. They weren’t allowed to take any vehicles: cars, buses, all of that stayed on airport territory. The paratroopers occupied two buildings next to the airfield where they gave apartments to the employees.
Soon after the airport was captured, the mortar shelling began. To keep other air assault forces from landing, our guys [from the Ukrainian armed forces] were on the runway. They tried to destroy it, to make it impossible to land large aircraft in Hostomel. That’s when Russia fired on the Mriya.
The airfield and the surrounding area were shelled all night. In the morning, we discovered a hole in a gas pipe on the second floor of the building. The pipe was whistling at full force. We tried to call the gas service, but they said they wouldn’t come because there was heavy fighting and shelling where we were. So we cut off the gas on our one.
My colleagues who had left Hostomel on the first day suggested we go to Bucha by foot. But there were a lot of older people and small children in our basement, so we decided to stay. And I think that was the right decision, because there was fighting going on. We heard about a lot of civilians dying out on the street.
On the evening of February 25, we heard a voice from above: “Is anybody there?” I responded, opened the door, and came out. They started searching me and asking me about who else was in the basement. I told them it was women, children, residents of the building — all civilians. Then [the soldiers] started searching us. One of the people in the basement was an ATO veteran, and for some reason he’d brought a tactical vest and a pistol with him. When they saw the pistol, they became alarmed and started shouting and searching for the owner. They asked me who it belonged to and I told them I didn’t know. I haven’t lived in that building for long. They questioned everybody for about ten minutes, threatening us, until the owner finally confessed. They took him out onto the street, but eventually they let him go. He said later that he’d told them he took the pistol to defend us from looters.
There wasn’t any more violence from the soldiers. The Chechens were chatty; they started telling us about how they’d come to protect us at the direction of Ramzan Akhmatovich Kadyrov. Because earlier — they had this interesting paradox — in the First Chechen War, the Ukrainians had come to help the Chechens. In 1994, there was a [Ukrainian] nationalist fighting in Chechnya [on Ichkeria’s side] named Sashko Bilyi. And they told us, “We’re looking for your nationalists, but your nationalists defended us. We used to fight Russia, but now we live in peace, now our Chechnya is even better; we’re rebuilding everything, and everything is rosy and beautiful. We’ll give you guys a new president — most likely, it’ll be [former Ukrainian President Viktor] Yanukovich — and Ukrainian will prosper. Zelensky will surrender in two days — they’ll put him in jail.”
They gave us that bullshit, and then they told us we were lucky that it was them who found us and not Russians. They told us that in Grozny, when a Russian soldier would go into an apartment, the first thing he would do would be to throw a grenade in. A lot of Grozny’s civilian population died during those “purges.”
Our building was occupied by Chechen riot police, mainly men who were about 20-35 years old, no older. That may have been lucky for us. They were a bit nicer to us. Because I heard about the neighboring buildings that were occupied by the “older” Chechens, and they had it worse than us.
That night, they asked what we needed. We said the number one priority was water, because our supply was already running out. Then the Chechens suggested we take water from a nearby store: “The Russians smashed it, but we’re taking the items out of it so they don’t fall into the hands of looters.” The store was right next door, and we knew the owner, so we decided we’d pay him damages later on. The water situation was tough, and there was a five-month-old baby and some little girls between six and 11 with us. We took six 20-liter bottles.
The Chechens said they would be in the building until the morning [of February 27]. They took our phones, saying someone was going to use them to modify a drone, so we were cut off from the outside world. Some people managed to hide theirs, but they stopped using them because it was too dangerous. They left their equipment right outside our building — their APC [armored personnel carrier] was right under front door overhang. They spent all night firing mortar shells at Kyiv from behind the buildings. Sometimes [Kyiv] would fire back, but there was no large-scale destruction.
On the second day [February 27], they were getting ready to leave Hostomel. They told us, “Now your guys will come — we’re leaving. We got in touch with our leadership, and they told us we’re returning to Chechnya.” They spent about an hour packing, and then they announced they were staying for another day.
Later on, they left for Kyiv, but somewhere on the way they came under fire, so they came back. They said they hadn’t even been able to take their own wounded and dead with them. Then they mounted their defenses in our little military town. They ended up staying in Hostomel until mid-March.
Judging by the Ukrainians items they were taking home, the Chechens’ main activity was driving to occupied villages and robbing the stores there. And one time, they came and told us to film a video of “gratitude” to Ramzan Kadyrov. They said they knew it wasn’t right, but they needed it. Some officer came in to edit the video. It was a very rough cut. Eight-year-old Maria had been asking them to give her their phones — that was cut out, of course. The final cut showed us, happy and satisfied, thanking them for bringing us sausage. We had sausage and fish to eat; they had robbed some warehouse and brought the food to us. Then they brought some chickens from a village. The birds wandered around the yard. They tied a St. George ribbon to the leg of one of the chickens, called it Militiawoman, and laughed hysterically.
‘If you go higher than the second floor, I’ll shoot you in the leg’
The shelling continued. Over time, our homes burned down. Russians from the airfield took over several of the buildings. Others were hit by a Grad [multiple rocket launcher system] when our [armed forces] fired back at Russians, who were firing from the buildings. Civilians were hiding in the basements of two of the buildings: ours and two next door. The building across from us was also hit hard; two sections of it collapsed [though nobody was inside].
The Chechens stayed in our building until the 13th [of March] or so. The day before their departure, they came down to our basement, happy as could be, and started hugging us and shouting for us not to hold a grudge against them because they had “supported” us. After that, we went up to our apartments; there was trash and hookahs everywhere. They’d scattered things all over the apartments and taken the valuables. One Chechen guy had brought me a stack of money, and I could see that the bills were collectible — old Soviet rubles. He asked, “What is this? Can I spend it somewhere?” I showed him where the bills said “USSR,” and he decided to throw them away because “nobody needs these anymore.”
After the Chechens left Hostomel, Russian special forces came almost immediately. While the Chechens had let us go up into the building to get groceries and things, the special forces officer immediately shouted, “Where do you think you’re going? If you go higher than the second floor, I’ll shoot you in the leg, you in the chest, and you in the head.” He searched us, then sent us back into the basement and told us to stay there.
They were there until 2:00 p.m. on March 17. Then they were replaced by an air assault unit from Omsk. Those guys were deeply demoralized by the shelling: they discussed among themselves how to terminate their contracts, and cursed Putin and everyone else who’d sent them into this war.
Before that, we’d given the Chechens all of the lists of the names of the people in the basement because we thought they might release us. Because the “green corridors” were being prepared, and the Chechens promised to give the lists to our guys so they could get people out. Later on, we found the same lists in the trash; nobody had given them to anybody. The paratroopers took the same lists. They told us to get ready. We thought they would evacuate us either towards Kyiv or towards Korosten. But then one of them came and said, “No, we’re taking you to Belarus. If you don’t want to go, you can stay here, but we’ll be in the neighboring buildings, and they’ll be bombing us. We need a bridgehead here for our assault on Kyiv, and you’re getting in our way. So if you all want to die here, that’s your choice.” A lot of people were worried that if they didn’t send us to Belarus, they’d send us to Russia, to Rostov. That was the rumor.
On March 17, they got us up at six in the morning and quickly loaded us onto buses. Families with children went first. They took us through Borodianka, Ivankiv, Chernobyl, and then to Belarus.
They took us through an improvised customs and border control crossing. If you had a passport, they would give you a visa. If you didn’t, they just registered your documents without giving any indication that you had entered Belarus. And they sent us to live in an old health resort called Chenki near Homiel. [On the first day] in Belarus, I noticed that people were afraid to speak openly and almost never smiled. It was a marked contrast from Ukraine.
On the second day, a representative from the resort came to visit us. He said, “My last name is Venger — I’m from Chernihiv myself. I know what kinds of things your thieving government has driven the people to do. But you know, Lukashenko and Putin won’t stop until they finish off that pack of thieves of yours.” They suggested we do an interview for Belarusian TV. Rumors started to spread among the older people that everyone who had been taken to Belarus had been declared traitors in Ukraine, and many of them believed they’d be sent to jail if they returned home, so they decided to stay in Belarus.
Others tried to make their way to Europe. They didn’t hold us there [in Belarus], but they did try to mislead us in various ways. “You can go, but they won’t let you in at the border.” People from the Belarusian Red Cross claimed that Ukrainian men weren’t being let into Poland from Belarus. Someone claiming to be a UN representative also came and told us that Poland was overcrowded, resulting in a humanitarian catastrophe, and advised us to stay in Belarus.
I saved my laptop — I hid it with my things at the very beginning, and we managed to take it with us. In Belarus, we finally managed to access the Internet and got in touch with our family. One of my wife’s colleagues helped us get in touch with some local volunteers. They helped us immensely, even buying us a phone. They gave us and our neighbors advice about how to cross the border. We were able to transport a woman from the National Guard who was still in our basement.
We’re currently in Estonia waiting for the end of all this so we can return to Ukraine in the near future. This may not happen soon, but we believe something will change in Russia. Because as long as things in Russia don’t change, we won’t see peace.
Translation by Sam Breazeale