The black smoke of war over the black forests of Chernihiv
Chernihiv, a small peaceful city in the northernmost region of Ukraine, has deservedly been called the city of legends. It is indeed full of them — even its name has a legendary origin from the past. One of the theories refers to the word “black” in the name (“чорний” in the Ukrainian language) — due to the “black” forests surrounding the city.
It was a city of almost 300,000 people. People who are proud of their city and its heritage – including beautiful churches and cathedrals, some dating back to the 11th century. But in late February 2022, Chernihiv, named for its tall black forests, turned literally black, as its skies became filled with smoke and the dust of debris.
Being close to the state border with both Russia and Belarus (less than 100 km to the village of Senkivka where the borders of the three countries meet) and having a strategic location on the way to Kyiv, Chernihiv has been under threat since the first days of Russia’s invasion and it was one of Russia’s primary targets to take over. But Russia’s armed forces never managed to occupy the city due to the heroic efforts of the Ukrainian army. However, as a result, the incapable Russian invaders decided instead to destroy the city and its residents.
As of April 8, around 700 civilians and military personnel were killed by Russia while Cherhiniv was besieged, as reported by the city’s administration. All of Russia’s war crimes there are being documented, day by day.
In the early morning on 24 February, Chernihiv’s residents woke up to the sound of explosions from rockets and bombs hitting their city. Many families spent the first night of this new reality in shelters — hundreds of people had to sleep on concrete floors in school basements, only able to run back home for a short time to grab food and water when possible. Thankfully, Ukrainian Armed Forces successfully defended Chernihiv from the initial onslaught by Russia’s invading forces.
On 25 February, the building of the State Security Service was hit by Russian shelling. Afterward the Russian army targeted a power line and a water pumping station in the city. Russian shells also hit the local psychiatric dispensary.
A large hardware and home goods shop called “Epicentre” was shelled on 26 February. One hour before the shelling, the local administration announced that the “Epicentre” shop would act as a collection point where residents could bring water, food, and warm clothes for those in dire need. On the same day, Russian soldiers deployed “Grad” (hailstones in English) multiple rocket launch systems against civilian targets in Chernihiv, including hospitals, a kindergarten, and a petrol station.
Public utilities and civilian infrastructure in Chernihiv began to suffer from continuous, heavy shelling — some areas of the city were left without heating and electricity. Local hospitals were under particular threat because many patients’ lives depended on the ability for electrical equipment to work. The Russian soldiers then shelled the city center — presumably, attempting to destroy administrative buildings close by. As a result, one of the city’s main architectural symbols, which had hosted a cinema and a youth hub, was left in ruins.
“I don’t know if we will survive,” says Katya, a 22-year-old nurse in Chernihiv.
February 28 — March 2
Black smoke covered the sky over Chernihiv, as the “Epicentre” hardware store and residential buildings next to it were burning throughout the day on 28 February. A Russian cruise missile hit another hospital, namely its maternity ward and COVID department. Russia’s bombardment destroyed several buildings which were critical for civilian support, leaving residents without access to medical care.
Andrii Yarmolenko, the leader of Ukraine’s national football team, whose career started in Chernihiv, spoke out, criticizing Russian football players for keeping silent while the Russian army was killing innocent civilians in Ukraine.
Russia’s armed forces deployed extensive shelling, mortar fire and air strikes which destroyed large swathes of the city. Early in the morning a Russian missile hit an oil base. Then, Russian rockets targeted a large residential area in the city center — no military infrastructure or bases were nearby. The invaders didn’t manage to advance on Chernihiv, so instead they concentrated on targeting and killing civilians.
Vladyslav Atroshenko, the mayor of Chernihiv, commented: “The last time Chernihiv experienced such bombardment was in August 1941 when the nazis attacked it. In 2022, it’s Russia committing war crimes against the city and its residents.”
Dozens of buildings were destroyed on March 3. Schools and other education institutions, hospitals, residential buildings, architectural monuments were among them. The State Emergency Service reported 47 dead and 18 injured as a result of Russia’s airstrikes. Due to continuous heavy shelling, safe evacuation couldn’t be organised for civilians, including 11 severly ill child cancer patients, who were hiding in a bomb shelter.
Valentyn Osypenko, who witnessed all the horrors in Chernihiv, said , “I think it was intentional that they hit civilian targets. Our house is destroyed, our car is burned down.”
The number of civilian casualties dramatically increased during these days, as Russia dropped several FAB-500 bombs with highly-explosive warheads. The city’s administration reported over 60 dead and over 400 injured people, as of March 9. Fortunately, some of the bombs that Russia dropped failed to detonate on impact and were found in residential areas of the city. However, they still posed serious danger to local people, before brave emergency services could disarm them.
Doctor Oleh Luzan, who works at Chernihiv’s main regional hospital, said, “What did surprise me was how indiscriminate the attacks were, the number of civilians we had to deal with. A lot of them suffered serious injuries, a lot of them died.”
The situation with critical infrastructure was getting worse. Residents of many areas didn’t have access to heating, water, gas, electricity, and mobile phone connection. People were temporarily hiding or even living around the clock in basements or shelters — many of them had lost their homes. They couldn’t even send messages to friends or relatives. A family trying to flee from Chernihiv on their own hit a mine as they drove — 3 people died and 3 were injured. Another group were fired on by Russian troops when they tried to escape Chernihiv on foot — 4 people from the group were killed and 3 were injured.
On March 6, the President of Ukraine awarded Chernihiv with the title of a Hero City for its heroic defence.
Russian airstrikes on the night of 11 March destroyed two architectural symbols of Chernihiv. The first was a local monument built in the 19th century, which later became a library for children. The building remained untouched during World War II, up until 2022 when Russia invaded. Another architectural symbol that was destroyed was the Chernihiv football stadium.
By this point most of the city had no access to utility services after Russian forces had bombarded critical civilian infrastructure, causing a humanitarian catastrophe in Chernihiv.
Russia’s rockets hit the Hotel “Ukraine” — one of the most well-known places in the city. An airstrike in one of the residential areas of the city killed 5 people — 3-year old siblings, a 12-year-old girl and their parents. The whole family was found dead under the rubble.
Because of the non-stop bombardment from Russian shelling and missile attacks, communal services couldn’t repair the damage done to critical civilian infrastructure. As a result, around 80% of households in Chernihiv had no electricity. The city was besieged — residents had to queue in long lines just to charge their phones, they had to build open air toilets, and use generators to cook food.
“There are huge lines in stores which have almost nothing. People wander around the city in search of food. Pharmacies do not have medicine, it can only be found through volunteer centers. Food can also be found through volunteer centers. People continue to evacuate. Cars are going through an unsafe corridor; they are being fired at,” say The Washington Post journalists after 7 days under siege in Chernihiv.
Russia’s army continued to destroy the city’s critical civilian infrastructure. Part of the building of the Chernihiv National Polytechnic University was destroyed. Russian troops also targeted the infrastructure of gas and water services. The invaders even left Chernihiv residents without food by shelling a food storage warehouse and a market. On March 14, 10 people died during Russia’s persistent attacks. Meanwhile Russia continued to refuse to open humanitarian corridors for the evacuation of civilians.
As of March 15, over 100 civilians died in Chernihiv from Russia’s shelling and bombs, since the start of their invasion.
Russia’s atrocities committed against Ukrainians in Chernihiv continued in even more cruel and inhuman ways. Russia’s artillery targeted innocent civilians standing in a queue for bread – killing 14 and injuring over 100 people. In total, 53 corpses were transported to the morgue in Chernihiv on March 16.
Volodymyr Shyk was among those who were waiting in line for bread among other residents of Chernihiv. When the shelling started, he was thrown to the ground, and his knee was torn.
“I saw blood everywhere,” he said. “Twelve people didn’t stand up. They were killed instantly.”
The day after, another group of civilians, queuing for water, were hit by Russian shelling — 14 more people died.
During these days Chernihiv was in a state of complete humanitarian catastrophe with almost no access to electricity, water and heating. Many elderly people died, not only from shelling but also because they didn’t have access to essential medicine.
The Russian army destroyed Chernihiv’s main bridge over the Desna River. It was located on the way to Kyiv and used by people trying to flee the war, and by volunteers who managed to evacuate over 10,000 civilians, even when no green corridor was opened. Humanitarian aid to the city was also transported via the same bridge.
Russian shelling continued throughout, never stopping. The local morgues were full with 40-45 corpses being sent in daily — 5-6 times more than on peaceful days.
In one of the interviews, the city mayor Oleksandr Atroshenko said, “They were not fighting the army here. They were bombing civilians.”
Residential buildings and civilian infrastructure was severely damaged under Russia’s shelling. From 15 to 20 wounded civilians were rushed to hospitals every day. Many of them stayed inside Chernihiv City Hospital №2 — often together with families who had their lost homes.
“Lots of people remain under the destroyed houses. People are often forced to bury their neighbors and relatives in the yards of their houses. So we can’t even count the exact number of victims. Moreover, there are injured people coming to hospitals every day.… Some will not survive the wounds and lots of them will remain with disabilities for life. Some lost a leg, an eye, or an arm,” said the secretary of the city council of Chernihiv Oleksandr Lomako.
A group of volunteers who tried to deliver humanitarian aid to Chernihiv, including medicine and food, was hit by Russia’s artillery fire. One of them suffered a concussion, several others received injuries.
March 29 — April 1
Even after Russia began withdrawing its troops from the Chernihiv region, their shelling of Chernihiv didn’t stop. On March 29, a market and a shopping centre were damaged and burned. One of the city’s main libraries was also hit by artillery fire.
Kateryna Mykrevych says, “I had to flee because everything was destroyed. There was no gas, no electricity, no water in the city. Our children are dying. My son had to stay in Chernihiv; I could only take my daughter with me. It hurts a lot. Now we have nowhere to go, our whole neighbourhood is destroyed. Everything is completely destroyed.”
Russia’s army fired at a convoy of 5 volunteer buses filled with civilians trying to evacuate. One volunteer died, 4 received severe wounds. By the end of March, there were still no safe ways to escape from the city, nor agreed humanitarian corridors.
On April 1, Russian forces shelled the Chernihiv Regional Centre of Modern Oncology — three members of the hospital’s staff were wounded.
Ukrainian Armed Forces liberated the villages and cities in the Chernihiv region as the territories were cleared of Russian invaders. Thankfully, humanitarian aid was finally able to reach those in dire need of help. As the mayor of Chernihiv reported, 70% of the city’s infrastructure was destroyed. However, new routes were organized, and the city’s roads started to bedemined.
While safety risks still remain — it’s hard to predict how much time is needed to demine the whole area of the city and its surroundings, which are now under Ukraine’s control. And there is no feeling of peace in Chernihiv, as Russian forces could attempt to return again.
After more than a month under Russia’s siege, the civilian death toll in Chernihiv is still unclear. The city with over 1300 years of history has become literally drained of life. Hope is slowly returning but the city’s surviving residents understand that there is a long way to go to make Chernihiv a safe place again.
Russia’s war crimes there have been extensive — destroyed schools, hospitals, kindergartens, ruined cultural heritage sites, dozens of residential buildings turned into rubble, hundreds of killed and severely injured, including children. The list of Russia’s crimes is long, and the world must know the truth of Russia’s atrocities.
So please share this information far and wide, to help ensure that Russia’s war criminals face justice and are punished for the crimes they have committed.
Yaroslav Turbil, born and raised in Chernihiv