May 27. 2024. 9:58

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‘I turned around and saw a bullet had hit her. And a red patch appeared straight away on her sweater’

When Russia poured troops and tanks into Ukraine on February 24th last year, intent on occupying the pro-western country and seizing Kyiv, sisters Yaroslava and Iryna Lytvynenko decided to leave the city and seek safety at their parents’ home in a nearby village.

Motyzhyn, 50km west of Kyiv, seemed an unlikely target for forces that Moscow claimed were coming to “liberate” Ukrainians and protect Russian speakers from a US-backed “neo-Nazi” regime, as Kremlin propaganda terms the democratically elected government of Ukraine and its Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

“The girls asked me to bring them here because they thought it would be safer than Kyiv. I also expected Kyiv to be bombed,” Mykola Lytvynenko says of his daughters, who worked together in a clothes shop in the capital.

“There were so many people on the move that the trip took a whole day,” he recalls in the yard of their small house in Motyzhyn where, with his wife, Lidiya, he grows fruit and vegetables in a garden that slopes down towards large ponds ringed by fields and woods.

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Russian units aiming to encircle Kyiv entered the village on February 27th, and immediately shot some people in their own yards and cars. For the next month, locals would face the constant threat of shelling and shooting, as well as possible abduction, torture and execution by the occupiers.

Like all their neighbours, the Lytvynenkos spent most of their time indoors, trying to avoid Russian soldiers who were on the lookout for Ukrainian troops and for civilians whom they suspected of spying on their movements.

What the Russians expected to be a swift takeover of Kyiv became a battle for each road and village around the city, and fighting quickly intensified near Motyzhyn. Whenever artillery and gunfire crashed around the village, each resident had to decide whether it was safer to hunker down or to run, and on March 19th the Lytvynenkos ran.

[ Motyzhyn: Years of work ahead to hold Russia to account ]

[ A villager’s 10 days in Russian captivity: ‘They used us as human shields’ ]

“Two armoured vehicles and about 25 Russian soldiers were going around on the far side there and shooting into every yard,” Mykola says, pointing across his property.

“I thought they would shoot our house too, so we ran down the back towards the pond, where there are places to hide. But they came up this side faster than I expected and they saw us,” he explains, tracing in the air the way the road turns towards their home.

“We were running away and Yaroslava was at the back. They were about 70 metres away but had good sights on their guns so they would have seen it was a woman. Then they shot her.”

Lidiya says through tears: “My younger daughter was in front of me and Yaroslava was behind. There was shooting and I turned around and saw that a bullet had hit her. And a red patch appeared straight away on her sweater.”

Mykola says: “It was about the size of my hand, and I tried to cover it.

“The soldiers ran up to us, and I said in Russian that we’re civilians so don’t shoot. I asked why they did it. And one of them just said: ‘She was in black. And our enemies wear black.’”

Mykola says he pleaded with them to help Yaroslava, “but they didn’t want to at first”.

“They said ‘Leave her, she’ll die anyway.’ But I begged them and finally they brought up an armoured vehicle, so we put her in and I went with her... I held her head and we drove to their position.”

At the Russian encampment in cottages near the woods, a Russian military doctor massaged Yaroslava’s heart while Mykola gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

“But we couldn’t save her,” he says. “The doctor said he did everything he could. And I saw that he really tried.”

As he took in the death of his eldest daughter, who is survived by an adult son, Mykola realised that he was now a prisoner of the men who had just shot her.

“They told me: ‘We can’t let you go until we change positions. But don’t worry, we’re not animals and we won’t kill you,’” he recalls.

They locked him, blindfolded, in a shed close to the cottages they had commandeered and fed him bread, water and fish soup on one occasion. The shed window had been smashed, making it bitingly cold during the sub-zero temperatures of the time.

“I didn’t think much about my own safety then, but I didn’t want our [Ukrainian] guys to kill me. Lots of shells landed only 50 or 60 metres away, and one time shrapnel flew through the shed door,” Mykola says.

“I asked the Russians to let me dig a hole to hide in, but they just laughed and said that ‘If we survive, so will you.’”

He was surprised that the soldiers did not beat or verbally abuse him, and also that some seemed to regret that Yaroslava had been killed.

“They asked the one who shot her why he did it, but he said nothing... About half an hour after they killed Yaroslava they also shot dead another woman on our street as she was going into her own yard,” he recalls.

“Most of the soldiers were young and didn’t say much. But some said they didn’t want to be here and had been fooled into coming. I told them that if they want to live, they should go home or surrender, but they said they couldn’t go back because they’d be shot by their own.”

Yaroslava lay for several, freezing days where she had died, and then the Russians told her father they had wrapped her in a sheet and buried her in the woods. Mykola wrote her name on a piece of paper and put his own name alongside, because he thought they may still execute him and hoped they might at least put his body in the same grave.

“After nine days there, as our troops started to drive them out, some vehicles came to the shed at about five in the morning,” he says.

“I still didn’t know if I’d be killed. But one of them came in and gave me the padlock off the door, and he said they were going and I should wait for two hours so I wouldn’t be shot, and then I could leave. So that’s when I came home.”

Ukrainian investigators working in liberated Motyzhyn found Yaroslava’s body on April 4th, 12 days before she would have turned 41. The Russians had buried her near a pit that contained the bodies of the village mayor, Olha Sukhenko, her husband Ihor, their adult son Oleksandr and a volunteer called Serhiy Kubrushko.

Prosecutors believe the Sukhenko family was abducted on March 23rd and then tortured and executed, and have identified several suspects from the regular Russian military and the country’s notorious Wagner mercenary group.

Locals remember Sukhenko (50) ignoring pleas to flee the village and continuing to assist residents with essential supplies and evacuations during the occupation, while also helping pass on information about Russian positions to the Ukrainian armed forces.

“She stayed here at that awful time and helped as much as she could,” says Liudmyla Sukhenko [no relation], a social affairs official in the Motyzhyn administration, where a memorial plaque to the murdered mayor hangs by the door.

“What happened here was a nightmare,” she adds, scrolling through photos and video on her phone of houses and cars damaged by shrapnel, bullets and fire.

“Between 800 and 1,000 people lived here before the Russian occupation. Most but not all have now come back. People have to keep going, but I know that I still feel stress when the air raid siren goes off and I react to any loud noise. All of this leaves a mark.”

People around the district were shaken at dawn on January 14th, when after months of relative calm, a Russian missile hit the neighbouring village of Kopyliv, causing no injuries but shattering windows and gouging a hole five metres deep behind a row of houses.

“I woke up because my windows were trembling,” says Valeriya Moskalenko, director and English teacher at Motyzhyn’s school, as she oversees its reopening after months of repairs and construction of a bomb shelter.

“A Russian missile hit the main hall and destroyed it along with two classrooms. Lots of our pupils and their parents and volunteers from Ukraine and abroad have helped us fix everything. We’re so touched that so many people wanted to give us a hand,” she explains.

“Now our school is definitely much better than before. This turned out to be a good chance to make it much more modern. It’s just a pity the price was so high.”

It is hard for Mykola and Lidiya to recount the horror of Yaroslava’s death.

“But I want people to know what it’s like. It has been even worse for some, but everyone has their own pain,” he explains.

“The best thing would be if people everywhere thought what will happen if Ukraine falls. [Vladimir] Putin won’t stop,” Mykola says, referring to Russia’s leader of 23 years.

“But we’re not lying down, and if we get planes and long-range rockets then the war will be stopped here. But if we lose, it will go further.”