NOVOSELIVKA, Ukraine — In the tiny village of Novoselivka in northern Ukraine, the only things still standing upright and untouched are the flowers.
Daffodils and green shoots frame piles of warped metal and splintered wood, where houses once stood. Tulips blow in the wind among mangled steel and crumbling cinderblocks. Cherry blossoms droop from branches, pointing downwards at wide roadside craters.
For the about 800 residents who lived in Novoselivka before the war, the new blooms once simply heralded the arrival of spring.
Now, for the handful of villagers who remain in the destroyed village, they are a reminder of the passage of time, as weeks wear on and they remain homeless, wondering where they will go next.
Novoselivka bore the brunt of the Russian advance on Chernihiv as the army encircled the city in the early days of the Ukraine war. A city of about 300,000 people, Chernihiv is less than 100 kilometres from both the Russian and Belarusian borders, and the largest city on the road to Kyiv, 130 kilometres to the south.
The siege of Chernihiv lasted five weeks, before the Russians retreated in early April, leaving hundreds of people dead and infrastructure badly damaged.
In Novoselivka, just 14 residents remain — most of whom are elderly.
As we arrive in the village, a number of them encircle our car, wrongly assuming we are an aid vehicle.
They were left in the village as Russian troops assembled on a nearby hillside seven weeks ago, they say, as their younger neighbours fled around them. In the ensuing weeks, the village was pounded by Russian shelling.
They have since found lodgings with local residents in a nearby village while they await suitable temporary accommodation and details about the rebuilding of their homes.
While they wait, they return each day to the carcasses of their destroyed homes, to tend to their gardens. Most residents here grow their own vegetables, such as potatoes and carrots.
“I come to the garden to relax and not pay attention to the war,” Olha Makarenko says. The 70-year-old says her hearing was damaged by the intense shelling the village experienced at the hands of the Russian army and she is now almost deaf.
“This is so difficult. I can’t hear. But what can I do? We need to live through it.”
Makarenko was born in Chornobyl. She was evacuated to Novoselivka in 1986, after the nuclear accident at the power plant. She asks, through tears, why tragedy has followed her.
“All of my houses have been ruined in my life.”
During the worst of the siege, Makarenko and her husband spent 21 days with a friend in their basement, her house destroyed. She emerged with the rest of those who remained in mid-March and moved to a nearby village, where they have been ever since, crammed into the spare rooms of local residents.
They returned in the wake of the liberation of the area at the beginning of April and have returned to their gardens each day since.
When they’re not gardening, they congregate together outside one of the only buildings still standing in the village, which they say is now 80 per cent destroyed.
“I wanted to be here with my people,” Makarenko says of her decision not to flee the village, adding that many older residents are not mobile and didn’t have a choice but to stay.
“Now I don’t know where we can live or what we can do. We’re just waiting.”
'The planes flew from Belarus'
On the morning of Feb. 24, hundreds of Russian tanks rolled into Chernihiv, on their journey to Kyiv. By the Feb. 25, Russia’s military spokesperson announced that they had completed their encirclement of the strategically important city.
Thus began a five-week siege. The Ukrainian army’s 1st Tank Brigade was Chernihiv’s most important line of defence, fighting off Russian advances for weeks.
As Russian planes targeted military locations with missiles, the city refused to surrender, so the civilian infrastructure was increasingly attacked.
Yuriy Poliuk, head of the Chernihiv forensics bureau, puts the death toll of those directly killed by the war at about 700 people, including civilians and military. This doesn’t account for the number who died in hospital.
On Chernihiv’s northeastern outskirts, Novoselivka, was the front line of the battle for the city.
“The first days, a plane came between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. and I went out of my house to check where it was flying from. It was flying from Belarus. The planes flew from Belarus, dropped bombs on us, turned around and flew back,” says Maria Zamaraeva, whose house was partially destroyed.
“Seven people were killed here. Many were injured.”
Most of the villagers were born in Novoselivka and lived here all their lives. They say it is a close-knit community where everyone knows each other.
Seeing their village encircled, younger villagers fled for neighbouring towns or other parts of Ukraine. Those who stayed went underground, into the basement of whomever’s home was deemed safest. They say they weren’t scared at the time, because they believed the battle would be over within days. But many ended up staying underground for weeks on end, without seeing sunlight.
For some, leaving wasn’t easy due to frailty or disability.
Valentina Tischenko relies on a walking stick to help her get around and says she couldn’t get away easily.
She says many of the villagers struggled to sustain themselves because Russian soldiers would target them when they tried to cook. They survived on whatever rations they had in the house.
“We tried to boil the potatoes over a fire, but the Russians fired from the hills, so we can’t even cook potatoes,” she says.
Zamaraeva says the bombardment had made many who remained “crazy.” She watched one of her neighbours “blown to pieces” by shelling and it had left her traumatized.
“She was in her kitchen cooking food. They targeted her house. My house is opposite her house, over the road. And we thought it was our house,” she says.
When soldiers ventured into the village, she says they weren’t intimidating, but disparaging. They approached, holding machine guns, and asked, “How have you not died here yet?”
“They looked at the passport of my husband and said, ‘He’s 80 years old, I’m 70 years old, you will die anyway,’” Makarenko says. Due to her damaged hearing, caused by the incessant shelling, she cranes her head to hear questions and cries silently as she asks for them to be repeated.
Makarenko was in friend Mikhailo Kirusho’s basement when her house was destroyed. She says it burnt to the ground in 30 minutes.
“Miklhailo came out of his cellar and said: ‘Olha, your house is on fire.’
“I couldn’t even get up. I was so upset.”
Kirusho says this is not the first time Novoselivka has been destroyed. He says it was also razed during the Second World War in 1943.
“Back then, people were driven into barns and living people were burned. Then, it was the Nazis and it turns out that the Russians repeated the same thing now. But the Russians are even worse than the Nazis,” he says.
“Maybe this place is damned.”
Russian soldiers took up residence in the village’s local school and kindergarten, Kirusho says. That part of the village was spared.
One morning, after weeks of constant shelling, Kirusho says he ventured outside of his basement to smoke. He noticed four soldiers, whom he thought to be Ukrainian.
“I said: ‘Hello Cossacks,’ … then I looked and saw that they were Russians. They said: ‘How are you still here? We have already wiped you off the face of the earth.'”
“Then, they gave us half an hour to get out of here.”
The remaining villagers gathered together and boarded a trailer, pulled behind a small tractor, and fled to the nearby village of Voznesensk, where they were taken in by residents.
'They rolled over the graves, back and forth'
On March 29, the Russian military announced it would “drastically reduce military activity” in northern Ukraine, after weeks of stalled advances around Kyiv. On April 1, Ukraine claimed that Russian forces were withdrawing from the Chernihiv region.
Within a few days, the Russians were gone, a trail of destruction and land mines in their wake.
Ukrainian soldier Oleh Shuloa saw much destruction when he fought in Chernihiv as part of the city’s self-defence unit. Now that the area has been liberated, he is stationed in Novoselivka as part of Ukraine’s National Guard, checking the documents of anyone who tries to enter.
Shuloa says one of the most disturbing things he witnessed in Novoselivka was the destruction of the Yatsevo Cemetery. The cemetery holds the graves of fallen Ukrainian soldiers, many of whom were killed in the Donbas region.
Footage of the destruction was released on April 11 by Ukraine’s defence ministry, amid claims of unwarranted Russian aggression. Global News attempted to visit the cemetery but was not able to as demining work had not yet been completed.
Shuloa says he watched a Russian tank roll into the cemetery and destroy the graves.
“They moved the tanks above the graves. They didn’t do this by accident as there was a road right beside it. Then they rolled over the graves, back and forth. And they totally destroyed it,” he says.
During the fighting, Shuloa says he saw many bodies of Russian soldiers, which were often left on the side of the road because the Russian military rarely collected them.
One, which his unit found in Novoselivka, was buried in a ditch.
“I saw another Russian body on the other side of the river after a plane was shot down. And he was just lying down there for two weeks. I don’t know what happened to him. Maybe he got eaten by a dog.”
'We need to show the world what happened here'
The villagers of Novoselivka did not see the Russian retreat, but say soldiers were there one evening and in the morning they had disappeared.
Weeks later, in the shadows of their destroyed homes, all there is to do is to garden and wait.
The army delivers food to the village each day and there are piles of clothing deposited on a street corner.
The sounds of scraping metal and nails being hammered into walls, as boards are fastened over windows on the few houses that are only partly damaged, ring through the air.
Demining work has now been completed in the village, so gardening remains the safest way to pass the time.
Yuriy Chugai is picking through the wreckage of his family home along with his sister and parents. Chugai’s family fled days before the war but return regularly to pick through their destroyed home and tend to their garden.
Chugai says his parents’ garden is an important lifeline for them, as they live off the vegetables they grow.
The family is determined to rebuild, he says, but that goal gets harder to comprehend with each passing day.
“It’s very difficult, I’m speechless. First I came here and saw all of this and felt the courage to do something. But with time, you get very tired of doing this.”
About 200 metres down the road, Zamaraeva, Kirusho, Tischenko, Makarenko, and others congregate around a tree stump in front of one of the village’s lone standing buildings.
They are safe for now, but they don’t know if they will be forever.
“We are still not sleeping through the night. The smallest noise we hear we are thinking they will start shelling again,” Zamaraeva says, the vision of the woman she saw killed next door still fresh in her mind.
They also don’t know where they will live. While many want to rebuild, they say they will go wherever temporary accommodation takes them. They don’t have the money to rebuild so they need government help or donations.
“If the whole world does not help us, nothing will happen. There are diasporas around the world, so we hope they will help us,” she says.
“We need to show the world what happened here. We need weapons, so we can kill Putin,” Tischenko says.