CHERNIHIV, Ukraine — Throughout the entire five-week siege of Chernihiv, Father Mykhailo travelled to his central city church every day to hold mass.
Nothing would deter him. Not even when the church was shelled by the Russian army did he consider cancelling his daily service, which he says was a lifeline for members of his congregation.
As Russian bombs flew overhead and tanks fired in the distance, those inside the ornate, Ukrainian baroque-style building would pray for the war to stop. Their words unheeded, the devastating battle for this northern Ukrainian city left much of it in ruins.
“I wanted to do this because I am a local, I was born here, and if people came to God at this time and the church was closed, it would be a disaster for them,” he says.
A city of about 300,000 people, Chernihiv is less than 100 kilometres from both the Russian and Belarusian borders.
On the morning of Feb. 24, hundreds of Russian tanks rolled into the city, on their journey to Kyiv, 130 kilometres to the south. By Feb. 25, Russia’s military spokesperson announced that they had completed their encirclement of the strategically important city.
Thus began more than a month of bombardment via rockets, shells and heavy artillery. Residents were subject to food and water shortages, little communication and dwindling hopes of evacuation as they were effectively cut off from the outside world.
Chernihiv was also the site of what is believed to be the single largest death toll over the course of the war, when eight unguided aerial bombs were dropped on a line of people queueing for food.
In a televised broadcast in early April, Mayor Vladyslav Atroshenko said 70 per cent of the city had been destroyed.
But it is also the site of one of Ukraine’s most valiantly fought defences. The army’s 1st Tank Brigade was Chernihiv’s most important line of protection as the Russian advance stalled, eventually culminating in a retreat in early April.
As Russian soldiers withdrew from the region, residents clambered out of basements to inspect the damage.
They found central city apartment blocks blown to pieces, nearby villages almost flattened and a population traumatized.
'I had no idea if they were still alive'
Before the war, Chernihiv was a city renowned for its ancient architecture and plethora of beautiful churches.
The exquisite St Catherine’s is one of the most historic, built more than 300 years ago and considered one of the greatest monuments of the Cossack renaissance of the 17th and 18th centuries.
It is also one of the few Ukrainian churches to have successfully freed itself from its Russian shackles, when in 2008, it transferred from the Moscow Patriarchate to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate. A majority of the churches in Ukraine still fall under the jurisdiction of the Russian wing of the Orthodox Church.
It is through this influential force that the Kremlin skillfully exploits the religious factor in promoting to the Ukrainians the ideas of the “Russian world” — the doctrine suggesting that the former Soviet republics are inextricably bound to Moscow.
Entering the city, St Catherine’s is one of the first landmarks visitors encounter, alongside a leafy sign spelling “Chernihiv” in small shrubbery.
The church’s five gold domes glint from a small hillock where it stands sentinel over one of the city’s main entry points, a four-lane bridge over the Desna River.
It is this bridge that Father Mykhailo, who presides over St Catherine’s, believes was the intended target of the Russian shelling that instead fell on the church in March. He was not inside at the time, but arrived about 30 minutes later.
To anyone driving past, the damage to the church isn’t immediately clear. But from its northern side, the impacts of the shells are obvious in the large patches of upended and smashed tiles.
A chunk of its façade was ripped off in the blast and there are shrapnel marks across its exterior. Thick tire tracks have torn through a patch of immaculate grass on its eastern side.
Congregants leaving a haunting service inside, dedicated to the dead, no longer pay any attention to the damage.
Despite the close call, Mykhailo says the fear for his life subsided after the first days of the war.
“I was sure that God would help me if I needed him,” he says.
Chernihiv echoes with similar stories of an unrelenting will to survive. After all, it is this stoic resilience that kept the Russians at bay until March 29, when after weeks of stalled advances around Kyiv, the army announced it would “drastically reduce military activity” in northern Ukraine. On April 1, Ukraine claimed that Russian forces were withdrawing from the Chernihiv region.
Within a few days, they were gone — leaving shell-shocked residents to pick through the wreckage of their homes.
“I saw the destruction on a documentary when I was in Australia,” says Olena Kotsur, a resident of Perth, Australia, who grew up in Bobrovytsya, on the outskirts of Chernihiv.
“I could understand that it’s war but I could never have imagined the destruction. I was crying.”
Kotsur is video-calling her friends outside St Catherine’s. She says it was the first place she wanted to visit, after seeing her elderly parents, who survived the siege against all odds.
“There was no internet connection, no phone connection. I had no idea if they were still alive,” she says.
Kotsur returned to Ukraine to relocate her 75-year-old mother and 79-year-old father to Australia. She says they are both traumatized.
However, her father now refuses to leave the village four generations of his family grew up in.
“He wants to fix the roof and fix the windows,” Kotsur says.
“Before the war … my Dad said: ‘I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to take an Avtomat Kalashnikov and your mother will be passing me the bullets.’”
47 killed waiting in line for food
It is not yet known how many people died during the siege of Chernihiv. The closest estimates come from forensic pathologists working on the bodies of the dead. They say the number sits at about 700.
However, as more corpses are exhumed and the numbers who died in hospital are factored in, the toll is expected to climb. A large portion of those casualties occurred in a missile attack on March 3, as residents in a small public square lined up for bread.
Igor Markovich was there that day.
It was a normal wartime Thursday, he recalled. People had been going about their business at usual around lunchtime as sirens sounded overhead, which is not an unusual reaction for Ukrainians now used to hearing air raid sirens several times per day.
He says people were shopping because there was a shortage of food and a nearby store was one of few that were open in the area. Nearby, there was a pharmacy and a hospital.
“At first I heard the roar of the plane, and then I saw what happened. The explosion happened. … I was about 100 metres away,” he says.
In the nearby vicinity of the strike is a pre-school, the Chernihiv General Hospital and Chernihiv Regional Children’s Hospital, as well as several apartment blocks.
The attack was most likely caused by eight unguided aerial bombs — known as “dumb bombs” — Amnesty International concluded after an investigation.
The Chernihiv Regional Administration reported that 47 people (38 men and nine women) were killed in the strike.
The majority of them, Amnesty said, were queuing for food when the missiles struck, based on satellite imagery and interviews with witnesses. The organization said it may constitute a war crime.
Markovich pulls his phone out of his pocket and shows us a video of the aftermath: Bodies lay strewn across the street among the rubble. Piercing screams from injured women and sirens are all that can be heard. He indicates someone with their leg torn off.
“The pilot who dropped these bombs, he clearly saw what objects he was dropping them on,” Markovich says. He says reports in Russian media that the strike was carried out due to Ukrainian provocation are false.
“At the time of the explosion I was close, so I saw everything with my own eyes,” he says.
“It’s hard to believe that such a situation could start. I don’t see any logic in this war except to destroy and kill people.”
Near where we stand, a crater, several metres long, scars the ground less than a few hundred metres from the blown-out windows of the pharmacy and the Chernihiv General Hospital.
Bodies show signs of torture, execution
Identifying the many dead that have come through the doors of this morgue has taken a visible toll on Yuriy Poliuk.
The head of the Chernihiv forensics bureau is visibly shaken as he recounts the most horrific two months of a 22-year-long career examining corpses. Twice, as he speaks about executed young men and the future of his country, tears fill his eyes.
There are three morgues in Chernihiv. Poliuk’s is the one where deaths directly attributable to the war are received. He says about 700 military and civilian bodies have passed through his doors, which is being used as the city’s unofficial death toll. Pre-war, Chernihiv’s three morgues would receive a cumulative of 100 to 150 deaths per month.
“We have never seen such a thing in our nightmares,” he says.
The procession of bodies has now slowed, from 10 to 12 each day during the siege and its aftermath. On the day we visit, only one has arrived. Forty corpses remain unidentified.
Poliuk says he has seen about 20 bodies that have shown signs of torture or being executed.
“These were usually men with their arms and legs tied and with certain rags or bags on their heads and bullet wounds to the head or were shot at close range,” he says, glassy-eyed.
Most were young men aged between 30 and 40 years old.
The work, in trying circumstances, was gruelling. Poliuk says the morgue had some issues when the electricity went out and they lost power to the refrigeration trucks where bodies were stored. In such moments, dozens of corpses had to wait in warm conditions, waiting to be examined.
Despite two decades in the business, Poliuk cannot compare the last two months to anything he has ever experienced.
Even during the pandemic, he says his work was based on determining a patient’s cause of death and informing the health authorities, as a way to widen an information base. There’s none of that here — just stating the brutal facts of senseless death after death.
“It is not clear why this has all happened, this war. Why is there such a large number of victims in such a small area? These people are young — young people who should live to further develop our state,” he says.
“We had one and a half months of active hostilities, months of horror and now the consequences. I don’t even know what to compare it to.”