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What it was like in Chernihiv, Ukraine, during siege

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

U.S. officials warn the next phase of Russia's war in eastern Ukraine could be more brutal than the last several weeks have been. The northern city of Chernihiv offers a glimpse into what that might look like for civilians and cities in the east. It was the first city to fall under Russian siege before Russian forces finally withdrew last week. NPR's Becky Sullivan visited Chernihiv and sends this report.

BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: It's cold and rainy out here on the outskirts of Chernihiv. But two brothers, Ivan and Volodymyr Mekshun, are here anyway, digging through a big pile of debris that used to be their home.

IVAN MEKSHUN: (Speaking Ukrainian).

SULLIVAN: They used to run an auto repair business out of their family garage, he says. But it was totally destroyed by the bombing. Now all they can do is look for what tools they can find that might still be here, buried under all the wood and metal.

MEKSHUN: (Through interpreter) Maybe we'll build something else. What else can we do?

SULLIVAN: For a month, Russian forces encircled Chernihiv. It's about 55 miles from the Russian border and even closer to Belarus. Ukrainian officials say the population of Chernihiv was held hostage. Russia, they said, was purposefully making civilians suffer to increase their leverage in negotiations. During the siege, there was no heat, no water, no food and no escape because eventually all the bridges leading out of town were destroyed. The single deadliest strike came in early March, said Mayor Vladyslav Atroshenko - an air strike that landed right in the center of town.

VLADYSLAV ATROSHENKO: (Through interpreter) People saw that aircraft flying at a very low altitude - something like 300, 400, 500 meters maximum. And there was not one cloud in the sky. The sun was shining brightly.

SULLIVAN: So the pilot would have clearly seen what was below him, the mayor says.

ATROSHENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

SULLIVAN: A pharmacy, a hospital, apartment buildings all around.

ATROSHENKO: (Through interpreter) It's not any mistake. It's not just by chance.

SULLIVAN: The strike was actually caught on video - footage from somebody's dash cam. They're driving up the street, and through the windshield you can see the bombs dropping.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMBS EXPLODING)

SULLIVAN: Almost 50 people were killed in a single strike. Amnesty International investigated and said it could constitute a war crime.

Walking around even a month later, the damage was hard to look at - giant holes in apartment buildings, walls peeled clean off, rubble and burned-out cars everywhere. Just a couple hundred yards away, Nina Kotyar said she was sheltering in the basement of her apartment building when it happened.

NINA KOTYAR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

SULLIVAN: We're lucky we went down in time, she says. The whole building shook so hard, her windows blew out, she said. Even in the basement, little bits of brick and cement fell from the walls and ceiling. Her best friend and sister-in-law, Lyudmila, lives a mile or so away. She heard the strike and saw the smoke rising.

LYUDMILA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

SULLIVAN: It was very, very scary - very scary, she says.

KOTYAR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

SULLIVAN: Nina jumps in. With no phone connection it was impossible to check on anyone to know if they were alive.

LYUDMILA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

SULLIVAN: Lyudmila says, when I heard the bombs I ran here because I was so worried about Nina.

KOTYAR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

SULLIVAN: Nina says, when she got here, she started to hug and kiss me, saying, you're alive. She ran under the bombs to check if we were alive. They apologize for getting so emotional.

LYUDMILA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

SULLIVAN: Over the past few weeks, the Kremlin has ramped up its false narrative about fascism and Nazism in Ukraine. The U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War says that could be a way to prepare the Russian public to accept more atrocities against Ukrainian civilians. For now, here in Chernihiv, the siege seems to be over. There are no Russian troops left, no more airstrikes. Nina Kotyar is still living in the basement with her 85-year-old mother.

KOTYAR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

SULLIVAN: All her windows were blown out, she says, so you can't really live there.

KOTYAR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

SULLIVAN: To be honest, we're fed up with life in the basement, she says. And excuse the details, but we haven't been able to wash ourselves for a month and a half.

KOTYAR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

SULLIVAN: But things are good now, they say. They can be outside like this when the weather allows. We laugh because it's cold and rainy, but still it's better than sheltering from airstrikes. She's trying to figure out a way to get out of Chernihiv, maybe to her daughter in Amsterdam.

KOTYAR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

SULLIVAN: But for now, Nina says, the trees are going to bloom soon, and everything's going to be all right. Becky Sullivan, NPR News, Chernihiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.