Ukrainian city empties as Russia blasts path to Kyiv

Daphne Rousseau, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Mar 05 2022 10:16 PM

Ukrainian reservists EPA-EFE/file
Ukrainian reservists take part in their training on the Desna shooting range in Chernihiv region about 120 km from capital Kiev, Ukraine, on December 19, 2018. Sergey Dolzhenko, EPA-EFE/file

Every gust of wind loosens another pane of glass, another lump of rubble, sending debris crashing into the streets of Chernihiv, scattering surviving civilians as they navigate their devastated city.

The industrial town of 300,000 sits across the path chosen by a Russian invading army for its advance on the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and it has paid a steep price for resisting the assault.

Dozens of civilians have been killed in shelling, missile attacks and air raids, and now those remaining live among ruins and craters -- many of them seeking to escape.

Sergei, a thickset man with a shaved bullet of a head and dark stubble, grips a sack of cat litter like a shield as he slaloms between the wreckage, his head bowed. 

"There were corpses all over the ground," he told AFP, as air raid sirens wailed once more. "They were queueing here for the pharmacy that's just there, and they're all dead."

Chernihiv, controlling the northeast route towards Kyiv from the Belarus border, was always going to be a target of Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

But on the eighth day of the operation, encountering stiffer-than-expected resistance, Moscow decided it was no longer a question of taking the town, but of destroying it.

On Thursday, Russian jets roared over the city and unleashed a hail of what local witnesses described as cluster munitions, spiralling through the air with mini fixed rotors like sycamore seeds.

They hit a residential district of eight-storey blocks clustered around a clinic and a school building converted into a rear-base for resting Ukrainian soldiers.

- Secret administration -

According to the interior ministry, at least 47 civilians were killed in the first strike, and detonations could still be heard as shelling continued Friday. 

"But what do these bastards want of us?" demanded 48-year-old survivor Serhiy Bludnyy as the dull throb of jets once more filled the air.

Many, perhaps most, of the population had decided not to wait to find out the answer to his question.

On Friday morning long convoys of civilians in a disciplined line snaked south towards Kyiv, with the warning sign "children" plastered in their windows. 

But Petro Bahatyuk, 65, had not managed to gather together his family to make a move.

"My heart is in pieces. My children haven't been able to leave, my grandchildren are still here, and I've come looking for them," he said.

In a secret location, for fear of becoming Russia's next target, local officials are trying to organise the survival of those cut off in the city.

"Today we're trying to make camouflage material for our guys, the priority is to stay hidden," deputy mayor Regina Gusak told AFP in the hideaway.

Two more makeshift bases have already been destroyed and now the administrators are stockpiling tinned food, warm clothes for children and mattress protectors for those that wet the bed through fear.

Red Cross workers are also around, running out when a report comes in of a house ablaze.

But Ukrainian troops are invisible.

Chernihiv is left to its own defences, supported more than protected by a handful of armed civilian volunteers in Ukraine's territorial units.

Denis Rokaz, a 25-year-old electrician in a keffiyeh-style scarf cruises around the town with a friend in his car, blasting out techno to drown out the sounds of war.

"The rockets are day and night," he said. "But we'll fight and help out while we can."

In the back of his car are a teddy bear, some basic first aid gear and a rocket launcher.

The bravery of Chernihiv achieved viral fame last week when a social media post showed determined but unarmed civilians shooing off a tank that approached the town.

- The bridge must hold -

But that now seems like another war.

By Friday afternoon the remaining inhabitants were trapped in a cauldron of fear. 

To the north, the west and the east Russian tanks are in the fields and woods, firing on anything that moves, AFP journalists confirmed.

As dusk fell the last route out to the south, an ancient bridge over a muddy river, became a target.

The fast-moving silhouette of a Sukhoi attack jet was spotted flying low and fast. 

As the first bomb exploded tens of metres away from a crowd waiting to leave, they threw themselves onto the tarmac, children screaming in fright.

"We'll die if we stay here," a woman screamed. Dumb-founded and shaking, a Ukrainian police officer shouted for the escapees to get in their cars and drive before the plane's next pass. 

No one knew if the bridge would hold. No one knew whether it would be hit. But they drove.