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“We will rebuild everything. We will help you, – said Arestovych as he tried to hug me. And what good are his hugs to me?”

By Olha Samsonenko and Yulia Semenets

A 17-story building at 15a Chornovola Street in Chernihiv was damaged on March 3 during an air raid. It suffered a direct hit by a bomb.

Most “house with a hole” residents have already returned home. They are cleaning their apartments and changing damaged windows and doors. And in the destroyed rooms, among the debris, onions are sprouting. Children’s clothes are scattered there, broken appliances. There is an unfinished bottle of champagne next to a bed.

40-year-old Olena YURYKOVA, the chairman of the condominium, from the apartment on the seventh floor, and 43-year-old Alla KALYUZHNA from the apartment on the 11th floor told us what happened on that terrible day and how they are now.

“The clock stopped at 12:16.”

Olena Yurykova and her 16-year-old son Kyrylo were hiding in the basement for a month and a half. At the entrance near the shelter, there is an inscription: “PEOPLE”. We go down to the basement and see a makeshift kitchen.

“Here is our 20th-century multicooker,” Olena jokes and shows a cast-iron cauldron. “We cooked on the fire, in the car park near the house. Once, we barely managed to bring a full hot pot of soup inside. The siren started wailing, and leaving the food on the street was a pity. We spent so much time cooking!”

The basement has a stove, a table with dishes, and some chairs. Groceries in bags. A stack of mattresses, some blankets. And even a small TV.

“We haven’t moved anything out of the basement yet. People brought what they could. While there was light, we turned on the TV for the children. We specially made an inscription at the entrance so that people could see and come to us to hide,” Olena explains.

– On March 3, we were in the common corridor on the seventh floor when we heard the siren. We did not have time to go down to the basement. And then we heard a loud bang. Everything turned grey before our eyes. The power went out, and the backup line came on. I just managed to shout to my son if everything was okay. He called back that he was. And there was another explosion. It smelled of gunpowder and burning.

The blast wave blew the entrance doors of apartments out of their frames, and floor tiles in the corridor jumped up. My front door was twisted into a figure eight. Asphalt dust rose, and there was no air to breathe. It’s good that everyone (thanks to coronavirus!) had masks in their pockets. We put them on. We went outside. Everyone started calling and asking how we were. I told my friends on the phone: “Everything is fine. The windows are intact, we are alive. What’s happened?” And they answered: “Lena, f*ck, go out the yard, go around the house! Look from the other side! Half the house is gone!” So I went.

The first thing I saw was the asphalt covered with glass fragments—pieces of windows, balconies, and metal profiles. Almost everyone with windows facing the cardiology clinic had a broken window or damaged frames. I saw the destroyed pharmacy and the neighbouring house at Chornovola, 15 burning. People were lying nearby, and their arms and legs were torn off like in a horror film. Rescuers and ambulances arrived very quickly.

The bombs dropped from the plane were some kind of vacuum bombs. All over the house, the clocks stopped at 12:16.

– In the evenings, the windows of the apartments are lit… Do people live there?

– One time, people from territorial defence came to the 12th floor to see why the lights were on all night in one of the apartments. When they went up there, it turned out that it was a solar-powered lantern that charged on its own and beamed all night. But yes, people are coming back. There are 168 apartments in our building with two entrances. Miraculously, there are no dead or seriously injured. Some residents of the house at 15 Chornovola Street, and those on the street at the moment of shelling, died. At least ten apartments were completely destroyed. A slab is sagging over the 12th floor. The 13th, 15th, and 16th floors collapsed from the shock wave. A bomb hit Alla Pustovoit’s apartment on the 14th floor. Now instead of the apartment, there is blackness, a hole. Alla and her four-year-old son were not at home at that time. They had left the city the day before.

– Are you sure it was a bomb? Not a missile? They say there were missiles on the plane.

– Definitely a bomb. An expert is establishing whether it’s a 250-kilogram or 500-kilogram bomb.

– What will happen to the house? Will they demolish it? Or will they cut off the destroyed floors and build new ones?

– According to the specialists who designed and built it, it is possible to restore our house. It is a monolith. The walls are concrete. There is special equipment and technology to fill the walls in a new way. There were many people near our 17-story building that day. 

Chinese, Americans… And officials of different levels. I missed Poroshenko, but I saw Arestovych. This is me now, clean and combed. And then I was in a down jacket smelly from the basement life, in glass-beaten boots. Everyone is pulling him to take a picture. I took Arestovych aside, nodded at the house, and asked: “What do we do with this?” He tried to hug me and answered: “We will rebuild everything, we will help you”. And what good are his hugs to me? Something has to be done soon. Summer will pass very quickly. For most residents, this is the only home. And because of the hole in the house, the heating pipes can burst with the first frost. Perhaps, we should contact the Mayor, Vladislav Atroshenko and ask him what to do.

We are walking together with Olena to the damaged floors. The wind whistles through the broken apartments. Things that did not fall to the ground are damaged and cut with shards. There is a pink women’s sneaker on the bed on the 14th floor. Another one is downstairs near the basement.

– And how many documents I collected in the yard after the explosion. I found the neighbour’s passport behind the pharmacy on Chornovil street. But the safe – look, they made it well. It was not knocked out of the apartment – she points to the destroyed wall with the safe intact.  

– How many people were sheltered in the basement?

– We never counted, but a lot.

– You didn’t quarrel with each other?

– There was no time. The permanent residents divided the duties: chopping wood, cooking, washing dishes, etc.

“My insides all jumped up in me.”

– On March 3, we were in the common corridor on the 11th floor when the air alarm sounded. There are monolithic walls and no windows here”, Alla Kalyuzhna said. “I was sitting on a chair near the fire hydrant. My husband and son, with my daughter-in-law, were nearby. Bang – and an explosion! My insides all jumped up in me. But I held on to the chair. Everything around was grey, covered with a layer of dust. The shock wave knocked out the neighbour’s door. A few minutes of silence passed, and the neighbour asked: “Is everyone alive?” “Alive, alive, alive,” the roll call on the floor began. My husband and I started looking for our pet cat Marsik. We found him in the room under the table. He is a purebred cat and trained to go to the toilet.

At the time of the explosion, there were 12 people on the floor. The doors of all the elevators were blown off. Guys from the rescue unit came up to our floor. Where the doors were closed, they broke them and searched for people.

The next night we spent in our basement. In the afternoon, a friend invited us to his basement on Lyotna Street. We stayed there until March 17. During the last few days, there were a lot of close calls with shells there. We could not stand it anymore and went to our relatives in Vinnytsia. We stayed for two weeks, and as soon as the bypass road was opened, we decided to return to my home village, Lisky, in the former Minsky district. It was too cold for us to stay in the apartment, with three degrees above zero.

– Alla, have you already calculated how much the consequences of the air strike would cost you?

– It’s already 89 thousand hryvnias only for the windows. We had big, panoramic windows.