For the past few days, Roman Naumenko and his neighbors in The Pokrovsky apartment complex in Kyiv watched from just a few miles away as Russian forces attempted to take control of the nearby airport.
“I observed helicopters firing, one after the next,” he said. “It was an enormous shock. I was shocked to discover that it was true.”
Residents would line up in front of their homes and film the destruction on their phones.
Every day, Russian forces drew closer and closer to the apartment complex. On March 3, one of the apartments was directly struck by an incoming missile. Over 150 families were still living in the 14-building complex at the moment, a manager of the building said to The New York Times.
Then, later on, that day, soldiers were waiting at the doorstep of Naumenko.
“We were able to see the Russian infantry in the security camera in the building we live in,” he said. “From then on the Russians continued to stay.”
Around 200 residents were forced to stay, holding several of them hostage in basements of their buildings and forcing residents to surrender their phones and then take over their apartment. Others managed to escape being spotted but were still captives in their own home while Russian forces entered the structures, which housed 560 families and set up sniper positions.
The Times interviewed seven residents of the Pokrovsky apartment complex located in Hostel, about 10 miles north of Kyiv. They all experienced the attack and captivity in person before trying to escape. Through their accounts, with footage from security cameras and phones, The Times was able to determine what was like and how it felt when Russian forces surrounded.
“It was quite frightening,” said Lesya Borodyuk, the resident of 49 who was crying during one moment when she spoke. “I addressed my child to her. I said goodbye. I told her we’ll be bombed soon.”
Outside, cameras recorded at the very least 12 Russian soldiers and infantry fighting vehicles in the parking area. Soldiers moved massive machine guns and forced an individual inside the building with guns.
Ksenia She, who wanted to be identified by her initials, watched her husband and two children as Russian forces landed at their residence from the second-floor window.
“We did not know what could occur for us,” she explained. “It was just a complete state of terror.”
A soldier group used weapons to break open the door to the front in an apartment complex. After entering, they climbed into an elevator and destroyed the security cameras. According to residents, some buildings were occupied by tearing floor to floor doors off hinges and then raiding apartment buildings.
Within hours, as per the seven residents who the Times talked to, Russian soldiers had seized the entire complex and had confined around 200 civilians in several structures.
“People were evicted from the apartment,” said Elena Anishchenko, who planned to celebrate her birthday with her neighbors on the soldiers’ arrival. “They did not ask anybody anything. They would say to them to go into the basement.”
A lot of residents had their cellphones and laptops taken away or destroyed.
“They said to us — “Don’t be angry with us. You’ll be shot right away if we discover your phone,” Anishchenko said.
Disconnected from external world events, Anishchenko said she couldn’t read the news or talk with her loved ones.
Some residents such as Ksenia could remain at their home — maybe because she had a child.
Some went unnoticed. Naumenko, as well as his spouse, were secluded on the 7th floor of their apartment. He had his cell phone and would turn it on at least once a day to inform his family that they were alive.
Families are worried: “I’m unable to get in touch.’
Family members and friends of the people trapped in Pokrovsky were suffering in pain. They’d seen screenshots and clips of Russian soldiers during their capture of the area in chat rooms and through text messages. Then, messages from loved ones stopped.
Iryna Khomyakova is a daughter of a resident and witnessed the closed-circuit TV footage of soldiers getting into the elevator. Bestricked, she called her mother, who informed her that Russian soldiers were entering the building, and other residents escorted her into the basement.
“My mom’s phone went down,” she said on March 9, and I didn’t hear from her for the past few days.
Hanna Yaremchuk told the Times through text messages that she had been out of contact with her father over the last few days and that he was locked up in the basement. She wondered: “Is he alive at any point? !!! I’m not sure!”
Living with Soldiers
For those detained, the freedom to move was dependent on the hands of the police.
Borodyuk and the others living in her basement were allowed to visit their homes to buy food and warm clothing to fight the basement’s cold made of brick. The neighbors were allowed to cook and mingle.
The Russians who guarded the basement of Anishchenko had a stricter approach. They permitted residents to have limited, monitored visits to their homes to purchase food and other items.
“People were in a panic,” Anishchenko said, “Everyone was over their breaking threshold.”
In the end, 100 or more soldiers were patrolling around the structures, and a few were staying in apartments.
On the 7th floor, Naumenko and his spouse were able to continue to escape the detection. Recent shellings within the region had damaged their windows, and the temperature was below freezing. In the absence of electricity, they devised ways to cook by lighting the oil inside a saucepan, using it to heat food, and then using a candle to warm the water in a can. In the absence of heat, the occupants slept dressed and wore jackets.
In Ksenia’s house, every day was about obtaining enough food for her family and surviving until the next day. The new way of life she lived was quite different from the one she imagined.
“We have been waiting for the apartment for 4 months,” Ksenia said. “We put money into the remodel. However, this isn’t a big deal in the present.”
“We’ll Free You from Nazis’
Outside the battlefield, fighting was ferocious.
“We became accustomed to the sounds of shooting and we were able to distinguish one from another,” Naumenko said. “Whether it was in the distance or near. It was if it was entering our building or over the building. We could hear it.”
In the complex of apartments, The soldiers were instructing their captives that Ukraine was nearing liberation, Anishchenko said.
Borodyuk told of a more experienced Russian officer who tried to console a girl in the basement, where they were held. “He stated: “My daughter is eight years old as well. I love her so much. I love her dearly. Don’t be scared, you little girl; we’ll free your of Nazis.'”
Borodyuk stated that many among the children of Russian soldiers didn’t know why the troops were here in Ukraine. When one soldier was asked by captives what prompted him to be here, he reacted by crying: “Where am I? What can I do?”
Evacuated by Chance
On March 9, Russia and Ukraine agreed to create several humanitarian corridors that allow civilians to move from conflict zones safely. However, the Russian soldiers stationed at Pokrovsky were not informed of their prisoner.
Anishchenko was able to hear the news by accident. On a food visit supervised at her home, she saw a large group moving in white flags from the window. She inquired of a Russian soldier about what was happening. He explained that there was a 72-hour strike-free corridor in the area. The woman and her friends packed bags and fled.
As they left, the scene was bleak. “We witnessed dead bodies lying on the floor,” she said. “We saw burned and crashed cars that had bodies inside.”
Naumenko was able to turn on his phone and saw information on the WhatsApp group on the evacuation of the corridor for humanitarians. He and his wife quickly collected their possessions.
When they left the area, the soldiers told them they would not shoot them. However, the soldiers who were on patrol elsewhere could shoot him.
They managed to escape unharmed, together with the other people who the Times interviewed. Naumenko is currently located in Kyiv, where he intends to remain -perhaps even fight.
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