war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

‘We prayed aloud all the way,’ says deacon Mykola Serdiuk, describing how his family left their occupied village.

03.04.2024    available: Українською | На русском
Andrii Didenko
At the beginning of the war, Mykola Serdiuk was with his family in the occupied vil-lage of Havrylivka near Hostomel (Kyiv Region). To leave, they had to sneak through Russian checkpoints at their own risk. They saw columns of Russian tanks, smashed cars in ditches, but with God's help and prayer they made it to safety.

My name is Mykola Serdiuk. I am a deacon of the Baptist Church in Kyiv. We were all waiting for something to happen because so much Russian equipment had been driven to our borders. It was all over the media. We, the pastors, had a meeting before the war. We were told what to do and how to behave during the war. Because nobody had any idea how to behave during bombing and air raids. So, we discussed what to do when there is no electricity, etc.

We were sitting in a meeting discussing what to do in case of war, but I did not think there would be a real war. But then it happened. My daughter called me and told me that something was burning in Kharkiv, and then I found out that something was burning in Vasilkiv too. The war we feared and did not want had begun. It had come.

It was dark and cold. I went to the car park to get my car. It was difficult to leave the city because all the petrol stations were full. We drove out of Kyiv. When we were leaving, I saw many cars driving in the opposite direction: they were moving from Liutezh (a village in Kyiv Region) to Kyiv. I thought: “So, we are leaving the city, but others are coming into the city? Why is that?” Apparently, people knew that it would be safer in Kyiv. Because Kyiv was better protected.

My idea was simple: I wanted to leave my wife and our grandson in the village (I thought it would be safer), and then go back to Kyiv. But as we entered the village, someone wrote to me on Viber chat that the bridge in Hostomel had already been blown up. I said that we should pack quickly, before they blew up the bridge in Demydiv (a village in Kyiv Region). And immediately I was told that the bridge in Demydiv had also been blown up.

Around 25 February (2022), the first Russian military vehicles entered the region. I heard on the radio that the Russian military had broken through our border. They went through Ivankiv (a village in Kyiv Region), seized the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and moved in the direction of our village. We heard their equipment at noon on 25 February.

Destroyed hangar in Hostomel © Depositphotos

We were told that what we heard was Russian paratroopers at Hostomel airport. They took over the airport and there were heavy explosions. It was frightening. It was very close: 12-13 kilometres from our village. They (Russian troops) entered the neighbouring village of Lubianka and set up their checkpoints. And from there they started bombing Hostomel. Then we were told that Hostomel was already in flames. Everything there was in flames.

On 25 (February) there was no electricity in the village. There was still gas, but it was cold. Our heaters began to cool down, and on 26 (February) there were heavy explosions. They bombed Bucha, Irpin and Hostomel. They (Russian troops) were near our village, so we knew that our village was occupied. There was a lot of military equipment on the streets, so we were told not to leave our houses. And if we did, we should wear white armbands and not tell others who was a civilian and who was a soldier.

The first bomb exploded about 100 metres from us and I saw a lot of smoke. I was scared. The windows in the houses were blown out. We knew the situation was dangerous. It could have been worse, but at least none of us were hurt.

We quickly ran back to the appartment and an hour later a second shell landed behind the house near the kindergarten. Our windows were blown out in one room, but luckily nobody was in the room. But at any moment something could hit our appartment. We gathered what we could and left the house. We knew that people were hiding in the basement next to the kindergarten. But so many people had gathered there that there was no room for anyone else. So, we went to the school. There were also a lot of people in the basement. So, there was no room there either. But there was another place where we could hide — a vegetable storage — so we went there. The first two nights I could not sleep and I was awake until midnight. The shelling was so intense that there were explosions every two or three minutes.

We still had gas till 8 March. I woke up on 8 (March), congratulated my wife and daughter on International Women’s Day and went into the kitchen to check for gas, but there was none. It was our last hope of getting warm or heating anything. And I saw through the window that people were already carrying firewood and pulling boards. Someone was already trying to make a fire outside. We realised we had to do the same because it was cold. The explosions were so close that the windows were shaking. We were scared. We stood in the corridor and waited to hear where the bomb would hit. We heard it hit a bit further away, so we calmed down. Every night was like that.

Once we were standing near the school and Russian soldiers came and offered us some humanitarian aid. I went to listen to what they were offering. As I approached, I heard their speech. I understood from the speech that one of them was Belarusian. Because my father-in-law is Belarusian and my wife is Belarusian. We used to go to Belarus every year, so I always recognised their accent. When one woman asked him who he was and where he was from, he remained silent. There were also Kadyrovtsy (the unofficial name of the units of the National Guard of Russia, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Defence of Russia deployed in the Chechen Republic, whose personnel are recruited from Chechens), Russians and Belarusians.

I stood there, looked at him (the Belarusian man) and asked: “Please tell me why you are here? What can you offer us? There is no gas, no electricity, no heating, no food. You have taken everything from us and you want to offer us something?” He replied sarcastically: “Well, it wasn’t us, it was your Ukrainians who bombed you”.

I said: “The bombing started when you came. Go back to where you came from. You — go to Belarus, Russians — go to Russia. And everything will be better for us, we don’t need to be liberated from anything“. I saw one of them standing behind me: armed, wearing a mask, only his eyes were visible. He looked at me as if I had said something wrong. We were afraid of what they had done in Bucha, so I just waved my hand and said: “Well, what to talk to you about?” I turned and left.

Towards evening, the sounds of machine gun fire came closer. The Russians occupied houses in the forest and lived very well. They had fireplaces and food. We were told that our troops were advancing, that they were beginning to drive the Russians out and that they (Russian troops) were fleeing through the forest. We heard this close fight and saw how they (Russian troops) started to drive out of the forest. They were also hiding among the houses. We realised that something was about to happen, and if we didn’t leave the village, it would be worse.

Mykola Serdiuk

The people walked in a column. They tied a white sheet to a fishing rod to show that they were evacuating. The column went towards Demydiv. I saw people running, some cars leaving. And we started to pack our things too. Nobody understood what was happening. My father-in-law said: “How can I leave at my age?” And I told him: “Pack your things, we won’t leave without you!” We prepared white ribbons, cut them up and put them on the car to show that we were evacuating. We came out of the house and a man said to us: “Kadyrovtsy are checking people at the checkpoints. They won’t let you out”. It was unexpected for me. And I thought: “God, why did you send me this man? Do You want me to stay here? I take responsibility for taking my family out of the village. What if, God forbid, something happens to them? I’ll take my family and we’ll go through this hell and I don’t know what will happen”.

Then other people came and told other rumours, saying that in the neighbouring village of Voronkivka a family was leaving the village by car. They saw an APC ahead of them, and apparently the driver panicked and started to drive away from them, and they (Russian troops) shot them. The whole family was killed.

And then I heard a voice in my head: “Go!” I understood that God was with us. He would save us. It was our destiny. We all got into the car and prayed. I said to my family: “Let’s go. Keep praying”. That’s how we left the village. At the first checkpoint there was an APC and four soldiers. They looked at us and we drove on. We had to go through the village from where they were shooting at Bucha. We understood that there was a lot of military equipment there. As we approached the village, we saw a lot of tanks and different military equipment. We passed the second checkpoint, the military again didn’t check our car, they just looked at it. We passed the third checkpoint in the same way. We prayed the whole time. The military let us through, but stopped us on the way out of Lubianka. We raised our hands and I got out of the car. I asked in Russian: “Will you let us through?” They looked at me strangely. I saw a couple of Kadyrovtsy sitting on the tank. And one with a Russian accent asked: “Do you have any cigarettes?” I said: “We’re religious, we don’t smoke. We don’t have any cigarettes. And if you let us through, we will pray that God will give you wisdom”.

He said nothing, just looked at the car and asked why we didn’t have enough white ribbons. I told him that we had cut as many as we had and hung them on the car door. He brought two white towels and helped me hang them on the car so it would be clear that we were evacuating. And I made an unfortunate joke that it would make us more visible so that they could shoot at us. The soldier replied: “Don’t worry and drive carefully. If you see our military car behind or in front of you, stop and let them pass”. Within 2-3 kilometres we counted about 20 tanks standing along the field. They were in the direction of Irpin and Hostomel. Some soldiers were standing there smoking, someone was sitting on the tanks and all the barrels of the tanks were raised in the direction of Kyiv.

Cemetery of destroyed cars in Irpin © Depositphotos

Near Zdvyzhivka (a village in Kyiv Region) we saw a destroyed car on the left side of the ditch. It was a white Renault Trafic. And its driver was lying dead nearby, covered with snow... We looked to the right and saw many destroyed cars there too. It was so frightening.

While driving, we were crying out loud. It’s hard to remember everything. We saw a car crushed by a tank. There were more destroyed cars further on. I could only see the road, so frightened and concentrated was I. Other people were driving on in their cars. We saw them too, crying and praying. We reached Makariv (a village in Kyiv Region) and saw our Ukrainian flag. It was such a joy! When we reached the checkpoint, I wanted to jump out of the car and thank our soldiers for being there. We were so happy to be out of that horror. The soldier asked us where we were from. We said: “We are from Havrylivka”. He replied: “Oh, it is dangerous there now”. I replied: “Well, yes, it is”.

We were lucky that our village was not badly damaged. As we drove, I held on to the steering wheel so tightly that my arms hurt — they were so tense. Only when we reached our Ukrainian checkpoint we calmed down a bit. We were out of hell. Thank God!

By 3 a.m. we were in Yavoriv (a town in Lviv Region) where a man was waiting for us. He took us to a shelter in a local school. We drank hot tea and rested. Later we found a house to stay in. We prepared some firewood as there was nothing in the house. We relaxed a little. Suddenly, in the first night, from Saturday to Sunday, four rockets hit the town. I knew that there was Novoyavorivsk military unit nearby, so maybe it was the target. But we had never heard explosions like that before. People jumped out of their houses and prayed. Windows were flying out, everything was shaking. Well, we ran away from the war, but the war came here after us.

My inner attitude to life changed. I began to appreciate life, people, my work, my colleagues more than before. Everything became different. My view of the world changed completely.

Translation: International Society for Human Rights (German Section)

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