Yuriy Fenenko was stoically recounting the statistics, flipping through pages of handwritten notes about the hundreds of bodies that have arrived at the Chernihiv regional morgue since Russia’s war on Ukraine began. Then he broke down.
When the forensic pathologist’s tears finally came, they came in waves. “Usually it’s okay, we smile, we even laugh and enjoy ourselves. But then we start to remember,” he said.
The bodies, like the bad memories, keep coming. More than two weeks after Russian forces left their positions around Chernihiv after a 39-day siege, this region of northern Ukraine – which lies on the main highway between the Belarusian border and the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv – is still coming to grips with the horrors left behind.
Eighteen more bodies arrived at the regional morgue over the weekend, bringing to 509 the minimum number who were killed by the Russian army in and around Chernihiv. Of those, 229 were civilians, while the rest were soldiers or members of Ukraine’s reservist Territorial Defence Force.
Those figures, which will continue to rise as more victims are found, include only people who died violent deaths outside of hospital during the fighting here. At City Hospital No. 2, which received a mixture of violent and non-violent cases, more than 800 others have died since the start of the war on Feb. 24 – surpassing the total the hospital’s pathology department usually sees in a year.
Those who died non-violent deaths outside of hospital are taken to a third morgue. There was almost certainly a significant spike there in deaths from pneumonia, heart attacks and starvation during the siege, in which this city – which had a prewar population of 285,000 – went for weeks without heating or running water, and only sporadic electricity, as food and medicine became scarce.
Mr. Fenenko, the regional morgue’s 45-year-old deputy director, has been a forensic pathologist for 22 years. He said the regional morgue was 10 times busier during the siege than at the height of the pandemic.
The worst day of his career was March 3, when air strikes hit an apartment block and a pharmacy just a few hundred metres away, rattling the windows in his office. By the end of the day, 34 corpses had arrived at a morgue that had nowhere to put them.
Even before the March 3 attack, the relentless Russian shelling of the city had made it impossible to transport bodies to a cemetery. The morgue refrigerator was full, as were three refrigerator trucks that were parked outside. Workers, some of whom lived in the morgue throughout the siege, were forced to pile bodies on top of each other on stretchers and exami tables.
Three of the dead on March 3 were children, including five-year-old twins, a brother and sister, and a 12-year-old girl. “We had a few worst days. A few dozen,” Mr. Fenenko said, scrolling through a computerized list of the victims.
With the morgue overwhelmed, and understaffed after some workers fled the city, Mr. Fenenko’s 18-year-old son Nazar, a chemistry student, pitched in. “He’s handling it better than me,” Mr. Fenenko said, sniffling and wiping away the tears that keep coming.
During the siege, most of the victims delivered to the morgue had died of shrapnel wounds, the result of the seemingly indiscriminate artillery and air strikes that pounded the city.
Since the Russian withdrawal from northern Ukraine – the troops are being redeployed to the east of the country, which is now the war’s main front – the morgue started receiving corpses dug out of the rubble of destroyed buildings around the city.
In recent days, nearly all the bodies arriving have been men, most of them shot in the back of the head. All were apparently executed in the smaller settlements around Chernihiv that were under Russian occupation. Mr. Fenenko said that about 20 per cent of the execution victims had their hands tied. Many were shot in the legs first before they were finally killed with a bullet to the brain.
“The headquarters of the occupation was Yahidne village,” he said, referring to a village 20 kilometres south of Chernihiv on the main highway to Kyiv. “That’s why such a large number of people were shot in the back of the head there.”
On Saturday, the morgue received four new victims. All were men who had been shot execution-style. The Chernihiv forensic team placed the bullets they extracted from the corpses in clear plastic bags, hoping they will some day be used as evidence in a war crimes trial. “There will be trials, but how will we find the people who are guilty?” Mr. Fenenko said.
According to Amnesty International, shooting someone who has their hands tied is a war crime.
Across the square from the morgue is the Chernihiv Regional Children’s Hospital. During the siege, the hospital came to symbolize the city’s suffering as sick children and their parents pleaded for evacuation in videos made in the basement bomb shelter.
While some of the sickest children, including many young cancer patients, were evacuated during the siege by a convoy of volunteers, others remained throughout.
The Russian withdrawal finally allowed for most remaining patients to leave the city. The hospital is now mainly used as a hub for distributing donated food and medicine – including a stack of boxes sent by the Atlantic Ukrainian Association, a non-profit organization based in Nova Scotia – to a city that residents who fled are starting to nervously trickle back in to.
“People are coming back. It seems to me that it’s too early because we periodically still hear the [air raid] alarms. We had missiles fired at the region the day before yesterday,” said Zoya Pushkar, a neonatal doctor who continued to work throughout the siege.
Many in town, she said, believe the Russian army could yet return to Chernihiv. “People are afraid it could repeat.”
One of the few remaining patients in the children’s hospital is 13-year-old Bohdan Parasyuk, whose was injured in a March 16 air strike that killed at least 10 people who were lining up for bread in the city centre.
Bohdan and his father, Vadym, were walking past the bread line – on their way to a friend’s house that still had electricity so that they could charge their mobile phones – when the crowd was hit by a Russian shell. Bohdan, whose legs were broken in multiple locations, and whose face and hands are scarred by shrapnel, is alive today only because his father dove on top of him to protect his son. Vadym was instantly killed.
Bohdan, who is hoping to leave the hospital early this week, and then travel with his mother to Austria where a hospital has offered to continue his rehabilitation free, said he’s angry at only one person: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The computer fanatic said he would have no quarrel with any ordinary Russians he encountered online. “They are not guilty of this. They are being pumped up with propaganda. They are also hostages of this situation.”
But if he encountered Mr. Putin, “I would crush him with swear words as heavy as a three-storey building.”