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“The Body Seemed to Be Burning to the Bone”: Destruction of Mykolaiv Oblast

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“I was burning like a candle,” Olena Berezhna recounts her mother-in-law’s words. On the night of May 15, her husband’s parents, who farm in the village of Vesele, Mykolaiv Oblast, survived shelling by the Russian military. The couple suffered significant burns and other injuries, and their house was completely destroyed.

Since the beginning of the large-scale Russian invasion, Mykolaiv has mounted a heroic resistance, essentially “covering” several directions at once. Mykolaiv itself suffers from constant shelling, the city has been deprived of a centralized drinking water supply, and many have evacuated. The situation in the oblast is no better, especially in the adjacent villages of the partially occupied Kherson Oblast. You have probably never heard the names of these settlements before, and there is little information coming from them. Locals sometimes share pictures on social media of the consequences of the devastation and talk about the lack of electricity, water, and the humanitarian crisis in the temporarily occupied territories.

“Snihurivka and Snihurivka Raion, Pervomaiske urban-type settlement, villages Bilozirka, Partyzanske, Kvitneve, Zelenyi Hai, Olenivka, Zoria, Novohryhorivka, Shevchenkove, Centralne, Liubomyrivka, Luch, Vavilove, Novomykolayivka, Kostiantynivka, Myrne, Kotliareve, Poligon, Mykolayivske and others, which are located near Mykolaiv. People are under constant shelling, and civilians are being killed. Villages keep being destroyed every day, and people have nowhere to go back. Almost since the beginning of the war, there has been no light or water,” writes a local volunteer about the Mykolaiv Oblast these days.

Very hardworking people live here

One of these places is a village with the positive name Vesele (Joyful in Ukrainian). The settlement, which used to have about three hundred inhabitants, is located in the east of the Bereznehuvate community, one and a half kilometers from the Kherson Oblast. People here are engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry. Before the war, they would often go to sell milk to the now occupied Kherson.

Olena Berezhna’s in-laws, Valentyna and Oleh, were not an exception. They worked the land, kept cows, and were very reluctant to abandon their farm.

“The shelling started around 1 a.m. My parents saw the explosions and wanted to hide. But they couldn’t get out of the house because they were already in the yard and there were explosions everywhere. The father told the mother to flee and at that moment there was an explosion right inside the house. The house was destroyed right down to the foundation. They were buried under the rubble. Mother was able to get out and call for help to get her father out. Everyone who remained in the village helped to find him. They saved his life as a few minutes more and he would have suffocated,” Olena recounts the words of her husband’s parents.

“She was burning all over when she ran out of the house. She had very severe burns. The mother said she felt she was burning like a candle. She said that she “only felt her head, and the rest of her body seemed to be burning to the bone.” In this state, she was able to run to her neighbors and call for help,” the woman said.

Some villages were destroyed by 80%

Another village in the Bereznehuvate community, Pryshyb, was hit by shelling that night. Two people died there.

Serhiy Boiko, head of the community, says that some villages have been razed virtually to the ground.

“As for the village of Pryshyb, 80% of it is already gone. It was destroyed, just shot up entirely. There was an “incoming” on the village of Vesele, as a result of which a house was destroyed. Outside the village, shelling continues. They also fire at the villages of Lepetyha, and Murakhivka. Bereznehuvate station is shelled. But some people return because they have farms there. However, 10-15 people at most remained there. Many have been evacuated”, Boiko said.

According to him, all the stores in the village of Berezhnehuvate work today, there is food and bread is delivered. In the villages that are under shelling, food is delivered whenever possible. There are problems with medical provision.

Prohibited shelling

Valentyna and Oleh, victims of the shelling in the village of Vesele, are now in one of the medical institutions in Mykolaiv. They have severe burns and other injuries and have both suffered concussions. Oleh can hardly hear, he already had surgery.

International law prohibits attacks on civilians during hostilities, but the Russians have ignored every regulation since the start of the large-scale invasion. What the invaders are doing falls under the definition of a war crime. Andriy Yakovlev, lawyer and expert of the Media Initiative for Human Rights says that to determine whether it is a war crime, the principles of international humanitarian law (hereinafter – IHL), a set of norms stipulated by the Hague and Geneva Conventions are usually followed.

“One can be guided by a conditional test on the principles of International Humanitarian Law. We are talking about three indicators and the fourth – the aspect of humanity because IHL provides for the humane treatment of civilians and participants of the armed conflict who were wounded or captured”, says the expert.

– The first component is the principle of distinction between military targets and civilian objects, when only military targets may be attacked.

– The second component: the military necessity to carry out an attack. It obliges to evaluate each attack in terms of weakening the military potential of the enemy through its implementation, as well as the impact on the civilian population, the environment, and other protected objects.

– The third component: the proportionality between the attack, the weakening of the enemy’s military capabilities, and the harm to protected objects.

Regarding the latter, explains Andriy Yakovlev, the type of weapon used in the attack is important. If indiscriminate weapons are used, such as multiple rocket launchers, which the Russians actively use, leading to civilian suffering, rather than high-precision weapons striking a military facility, then we are talking about a war crime.

However, it is worth noting that Russia has not signed several international documents, and has in fact invalidated some of them. For example, in 2019, the Russian Federation withdrew the statement by which the USSR had ratified the Additional Protocol (I) to the Geneva Conventions for the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts. Therefore, from the Russian point of view, it does not violate anything.

Olena Berezhna said that according to preliminary information from law enforcement officers, the village of Vesele was shelled using Grad MLRS. There were no military objects in the settlement.

“I want to note the work of law enforcement agencies because they came to my parents in the hospital and got to the village to document this crime. They opened criminal proceedings under part 2 of article 438 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine (Violation of Laws and Customs of War). The materials were transferred to the Security Service of Ukraine for further investigation”, Olena said.

According to the press service of the Prosecutor’s Office of the Mykolaiv Oblast, as of May 23, 16 criminal proceedings related to the armed aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine were in the pre-trial investigation phase by the Bashtanska Raion authorities (which includes the Bereznehuvate territorial community). The proceedings were initiated under the already mentioned Article 438 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine on the facts of violation by the military of the aggressor country of the rules and customs of war, which consists in the destruction of civil infrastructure, transport, and leads to the death and bodily injury of civilians of the Raion, including minors and elderly persons.

Since the beginning of the armed conflict, four civilians have been killed on the territory of the Bereznehuvate community, and five more have suffered injuries of varying severity, among them is a child. In addition, 45 facts of damage or destruction of civil infrastructure and 5 facts of damage to vehicles were documented.

Anastasiya Zubova

This article was produced by Bihus.Info as part of the program “Supporting Ukraine’s Regional Media in Times of War” with the financial support of the European Union and the Foreign Ministry of the Kingdom of Norway. The content is the sole responsibility of Bihus.Info and does not reflect the views of the European Union, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

The invaders entered Tokmak, Zaporizhzhia Oblast, during the first days of the invasion. Despite fierce fighting, the town came under the temporary control of the Russians, who immediately began to establish their "order" here: persecution, torture, confinement in detention centers, and extortion of money at checkpoints. We were able to talk to two local activists who, having survived Russian terror, are now finally in relative safety.

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