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As first lady Jill Biden began a tour in eastern Europe, Ukrainian forces have gone on the offensive in northeastern Ukraine. Yet one of the deadliest sieges during the battle for Kyiv in April was in Chernihiv, outside the capital. Ukrainian forces there stopped Russia forces from advancing south as they left a trail of destruction. Nick Schifrin reports on the aftermath and signs of renewal.
First lady Jill Biden arrived in Romania today, the first stop of her four-day tour of Eastern Europe.
As the war in Ukraine grinds on, she visited U.S. and NATO troops deployed in the region and will meet with Ukrainian refugees this weekend.
Ten weeks into the devastating conflict, fierce battles rage in Ukraine's northeast, where Ukrainian forces have gone on the offensive, as Russia continues its slow, but pounding push toward the Donbass.
In Mariupol, a third effort to evacuate civilians from a besieged steel plant was under way today, even as Russian forces continued to storm it. And in a virtual address to the policy institute Chatham House in London, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that a peace deal may still be possible if Russian troops retreat.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukrainian President (through translator):
They have to fall back and go beyond the contact lines. And they should withdraw the troops.
In that situation, we will be able to start discussing. Despite the fact that they have destroyed all our bridges, I think not all the bridges are yet destroyed, figuratively speaking.
One of the deadliest sieges for the battle of Kyiv last month was in the city Chernihiv, north of the capital. Ukrainian forces stopped Russia from advancing south. But Russian troops left a trail of destruction.
Nick Schifrin visited Chernihiv and a nearby village, and he reports on the aftermath of that fight and signs of renewal.
On the outskirts of Chernihiv, spring has arrived, as have the electrical workers fixing Tetyana Deruhya's home. She and her husband built this house 28 years ago. Now municipal workers must rebuild and rewire the life the Russians destroyed.
The damage in Novoselivka is apocalyptic. It was never occupied, only bombarded by Russian airstrikes and rockets, as if it were hit by a hurricane. In the '90s, Deruhya's family bought 15 acres and built four homes for their extended family. Her mother in law's house is now that pile of wood.
Why have you come back home?
Tetyana Deruhya, Novoselivka Resident (through translator):
Why have I come back? Because this is my home. This is my soul. Because I gave birth to my children here. They grew up here. My mother lives here, used to live here. My aunt lived here. My mother-in-law lived here. I had the happiest days of my life here. This is my home.
Despite all the destruction, I want to be home. My soul is longing for this, because it is mine. However it looks right now, it's mine.
The bombing in Novoselivka started on March the 3rd. She says the homes burned like candles, first her aunt's house, then her neighbor's house, and then a jet dropped a 1,000-pound bomb and destroyed what little was left.
Tetyana Deruhya (through translator):
Look at this. This is an aerial bomb.
This is heavy. This is the remnants of a bomb. Yes.
Yes. This is the aerial bomb, the remnants of the bomb.
She can wipe her hands, but not the memories.
And the fact that this is here, is this a reminder of what happened?
It's painful, yes.
The only structure left standing is her house, where they have sheltered in the basement.
So, this is the basement where all of you guys hid.
Two rooms, 200 square feet, a cellar-turned-sanctuary for 17 people, including five children. They bathed the kids with water warmed by kettles and prayed for a peace that seemed to never come.
When they would start bombing us, these kids would start screaming and crying. And then the grannies would do the same. I would never wish that upon anyone in the 21st century.
Does it bother you being back?
The basement, the thuds, the screaming kids, the old ladies. It was the scariest two weeks of my life. It needs to be cleaned up and put back together, just not now, not yet. It's painful.
In early March, Chernihiv bore the brunt of Russia's bombardment.
That single missile that Amnesty International says weighed more than 1,000 pounds and was unguided killed 46 people in this square, one of the war's deadliest single attacks. Today, that same square bears the strike's scars, the crater that destroyed the hospital, the residents still surrounded by memories of the music they once played and the building they once called home, no longer a safe haven.
Dmytro Ivanov, Deputy Governor of Chernihiv Region, Ukraine: Two weeks ago, we found here a woman on the seventh floor.
Dmytro Ivanov is Chernihiv Region's deputy governor.
Damages of buildings, damages of schools, damages of kindergartens, damages of libraries, stadiums.
Some of the damage was Ukrainian. The army blew up bridges to prevent invading Russians from driving south to Kyiv.
Every day, we find some surprises in our forests, in our — in different places.
Surprises. You mean bombs.
Rocket remnants fill Chernihiv's countryside; 30-year-old Captain Alexander Remenets and his unit have been busy. They search an abandoned Russian encampment, where soldiers who failed to seize Chernihiv left behind discarded shells.
Clearing leftover munitions is risky. Their front window was hit by Russian shrapnel. Russian soldiers occupied this farm. Ukrainians targeted them with rockets that now have to be dug up by hand. In total, Chernihiv bomb disposal units have discovered 10,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance and started working even as Russian troops besieged the city.
What were those few weeks like?
Capt. Alexander Remenets (through translator):
Our unit has been working from the very beginning. During the air raids, we had to hide in the shelters. And we had to wait and could only go back to work when it was all quiet. It was very difficult.
So this was your mother-in-law's house.
Back in Novoselivka, Tetyana Deruhya walks me across her property. And I ask one last question.
How is she doing today, your mother-in-law?
We took with us to the city on March 11. We had no food whatsoever. And, on day five, she just opened the door and went home to get food. It was March 16. There was heavy fighting in the city. And we haven't seen her since.
Parts of Novoselivka will never return. But surrounded by death and destruction, this village looks forward.
You have to find strength and patience and accept whatever has come. So I'm determined that we will rebuild.
Maybe it won't be as big. Maybe it won't be as beautiful. But I'm sure it will be better.
Resilience and renewal at the beginning of spring.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.
Thank you, Nick.
And a reminder that our coverage of the war in Ukraine is supported in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.
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Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
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