A place of strength and love – before, during and after the war

When I first saw photos of the war-damaged House I cried. Then I realised that it’s not the walls that make this place –  it’s the people.

Lyudmyla Yankina (ZMINA Human Rights Centre, EHRHC)

Educational Human Rights House Chernihiv is affectionately referred to as “Dim” – Ukrainian for “ home” by its team members and the hundreds of those connected to its projects’ activities for the past 9 years.

Throughout the full-scale invasion, the Dim and its dedicated team have continued their work, adapting to a dangerous and ever-changing environment.

Lyudmyla Yankina (ZMINA, Educational Human Rights House Chernihiv / Human Rights House Crimea)

In the words of  EHRHC’s Lyudmyla Yankina, “Educational Human Rights House Chernihiv is a place of strength and love, a meeting centre for hundreds of wonderful people. It was before the war. It is during the war. It will be after.” 

Russia launches its full-scale invasion of Ukraine

At 5:00am on 24 February 2022, shortly after Russian President Putin’s announcement of the so-called “special military operation”, Ukrainians were waking up to grim headlines and the sound of explosions – the new reality of large-scale Russian military aggression. 

Educational Human Rights House Chernihiv is located in the village of Kolychivka which is 56km and 98km from the Belarusian and Russian borders respectively. From the first day of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Chernihiv region saw some of the fiercest fighting in the country and was attacked by air and by land as Russian troops and military hardware advanced towards Kyiv.

A Russian cluster projectile caused significant damage to the premises of Educational Human Rights House Chernihiv as it landed nearby, but fortunately, none of the 12 people taking shelter inside were hurt.

On 7 March 2022, a Russian cluster projectile landed close to the vicinity of the House causing damage to the fence, the gazebo, the walls of the building, as well as blowing out windows and other causing other damage. At the time, 12 people were living inside – human rights defenders from Belarus seeking refuge in Ukraine after being persecuted in their homeland.

One of the Belarusian activists described the moment projectiles fell in the vicinity of the House: “We were hiding in the basement, we could hear the windows in the building shaking. One projectile fell very close and caused serious damage. But, fortunately, no one was injured.”

“We consider ourselves very lucky. Because when the shells hit the neighbouring houses, they burned. We were afraid that when fire flew to the roof, the basement would save us, but we would have to get out. And then what? There was shelling in the village at night and in the nearby forest. On March 9, there was an opportunity to evacuate to Chernihiv,” concluded the Belarusian activist. 

From the start, Educational Human Rights House Chernihiv acted quickly to adapt to the unprecedented challenges presented by Russian military aggression and worked to help to relocate and support displaced civil society, document and highlight alleged war crimes, deliver humanitarian aid to the local community, as well as working to repair the damage caused as Russian forces retreated from the region.

Maksym Avdiienko (Training Center Administrator at Educational Human Rights House Chernihiv)
prepares supplies to be delivered as humanitarian aid to the local community.

Documenting alleged war crimes

As Russian military aggression against Ukraine began to unfold across the country, reports of war crimes began to grow at an alarming rate. Many Ukrainian civil society organisations reallocated resources in order to address the growing need to document alleged war crimes committed on Ukrainian territory and to seek justice for those accountable. Educational Human Rights House Chernihiv also changed its strategic working focus to include documenting alleged war crimes as new priority work for its staff.

Between February and March, EHRHC joined several new international initiatives including Ukraine 5AM Coalition and the global “Tribunal for Putin” initiative. As of 17 December 2022,  EHRHC together with its founding NGO “MART”, documented 2200+ instances indicating war crimes in the Chernihiv region alone. EHRHC has also worked to submit documented video and audio materials to the Docudays UA “Ukraine War Archive” database.

Many educational facilities have been targeted by Russian military strikes. Pictured: Destruction at a school in the village of Mykhailo-Kotsyubynsky which was used by 400+ pupils. Photo: “Schools at Gunpoint” report by Educational Human Rights House Chernihiv.

In its upcoming report “Schools at Gunpoint”, to be published in February 2023, EHRHC underlines the significant challenges now faced by children in the Chernihiv region as a result of the partial damage or complete destruction of educational institutions. Throughout the invasion, EHRHC has regularly published statements and reports related to the documentation of alleged war crimes through its social media channels. Read more here.

Establishing an emergency hub in Lviv to support civil society

“We did not believe such events would begin back in February 2022, but we knew if the region became occupied, we would be targeted first. Therefore most of the team left whenever possible after the full-scale invasion and sprang to work shortly after finding a safer place. We had a rule of daily roll calls to make sure everyone was safe and tried to support each other. There was a high personal motivation of the team to help others.

Serhiy Burov, Director, Education Human Rights House Chernihiv. 

In March, to cope with the mass displacement of human rights defenders and civil society fleeing active conflict zones, Educational Human Rights House Chernihiv established a hub for civil society in Lviv, western Ukraine. Since then, the hub has served as a shelter and coworking space for civil society activists. HRDs, civil activists, journalists and volunteers can study, work, organise events, gather coworking groups, and even find temporary accommodation.

Educational Human Rights House Chernihiv’s Lviv hub. Pictured: A screening of the documentary film “Without Status. Ukraine” organised by EHRHC on August 24, 2022.

EHRHC also rapidly reorganised its Protection Programme activities in order to better support civil society members and their families affected by the invasion. As of December 2022, EHRHC has provided urgent support to 540+ people including information, financial assistance, psychological and other health support, temporary accommodation, and/or legal support. Those supported include 132 civic activists, 50 journalists, 33 human rights defenders and 329 members of their families. With the help of this support, over 90% of beneficiaries were able to continue their professional and/or civil activities.

Repairing damage to the House & healing the community 

Repairing a residential home in Bobrovytsya – the most destroyed district in Chernihiv. Residents receive building materials and assistance provided through Vostok SOS and delivered during an EHRHC documentation mission. May 2022.

Despite damage to its premises and great personal risk, Educational Human Rights House Chernihiv and its member organisations did not stop for a day and worked tirelessly to help the local community and people throughout the Chernihiv region. 

Repair work to Educational Human Rights House Chernihiv’s premises began in April 2022 immediately following the de-occupation of the region. The repair work was made possible thanks to the support of partners, donors, and private donations including: Community Organized Relief Effort, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Human Rights House Foundation, International Renaissance Foundation, Libereco – Partnership for Human Rights, Mondo, National Endowment for Democracy, Partners for Democratic Change Slovakia, Prague Civil Society Centre, Vostok-SOS. EHRHC expects the repair work to be fully completed by summer 2023. 

Educational Human Rights House Chernihiv’s cats, famous in the
network of Human Rights Houses, play in the grass as repairs to the building are underway.

Even as this repair work was underway, the House continued to serve the community through several initiatives aimed at humanitarian support, medical assistance, and volunteer-led repair work.

Residents of Kolychivka village collect humanitarian aid supplies from Educational Human Rights House Chernihiv.

The House was made a hub for humanitarian aid for the local residents of Kolychivka village and the wider Chernihiv region. This aid was provided by EHRHC founding member Vostok SOS. From May, EHRHC team members began to deliver humanitarian aid during missions to document alleged war crimes. The types of aid distributed by the team include building materials for the preservation of homes in need of restoration, food, hygiene products and other essential items for families as well as schools throughout the Chernihiv region. 

EHRHC was able to assess the humanitarian needs of the community through various means including direct contact during documentation missions. 

The House was a place where [residents of Kolychivka village] could come to receive humanitarian support.

Serhiy Burov, Director, Education Human Rights House Chernihiv.

The House also became the site of a rural paramedic and midwifery centre, as well as a place where local children and adults could access free psychological help, organised by International Medical Corps. In July, one of two mobile medical clinics provided for the region by the Heart to Heart International initiative, was installed at EHRHC’s Kolychivka premises. The clinic provided locals improved access to emergency medical services. These medical offices on wheels allowed healthcare workers to provide support to over 3000 residents. 

Dobrobat volunteers, stationed at EHRHC’s premises work to clear
and repair the damage in the Yahidne village caused by Russian military activities. Photo: Dobrobat.

Between June and November 2022, EHRHC hosted about 400 “Dobrobat volunteers from all over Ukraine at its premises. The Dobrobat is a volunteer initiative specialising in the reconstruction of Ukraine. Dobrobat volunteers worked to repair damaged houses in Kolychivka village and the neighbouring villages Yahidne and Ivanivka. Together, they provided about 150 residential houses with emergency repair work, including clearing rubble, fixing of roofs, and installing new windows.

Educational events return to the Educational House

Since its establishment in 2014, Educational Human Rights House Chernihiv has hosted hundreds of training and educational events. While these activities were paused at the premises in Kolychivka during the first months of the invasion, towards the end of the year the House once again sprang to life with human rights educational activity – tailored to themes related to the full-scale invasion.

In November, EHRHC hosted “training for psychologists, psychotherapists, and social workers who work with war victims”. This training was the first part of EHRHC’s Psychosocial Rehabilitation Program for Ukrainian civil society activists who suffered psychological damage from Russian aggression.

Shortly after, EHRHC hosted the “Bringing victory closer” Educational Human Rights Forum. The Forum, a week-long event, is the 6th instalment of EHRHC’s annual flagship educational event, known previously as Educational Human Rights Fest.

Participants of the training for psychologists, psychotherapists, and social workers working with war victims, in one of the conference rooms of Educational Human Rights House Chernihiv. November 2022.

During this event, participants studied methodology for documenting alleged war crimes, mechanisms for civil society to work alongside law enforcement in the field of documenting war crimes, as well as human rights education in Ukraine and the protection of human rights defenders during wartime. 

The final educational event of 2022 was held for graduates of the educational courses of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union. Lawyers, judges and prosecutors gathered at EHRHC to discuss the “Post-conflict settlement in Ukraine: from war to peace” and to develop practical recommendations for the transitional justice principles implementation. Participants offered the solutions to the following challenges: 

Fighting for freedom and human rights

The first emotional response to the full-scale war was that everything we worked so hard for was destroyed. That all previous efforts were meaningless. However, later on, you realise that nothing has changed – we still fight for the same values – freedom and human rights, but in different and more challenging circumstances – circumstances where our values are even more critical.

Serhiy Burov, Director, Education Human Rights House Chernihiv. 

As the first anniversary of the full-scale invasion approaches, Ukraine continues to resist Russian military aggression and the people work to repair the physical and psychological damage of the full-scale invasion. Educational Human Rights House Chernihiv hopes to fully reopen its repaired premises in the summer of 2023, and its team remain dedicated to human rights and their work in these new challenging times. 

Director Serhiy Burov stands in front of Educational Human Rights House Chernihiv (photo from 2018).

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About Educational Human Rights House Chernihiv

Established in 2014, Educational Human Rights House Chernihiv unites human rights defenders, organisations, and civil activists who believe that education is an effective way to ensure human rights protection and long-term positive changes.

Over the years, the House has organised hundreds of educational events and activities, gathered thousands of human rights defenders, teachers, lawyers and judges from all over the country and beyond, and provided shelter to persecuted human rights defenders from the whole region. It is a place where many human rights defenders from the broader region feel at home.

Read more about EHRHC here

Educational Human Rights House Chernihiv’s Protection Programme provides individual support to human rights defenders, journalists, public activists and their family members. Find out more about the Protection Program here.

The Protection Programme operates with the support of the International Renaissance Foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy, Human Rights House Foundation and the Emergency Support Ukraine project.