Tears, anger as Ukrainians mourn victims of Russian theatre strike

Anger and tears: Olena grieved for her son, 22-year-old Nazar Yushchenko, killed by a Russian strike on the northern city of Chernihiv (Roman Pilipey)
Anger and tears: Olena grieved for her son, 22-year-old Nazar Yushchenko, killed by a Russian strike on the northern city of Chernihiv (Roman Pilipey)

Tearful Ukrainian families mourned their loved ones killed by a Russian strike on the northern city of Chernihiv, with many venting anger at the organisers of a drone conference inside a theatre that was hit.

The missile strike on the city centre Saturday, which came during the Orthodox holiday of the Transfiguration of the Lord, killed seven people, including a six-year-old child, and wounded 148 others.

The attack sparked rare public criticism of Ukrainian officials who permitted the conference focused on drones.

"Why was this exhibition held? Please tell me. I don't understand," said Olena, seething with anger at the funeral of her son, 22-year-old Nazar Yushchenko, on Tuesday.

Yushchenko was killed after being hit by shrapnel from the powerful blast while exiting a carpark in front of the theatre.

"They killed (my son)... I will never forgive them," Olena said, lashing out at the organisers of the drones summit.

The event was organised by Dignitas, a Ukrainian charity that supports the military.

It was a "closed meeting of engineers, soldiers and volunteers on the subject of military technologies for the front", Maria Berlinska, from Dignitas, wrote on Facebook.

The location of the event had been shared with participants only "a few hours" before the conference, Berlinska wrote, adding that the organisers were cooperating with authorities probing the attack.

Local authorities had granted permission to hold the event and had made the venue available, according to Berlinska.

- 'Terrible mistake' -

Former Ukrainian culture minister Oleksandr Tkachenko vigorously denounced the hosting of the event inside the theatre.

"Drones should be on the battlefield. Not in cultural institutions," Tkachenko wrote on his Telegram channel.

"Russia is a terrorist (state) without principles. But the negligence and short sightedness (here)... nevertheless raise questions and anger."

Yevgenia Ivashentseva, an English teacher who also mourned the loss of Yushchenko, also described the decision to use the theatre for the forum a "terrible mistake".

"I don't understand how it is possible to leave the inhabitants of a peaceful town like this so exposed," she said.

Chernihiv city, 150 kilometres (90 miles) north of the capital Kyiv towards Belarus, had until now been largely spared from major attacks since the first months of Russia's invasion as fierce fighting rages in the east and south.

The Russian army tried to take the city when it invaded Ukraine through Belarus in February 2022, before being repelled by Kyiv's forces.

- 'Stupidity' -

At the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Chernihiv, an emotionally charged ceremony was held on Tuesday for Sophia, a six-year-old who died in hospital of her injuries from the strike.

Sitting on a chair near the small white coffin, her grieving mother gazed at the face of the child, who was dressed in white, her blond hair tied with a ribbon.

The roof of Chernihiv's theatre in the central square was badly damaged by the strike, with windowpanes also blown out, although the exterior walls of the building were still standing.

The historic city centre is a candidate for nomination to the UNESCO World Heritage List, according to Ukraine's culture ministry.

The powerful blast of the explosion shattered all the windows of restaurants, cafes, shops and apartments in two surrounding streets.

Yulia Bobrytska, a 31-year-old waitress at one of those cafes, returned to work on Tuesday after it had been cleared of debris.

She was not injured but told AFP that she had been on "antidepressants and sedatives" since the strike.

When asked about the drone forum inside the theatre, she voiced dismay over "the stupidity of our country, of our leaders".