A trip through the ruined towns around Kyiv is a story of resilience in the face of horror, finds Tom Mutch

The roads on the way to Kyiv are littered with the destroyed husks of tanks, empty trenches and the corpses of the Russian troops that failed to conquer the city.

It’s now three months since 24 February – the day we woke up to Russian missile strikes hitting targets throughout the city.

All I heard from colleagues and experts alike was that the city would be surrounded and captured in no more than 72 hours. Instead, to the world’s shock, the Ukrainians not only held out, but pushed the invading Russian Army back after six weeks of fierce fighting.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been travelling through the outskirts of Kyiv oblast – retracing the steps of the Russian assault. It is a story of some of the worst horrors seen in Europe since the Second World War.

But it is also a story of the heroism and bravery of the Ukrainian defenders and civilians who stood firm in the face of what the world told them were impossible odds.


Irpin

Andriy was the owner of Stockholm Studios, a formerly a swanky apartment block in the middle of Irpin.

“They decided to execute me, but they didn’t want to look me in the eyes while they did it,” he said, describing when the Russians arrived. “So, they closed the door to the kitchen and fired five shots into it. Thankfully the door frame dispersed the shots and only one hit me in the foot.”

Andriy pointed to the holes in the door and then the bullet fragments in the walls of the kitchen.

“Eventually I climbed out the window that led back into the living room and my would-be executioner looked surprised. ‘You are alive?!’ he said. He decided not to shoot me again as it seemed to him that I wasn’t meant to die. I escaped to another part of Irpin the next day and then walked to Kyiv on foot.” 

The sleepy town of Irpin lies between Bucha and Kyiv. It was the closest Russian troops came to the capital city. Had they taken the town, they could have subjected nearby Kyiv to the same indiscriminate shelling inflicted on Mariupol and Kharkiv.

Irpin. Photo: Tom Mutch

In Irpin, Russian soldiers marched civilians into basements underneath the town and commandeered their buildings. Andriy showed me the rooms, all of which the invading soldiers had completely trashed. 

Near a park in the town centre, a group of volunteers had set up a kitchen giving out hot borscht along with tea coffee and biscuits.

“People had been inside and underground for days and were unsure when it was safe to leave,” one volunteer said. “Then they smelled the cooking and started to come out!”

The town is also cleaning up in its way. On the road to Kyiv is a clearing in a forest that has been turned into a car graveyard. There are dozens of twisted metal hulks many of them yellow and orange from the oxidation that happens after an explosion.

A graveyard for wrecked cars on the outskirts of Irpin. Photo Tom Mutch

Even the bridge of Irpin, which was destroyed during the fighting, has been replaced.


Bucha

In a field behind the Church of the Parson of St Andrew the Apostle in Bucha, authorities are still digging up a mass grave.

It’s been more than two weeks since Ukrainian forces liberated the areas around Kyiv, but fresh evidence of atrocities is being found every day. 

“On the morning of the 27 February, I was going to put on our service when a column of Kadroyvites came into the town and started shooting up the Church,” the Parson of the Church said. “Every day it is burials and burials and burials.”

Authorities excavate a mass grave behind a church in Bucha. Photo: Tom Mutch

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime has denied committing the atrocities.

“If I could ask Putin and others one simple question it would be: if ‘that happened after they had left’, how is it that on Facebook, on my page, for example, there are videos of burials published on the 12 March?” the Parson asked. “A miracle, it appears?”

During the fighting, pictures of Voxhalna Street covered in the carcasses of Russian tanks were all over the news. Now crews of workers have mostly cleared the streets of rubble and war debris. But many of the houses next to the street remain destroyed.

Andriy, a 69-year-old engineer who lived on the street, was close as you could get to the battle. His house was half blown up, but he is just happy that his family had fled to safety and his beloved dogs survived.

“I live with my neighbour now because my house now has no windows and no doors,” he said. “The draft… it’s cold. I couldn’t leave because of my dogs, I have two. We have a big Volkswagen T4. My two daughters, two grandchildren, and my son-in-law. The car was full. My dog jumped into the car, she wanted to leave with them. They said ‘dad, let’s go’. I said, ‘no, I’ll stay. I need to plant my vegetable garden’.

“War is war, but you need to carry on living… You see, the young ones here, they were afraid, and they hid in a cellar, then they moved to the kindergarten basement.”

He sighs. “Now they are in Poland. They didn’t see these horrors thank God.”

A clean-up operation underway in central Bucha. Photo: Arnaud de Decker

Borodyanka and the Villages

Two teddy bears, a world atlas, and schoolbooks lay outside a flattened apartment block.

The young girl’s possessions were abandoned on a street in the town of Borodyanka.

One resident said that “this is what the ‘Russkiy mir’ looks like for them”. Pointing to the rubble left by a missile strike in March, he added: “And this is what it looks like for us.” He said that different bodies were found in the rubble every day.

“My neighbours here were a young couple with two children,” he added. “All of them died in the basement.”

The villages on the road from the Belarusian border, where the Russians invaded, and the outskirts of Kyiv, suffered the worst of the physical destruction.

The small one-lane town of Andriivka was reduced almost entirely to husks. Not a single building escaped damage. Residents are finding unexploded ordinances and mines left behind by Russian forces every day. 

In the town of Vabyla, a local police chief explained how the Russians had been firing their tank guns at random into people’s yards. A mother and her son had been killed by flying shrapnel. An investigative team was digging up the shallow grave where their neighbours had buried them. The husband had been behind the house in the yard and survived. He is now apparently fighting with the Ukrainian armed forces in the region. 

A digger clears debris in Borodyanka. Photo: Tom Mutch

Kyiv

As the sun shone on a beautiful spring afternoon, people walking dogs and buying ice-creams filled the park by Taras Shevchenko University. A group had even gathered for public salsa dancing, next to a statue of the university’s namesake.

It was the first day since the invasion that the city of Kyiv felt like the vibrant and modern European capital city it had been before the war – the city its inhabitants have been fighting for since the 2014 Maidan Revolution.

Katerina Rybkina was watching her younger sister lead a dance class. “It is amazing to be back outside safely,” she said. But there was a dark side to her celebrations too. “Our family is still in Zapahorizia just outside of Kyiv and 80% of this is occupied by Russian fascists.”

One month ago, the city of Kyiv was full of checkpoints and sandbags. The main roads were covered in metal tank traps. Suspicious Ukrainian troops questioned and scoured everyone’s paperwork on every street. Outside, only a few supermarkets and a single underground bar were open. Thousands sheltered in basements and metro stations every night.

Now the city is slowly coming back to life.

A curfew remains in place, but is being pushed back every week. City officials estimate that hundreds of thousands of people have already returned to the capital. The longest lines now are for stamps commemorating the Ukrainian Navy’s destruction of the Russian Black Sea flagship Moskva, emblazoned with the phrase: “Russian warship go f*ck yourself.”

The Russians have begun to pivot their forces towards an offensive in the Donbas regions of eastern Ukraine. Here, they intend to encircle and destroy the bulk of the Ukrainian Army’s best-trained troops.

But the survival of the nation of Ukraine, with Kyiv as its proud capital, is now assured. The sacrifices made outside of the city were horrific. But Ukrainians believe that they were worth it.

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