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100 Days of Tragedy and Triumph

In the first instalment of two reports on Russia’s invasion, Tom Mutch describes the barbarity of Putin’s aggression, and the resilience of Ukraine and its people

Photo: Tom Mutch

100 Days of Tragedy and Triumph

In the first instalment of two reports on Russia’s invasion, Tom Mutch describes the barbarity of Putin’s aggression, and the resilience of Ukraine and its people

“I don’t think I’ll ever feel truly safe again,” Alina Victorovka from Kharkiv tells me as our bus winds its way from Ukraine to Moldova.

The young woman, a 24-year-old acrobat dressed in a red top and black pants, had the same vacant expression I’ve seen thousands of times in Ukraine: eyes wide but unfocused, as if unable to process the reality around us.

She had arrived in Kharkiv to visit her family shortly before the war broke out and had spent 10 days sheltering in a village just outside the city limits, before fleeing to the safer conurbation of Dnipro in central Ukraine.

“It is a bad dream I just keep wanting to wake up from,” she says. Despite now being safe, she knows that what she saw in Ukraine will haunt her for the rest of her life.

It seems absurd now, but the month proceeding the war passed leisurely. I arrived on 22 January and my colleagues and I spent our time at fashion shows and bar crawls and nice restaurants all while the grim prognostications of invasion loomed ever closer.

In the port town of Mariupol, which I visited at the outbreak of the war, there were no signs of extra military preparations or provisioning in hospitals – let alone stockpiling of supplies. The only unnerving sign came by virtue of an old wives’ tale – that dogs bark when death is near. The dogs of Mariupol barked non-stop, day and night.

One bored resident told me, “we’ve been at war here for eight years already” – so what worse could happen?

Within weeks, Mariupol would be transformed into a dystopia comparable to Aleppo or Grozny, both cities previously levelled by the Russian Armed Forces.

We were living “an absurd double life”, Julia Tymoshenko, a 22-year-old consultant, told me when a banal normal life coexisted alongside frantic preparations for the worst. She described people returning from regular days at work to discussions of the nearest bomb shelter and possible evacuation routes.

We woke up on 24 February to the sounds of missile strikes throughout Kyiv. Within 24 hours, the city went from a thriving metropolis to a deserted war zone. Standing upon a viewpoint in the centre of the city you could see the rising black smoke from a battle over Hostomel airfield. The Russians had dropped in paratroopers in an attempt to secure a landing zone to ferry soldiers and heavy armour straight to the fight.

At night, we could hear gun battles as saboteurs disguised as Ukrainian soldiers tried to assassinate Zelensky. For those first days, we slept in metro stations that had been converted overnight into bomb shelters. These huge structures up to 70 metres deep had been designed to survive a nuclear strike. Down here, with the huge steel blast doors closed off, we had been sealed away from the world.

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Over one and a half million people would go on to leave the city in the coming weeks while checkpoints, sandbags, tank traps and sniper tests popped up throughout the city. At that time, Vladimir Putin’s forces were expected to overrun the capital by the end of the week. Along with most other reporters, I left after a few days to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv and saw lines of people stretching for dozens of miles desperately trying to cross the Polish border. Some of the asylum seekers were waiting for up to four days in the cold of the Ukrainian winter.

But something strange and unexpected happened. Rather than collapse under overwhelming pressure, the Ukrainian nation turned out to be more unified than ever. President Zelensky remained in Kyiv rather than fleeing as per US and UK officials’ advice, and became a unifying figurehead overnight in a country previously fraught with internal divisions.

There were no high-profile defections in the country’s leadership to the Russian side and the Ukrainian army held its own on all fronts. Yes, the Russian troops had established a foothold outside Kyiv in the town of Bucha – soon to become notorious for a massacre committed there – but the Ukrainians were able to destroy their logistics chains flowing from Belarus.

A notorious 40-mile Russian column ran aground on the road to Kyiv, picked off easily by mobile Ukrainian units equipped with Western-supplied anti-tank weapons.

Realising that Kyiv was unlikely to fall and feeling guilty for leaving, I travelled back several days later in the company of Stephanie, a German journalist, and a small group of Ukrainian men who had dropped their families at the border and were heading back to the fight.

One of these men was Gul, originally a Pakistani who had settled with a Ukrainian wife and learned the language. Another was Slava, who was born in Ukraine and spoke very little English, so we communicated via Google Translate. He said he was fighting so his five-year-old son could grow up in a free country. He showed us a photo of his family and said that even if he died “at least my son will grow up to be proud of me”.

The Paranoia of War

By then, it was evident to see how and why Ukraine was managing to survive against all the odds. The Russian invasion’s brutality meant that the country saw this as a truly existential national struggle worth dying for – hugely boosting morale. Ukraine’s infrastructure had also proved much more resilient than expected. The train system had managed to run almost completely undisturbed, ferrying millions of passengers west to safety. We were still getting mobile internet even in remote regions of the journey and card payments continued to work as normal.

The country discovered the unity and efficiency that had eluded it only in the worst of the war. In some respects, the nation in fact functioned much better.

I travelled the country over the next few weeks in the company of a few other freelancers as the Ukrainians stopped and then turned around the Russian advance. We saw the port city of Odesa as it was turned into a fortress – the street to its famous Opera House fortified with tank traps and sandbags.

In Mykolaiv, we met civilians in a hospital injured by Russian cluster munitions. Constant artillery shelling accompanied our visit, not that it phased the local governor, Vitali Kim. One friend here said he was the only Ukrainian politician who could compete with Zelensky for heart-throb status.

But it was only when we reached Kharkiv that we appreciated the scale of devastation in Ukraine. The city had suffered from relentless artillery barrages. Few buildings could be discerned from the rubble.

The second largest and entirely Russian-speaking city in eastern Ukraine once had a significant number of citizens who were sympathetic to Moscow, while the region had consistently voted for Russian-leaning politicians. Vladimir Putin would have called it part of his ‘Russkiy mir’ which translates to ‘Russian world’ or ‘Russian peace’, which some citizens held as a sincere belief. Now, however, people would only use it with irony: “this is Russian peace” they would say, as they pointed to a destroyed apartment block.

Now, Russia is hated here even more than in the West.

People described how friends and relatives in Russia would simply refuse to believe what was happening to Kharkiv. Either the footage of the destruction was fake, they were told, or it was secretly inflicted by the Ukrainian Nazis.

Back in Ukraine, however, any lingering pro-Putin sentiment evaporated with his first bombing runs.

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We had our first bad run-ins with Ukrainian forces here, too. Despite a genuinely high level of professionalism, some had begun to crack under the pressure. The day we arrived was the first day in a while that a temporary booze ban had been lifted, and it showed.

Towards the end of our day in Kharkiv, we were walking with our fixer-driver and a local Kharkiv woman who had been showing us around when a stumbling cop ran out at me shouting in Russian and pointing his assault rifle at my head. “Why do you have a camera?” he screamed as spittle flew out of his mouth. He grabbed my camera and began stripping out the battery and the memory card. “Why are you talking to people here?” When we explained that we were journalists he demanded “but why do journalists need to talk to people? Why do they need to take photos?”

We could smell the alcohol on his breath, but we were saved by the intervention of his visibly embarrassed colleagues, who checked our credentials before handing back the camera.

Later that night, we had just sat down to relax with a beer in Dnipro when suddenly our door burst open, and four men charged into the room. The lead man was wearing a balaclava and his pistol was soon at my head. The others carried assault rifles and screamed at us to get on the floor. Neighbours had seen a couple of young men they didn’t know and called the Ukrainian security services. Minutes later, we were lying on the ground with guns to our heads, being searched for weapons. They quickly realised we were reporters and after a few questions let us go.

Months of stress were taking its toll, manifesting through suspicion, exhaustion and paranoia.

Passing back through Lviv, I was struck by how calm everything had become. The west of Ukraine had been mostly untouched by the rest of the war. Cafes and bars were open while throngs of people crowded the streets. It was difficult to believe this city was in a war zone; only the odd soldier or occasional makeshift fortification gave any indication of the conflict raging in the rest of the country.

The day before I left, I spoke with Tymoshenko again who had by then relocated to Lviv. “You know everyone from the West thought we would lose. But my father got it right. He was never afraid. He served in the Soviet Army and told me before the war that the Russian army was weak and that it had been hollowed out by corruption and nothing worked like it was supposed to.”

She said that whatever happened in the war, “I think it’s important for me to stay in Ukraine. It is what I can do to help.”

I took the bus to Poland utterly shattered. A month of war had felt like a year. Fireworks in the main square in Krakow sounded like artillery. This was late March, when Ukraine was pushing the Russians away from Kyiv only to discover evidence of war crimes in the occupied towns. Two weeks later, I was on the train back to the capital.

Tom’s second report on the first 100 days of the Ukraine war will be published next week

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