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Beyond the Vulture Squad: from the Road of Death to the Road of Life

Tom Mutch marks 150 days of Russia’s onslaught on Ukraine and reflects on the different experiences of Ukrainians, as he travels from Kyiv to Kharkiv, and onto the apocalyptic Donbas front

Explosions on the road to Lysyhansk from Donetsk. Photo: Tom Mutch

Beyond the Vulture SquadFrom the Road of Death to the Road of Life

Tom Mutch marks 150 days of Russia’s onslaught on Ukraine and reflects on the different experiences of Ukrainians, as he travels from Kyiv to Kharkiv, and onto the apocalyptic Donbas front

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“My brother lied to me from the start,” Daria told me. “I spoke to him in Kyiv every day at the start of the war and he always told me he was safe and hiding in a bomb shelter,” the 25-year-old waitress receptionist at a hotel in Prague said. “Only after the Russians lost the battle in Kyiv, he told me that the truth was he took a gun and joined the army on the first day. He spent weeks fighting in Irpin. He was lying just didn’t want to worry me or my mother.”

This experience has been typical for so many Ukrainians. Outwardly, both inside and outside the country they can seem to live normal even happy or comfortable lives. But a few minutes of conversation will reveal deep anxiety: for family members living under Russian occupation: for a son or partner fighting in Donbas: for a displaced friend from Mariupol or Lysychansk or any other of the cities and settlements raised to the ground by Putin’s war machine. 

Bucha: the Road of Death

Women watch and embrace each other as bodies are exhumed from a mass grave and inspected by the authorities for possible war crimes in Bucha, a town near Kyiv. Photo: ZUMA Press/Alamy

It was the stories of the massacres in Bucha and the destruction of towns like Irpin that had bought me back to Ukraine in early April just two weeks after I’d left with the gnawing sense that my job was unfinished.

The roads to the capital were strewn with wreckage the blown-up Russian tanks and armoured personnel carriers and the littered corpses that made up the detritus of what had once been considered the world’s second most powerful army. Weeks after liberation they were still pulling dead bodies out of graves in Bucha: but already the main streets were being cleaned up.

The trips to Bucha as vital as they were ended be grubby affairs. Dozens of reporters would be packed into busses and be led around the various houses of horror left behind by Russian civilians. We would be wheeled into a gravesite to take photos of the same two corpses five at a time.

Agency photographers would follow and snap straight into the faces of relatives who’d just identified their loved one’s bodies. As of writing the town looks almost as it was before the war. The community of conflict reporters is sometimes nicknamed the ‘Vulture Club’ because of a tendency to fixate on the details of death and suffering. Here this tendency was on full display. 

These were the smartest and most patriotic men and women Ukraine had and they were dying in their hundreds in the trenches in Donbas.

But it was in the town of Borodyanka that I got a first look at the scale of the fighting and destruction that Russia’s failed assault on Kyiv had produced. As it was directly on the road to Kyiv the Kremlin’s troops razed it to the ground on their way.

The scenes could only be described as apocalyptic with the main streets full of huge apartment blocks that had been flattened by missiles and airstrikes. It was difficult to find a single building that wasn’t missing its windows or a wall or part of its roof.  

In one sense the retreat from Kyiv marked a moment of Ukrainian triumph and relief. The capital was safe and the future of Ukraine’s survival as an independent nation at least in the near term seemed assured. But in another, the discovery of Russian war crimes torpedoed fledgling peace negotiations taking place in Istanbul and assured that this would be a long and protracted war that would only end with the total defeat of one side.

Yet Kyiv itself was slowly coming back to normal. It was the first few days of spring, so flowers were starting to bloom just as bars and cafes gradually reopened and wartime restrictions such as curfews and document checks were relaxed. Even the occasional tourist was back in town and walking around the streets you wouldn’t have known anything was amiss. Yet elsewhere in Ukraine, the war was raging with equal ferocity. 

The streets of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv coming back to life. Photo: Tom Mutch

Kharkiv: Frontline City

I won’t forget Galina’s face. The 61-year-old former teacher’s daughter lived in Russia but wouldn’t believe a word her mother was saying about the relentless assault Putin was conducting on Ukrainian society. “What kind of daughter won’t believe her own mother!” she said through bitter tears.

Despite the horrific scenes in nearby towns the mainpart of Kyiv had mostly spared destruction. Instead, the terror of Putin’s artillery was to rain down on Kharkiv Ukraine’s second largest city. Every step outside was a “lottery with our lives” in the words of one young station attendant.

Because Kharkiv was just fifty kilometres from the Russian border it was nearly captured within the first few days of fighting. Russian forces then planted their artillery just a few kilometres from the city gates and subjected it to relentless bombardment over months that turned a city of more than a million people into a ghost town.  

I was woken up at 6 am my first night by the sound of incoming shelling close enough to shake the windowpanes. A stray shell did indeed hit a building in our apartment block complex a few days later although it caused no injuries and only minor structural damage.

EU Flag over destroyed buildings in Kharkiv. Photo: Tom Mutch

What struck us instantly about Kharkiv alongside the incredible resilience of the people who lived through the bombardment was their deep sense of betrayal by Russia. Ukraine has always had a typical and often oversimplified divide between east and west with the east being predominantly Russian speaking and having close historical and cultural ties to Russia. For many of them, the first realization of the truth of Russia’s aggression was a shell through their backyard. “They’ve come to de Nazify what? Their own people and their own language” a local priest told me.  

People in the west had always mistrusted and disliked Russia but for eastern Ukrainians, the war came as a profound betrayal from a people they genuinely regarded as a brotherly nation. It was common to drive past a destroyed house or school or hospital and have a local point and say ‘Russkiy Mir!’ or ‘Russian World’ to mock the idea of the Russians as liberators. “They’ve liberated us from our apartments’ one elderly couple said as they picked their belongings through the rubble that was strewn across their streets. 

No one ever forgets the first time they experience an artillery barrage. I had teamed up with Nick Fisher a fellow New Zealander a documentary filmmaker whom by a great coincidence I had been in the same class at primary school. We’d not seen each other in eighteen years and were reuniting on the frontlines of the world’s biggest war zone. 

As we sheltered next to an abandoned farmhouse in Maya Rohan a small village on the outskirts of Kharkiv the Ukrainians emptied a huge artillery battery into the sky over our heads toward Russian positions.

It is impossible to capture in words or even on video the way the sound and the shockwave radiate through your entire body. It leaves you equally terrified and awestruck. It was May and after weeks of slowly shifting frontlines around the city, the Ukrainian army had finally managed to punch through Russian lines and were pushing them back towards the border. Finally, it seemed possible to get Kharkiv out of artillery range.

By the end of my time in Kharkiv, I slept soundly. The first time you hear explosions surrounding you it is utter panic and fright. The fiftieth time it is just background music.

100 Days of Tragedy & Triumph

Tom Mutch

Donbas: the Road of Life

However, the Ukrainian story of success against all odds was to be strained in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine where the Russians turned their full attention. After the dismal failure of the Russian army to capture Kyiv and then Kharkiv the Kremlin scaled down its objectives to an assault on the Ukrainian-controlled parts of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts.

The capital cities of these regions had been held by the Russian proxy states the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ and the ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ since 2014. Now the Russians claimed they wanted to ‘liberate the remaining Ukrainian-controlled areas. At first, it appeared this offensive was seeing no more success than the Russian assaults on other parts of the country.

It was when we watched a blue van with bullet holes in its window and shot-up tires wheeze its way to a checkpoint that we realized the Ukrainian army was in serious trouble in the Donbas. Western officials had continuously claimed that Russia’s offensive in the Donbas was stalling. But in front of our eyes was evidence that they had recently been within small arms fire.

The road ahead to the town of Soledar was patrolled by Ukrainian main battle tanks and in the foliage next to the road you could see the trenches where dozens of Ukrainian servicemen had set up camp in preparation to hold off a Russian push. 

This was not the logistically clueless and incompetent army that had been beaten back from Kyiv. Instead, the Russians were exploiting their overwhelming advantage in artillery to grind down Ukrainian defences and then use locally conscripted Ukrainians from the occupied territories and press-ganging them into service. It was a moral abomination, but militarily it was making slow but real successes. ‘They didn’t capture Popasna’ one Ukrainian local government official told me ‘They destroyed the city and moved into the ruins.’ 

An exhausted Ukrainian soldier in Lysyhansk. Photo: Tom Mutch

The road from Bakhmut to Lysyhansk was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. On our way, we passed a small makeshift parking lot with a military truck and a few civilian cars on it. When we returned the whole area was in flames with dark smoke pouring from the wreckage. The road was ironically named the ‘road of life’ because it was the last remaining supply road to embattled Ukrainian forces in the city of Severodonetsk.

As there was no phone signal or internet service in Lysychank several people came to us asking for news of where the Russian offensive had succeeded and where Ukrainian defences still held. Others would give us the phone numbers of family and friends to call to let them know they were still alive. While Ukrainian authorities had tried to force residents to evacuate this is a poor and deprived area which meant that many had simply nowhere else to go.

One group of residents lived in the basement of a school. With no power or plumbing, they drew water from a well and lit their surroundings with head torches and candles. Already the soldiers providing them with supplies were exhausted from weeks of fighting and running low on ammunition and armoured vehicles.

In the trenches along the salient towards the Russian headquarters in Izyum were Oksana and Stanislav. A young couple that had met during the Maidan revolution. They had originally worked as lawyers, but they now fought side by side as husband and wife as snipers. The platoon we were with was a symposium of talent including university lecturers’ lawyers, detectives and special forces operatives alike. We could see the shells land in the field in front of us but the soldiers we were staying with were unmoved. It was the same thing they had seen dozens of times already. 

These were the smartest and most patriotic men and women Ukraine had and they were dying in their hundreds in the trenches in Donbas. Many began to voice resentment at the young people in Kyiv who were already going back to and enjoying their ordinary lives while so many were dying in the trenches.

We can see the fault lines that war service will cause in Ukraine between those who fought and those who did not. In the morning we could see Stanislav and Oksana peering over the controls of a cheap UAV Mavic Pro that they had bought off Amazon and were using to scout enemy artillery. We heard a huge burst of rocket fire just beside us: but thankfully it was outgoing and not incoming. 

Blood Loss

The last days in Kyiv seemed like something out of a dream. I spent the last day with Rosa my Ukrainian girlfriend at the opera house in a performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto. The performance began just after midday to finish before curfew and there was an alternate stage and seating in the basement in case the show needed to go on during an air raid.

It was a beautiful spring afternoon and Taras Shevchenko Park was blooming with flowers and full of people. I sat down to play a game of chess on a public board only to have a skilled young Ukrainian soldier checkmate me in less than two minutes of play. In the previous hundred days, I’d seen the worst horrors but also the greatest strength and resilience of my life.

This was the first day since the invasion that I’d seen 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 and that thousands are dying to defend.

As my friend Tim a tattoo artist from Kharkiv put it before I left: “We know now Ukraine will win the war: the only question is how much blood it will cost and how many people will have to die for it.”

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