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War in Ukraine: ‘The Hardest Part is Leaving’

Tom Mutch documents the ups and downs of the last 10 months of triumph and horror, and how Ukrainian resourcefulness brought hope out of despair

Tanya writes ‘for Kherson’ on a destroyed Russian armoured vehicle in Central Kyiv. Photos: Tom Mutch

War in Ukraine‘The Hardest Part is Leaving’

Tom Mutch documents the ups and downs of the last 10 months of triumph and horror, and how Ukrainian resourcefulness brought hope out of despair

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“If you want to visit the torture chambers, please follow Svetlana” our press escort, a blonde Ukrainian woman who looked in her mid-30’s had told us, “But don’t be late, you need to be back at the busses by 1 pm so we can go to the mass graves.”

Her voice had the tone of a stern headmistress herding a group of junior high school students, as if she was guiding us on the world’s grisliest school field trip. WH Auden was wrong when he wrote in his poem September 1, 1939, of the ‘unmentionable odour of death’- when the stench of corpses envelopes you, it becomes all you can speak about.

Just outside Izium, hundreds of rotting bodies were being exhumed from their graves, filling the air with a dust that carried fine particles of earth mixed with human flesh. It was here in Izium, outside Kharkiv, that I witnessed the grisliest scenes I saw in Ukraine, as yet another unexpected Ukrainian triumph unearthed fields of horrors.

Children play in the central square of Izium, where 80% of the buildings have been damaged by shelling.

I’ve been asked many times about how you mentally and physically cope with the experience of war. Apart from a week and a half hiatus in Poland, I had been in Ukraine from January to June reporting non-stop. Like so many others I’ve spoken to, leaving is the worst part. When I had left for Romania at the beginning of June, I had a packed schedule of holiday’s, events and conferences. I turned up for almost none of them.

Along with many of my colleagues, I had sunk into a post-war funk that wasn’t quite a depression, but more a severe sense of disassociation with your surroundings. It was bizarre sitting in a bright street of Bucharest, with bars and cafes packed with young people dining and drinking, talking and laughing while there were scenes in the neighbouring country that looked like World War Two.

While support for Ukraine continued, the war was gradually slipping from the headlines. One friend told me, “I was glued to the news for the first few weeks, but then I had to stop watching — it just got too overwhelming.”

Indeed, one of the reasons for the declining interest was the situation on the battlefield. After the dramatic battle for Kyiv and the Russian push in the Donbas, the war had descended into an artillery slugfest over villages few people had heard of, and with neither side threatening to make major gains. Frustrated on the battlefield, the Kremlin turned instead to a terror campaign of missile strikes on civilian areas.

In the centre of Vinnytsia, a city a few hours drive west of Kyiv was one of the sites of Ukrainian stoicism and resistance in the face of the murderous crimes inflicted on them. It had managed to almost completely avoid the destruction visited on the rest of the country.

Emergency workers repairing destruction in the city of Vinnytsia- photo shared by Zelensky’s official account.

Then, at noon on a midsummer’s day in July, five missiles had smashed the centre of the city, killing 23 people, including five children, and wounding dozens of others. When I arrived at the city soon after the strike, the situation was already calm. The area was cordoned off with police watching guard as if it was the site of a routine traffic accident, and pedestrians were walking by nonchalantly. There was no panic, or visible outpourings of grief. 

My photographs from the next day show local residents and workers were already hard at work repairing the buildings and offices they had narrowly escaped death in less than 24 hours ago. At the town centre that appeared to have been the main target, emergency crews were hard at work sweeping up the rubble, while forensic investigators were gathering remains and other evidence. The photos were some of my most impactful- some were even shared by President Zelensky’s official Instagram account.

My friend Valentine Oleynik, who had narrowly survived an earlier strike on Kyiv, showed me how this was just another example of how deeply the Russians were making the local civilian population hate them and even more determined to resist at all costs.

For my dispatch for The Daily Beast, he told me ““Can you believe that back before 2014 we actually saw the Russians as our friends?! We thought that if anyone ever tried to hurt us from the West, they would be on our side. Now we’ve had eight years of war. I think Ukraine will win this war soon. But now peace is not enough for us. We want justice and we want to see the people who did all these terrible crimes punished for them.”

In the middle of the city was an ironic monument to fighter pilots from the Soviet air force, who had played a key role in defeating the Nazi invasion. Now monuments just like this are being torn down all over the country, as Ukraine seeks to rid itself of any reminders of their former colonial masters, as they tear them down on the battlefield.

By now, much of the colour and life had returned to Kyiv, although the city still held visible scars, especially on the outskirts. Ukraine’s Independence Day would normally be marked by a military parade through the centre of Kyiv. With soldiers and army kit being desperately needed at the frontlines, Ukrainian authorities instead made a demonstration.

A young family examine a destroyed Russian tank in central Kyiv.

Russian tanks were finally paraded through the streets of Kyiv as they had originally intended to do — but they were the trophies. Lining the centre of the massive boulevard Kreshchatyk was a huge display of destroyed Russian armour- from tanks, to armoured personnel carriers to anti-aircraft guns.

Wearing black headphones and wrapped in the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag, Anya, a local University student,  was writing “for Kherson”, her occupied home, on the side of a destroyed Russian armoured vehicle. Her most pressing wish was to see her city liberated- which she would see before the year was over.

While neither side made much of a move on the battlefield, the world’s attention was glued to the prospect of a nuclear disaster, whether through the possible Russian use of tactical nuclear weapons or by accident.

Early in the war, the Russians had captured the nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia, the largest in Europe. Now, satellite footage showed that they were regularly storing military equipment in the facility, despite claiming to only be using it for civilian purposes. The legacy of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, where Moscow’s coverup was a key instigator of the Ukrainian independence movement, loomed over the country. There were fears that stray shelling could smash into the reactors of the plants and potentially trigger a meltdown, with the worst-case scenario being a nuclear accident much worse than Chernobyl that could irradiate large parts of Ukraine.

The city of Nikopol, just across the Dnipro River from the power plant, had been shelled repeatedly from positions in and around the plant, and over half the population had left. What remained was a pitiful sight. Despite arriving early in the morning, by 10am half the townsfolk we met were rolling drunk.

Men rolled in and out of a nondescript bar swigging after swigging cheap mixtures of vodka and orange juice out of plastic cups. Despite Ukraine’s progress since the Maidan revolution, parts of the country remain deeply deprived and mired in poverty. Despite some scares, the nuclear disaster never came to pass.

But almost as soon as commentators and reporters — myself included — were declaring a long drawn-out stalemate, Ukraine’s army shocked everyone for the second time. For six months, the city of Izium in the Kharkiv region had been one of the Russian army’s main logistical and operational bases for their assault on the remainder of Ukrainian controlled Donbas.

Yet Ukrainian intelligence pinpointed a serious weakness in Russian defences in the region. Despite initially announcing an offensive in the southern Kharkiv region, they had secretly built a powerful strike force near the city of Kharkiv that was able to punch through weakly defended Russian lines and threaten them with encirclement.

A woman walks in front of a destroyed building in the Izium region of Ukraine.

The Russians in the area fled in panic, leaving ammunition dumps and fully functional vehicles in their wake that could be easily repurposed by the Ukrainians. As UK Secretary of Defence Ben Wallace would later tell me, this had made the Russians the largest donator of heavy military weapons to Ukraine in the world.

As in Bucha and Irpin, it didn’t take long for evidence of killings and atrocities to surface.

Just days after liberation, we were escorted by a Ukrainian press team around the city of Izium and its surroundings. The Russians had been routinely abducting and torturing local civilians, particularly family members of those in the Ukrainian Army, or those suspected of passing co-ordinates of Russian military positions to Ukrainian army forces on the other side of the frontline.

One victim of torture had managed to keep his sense of humour through the ordeal- when beaten and asked why he had hung a Ukrainian flag in his house, he’d responded “because we are in Ukraine. Should I have hung the Japanese flag instead?”

Unlike in Bucha, however, there was no evidence of widespread massacre- just a regime of fear intended to keep the local population in line. Many civilians had been killed in the battles over the city- others had died because of lack of medical supplies.

In other small towns, such as Kun’je and Balakliya, we met residents who had watched Russian and Ukrainian artillery and tanks firing on the streets around them. One family were collecting evidence of the artillery that had hit their town — their young son, who looked around eight posed with one rocket that was taller than he was. When Ukrainian troops rolled into the towns, they would give the familiar rallying cry “these are our guys!” and rush out to greet them with flowers and sweets.

However, we were warned not to take the local’s declarations of jubilation too literally. One Ukrainian volunteer in the region said “many of them just want to be left alone. When the Russians came along, they pretended they were delighted to be liberated, and they said the same when the Ukrainians returned.” Some locals did not want their photographs or names published, saying that they worried the Russians could return just as easily as they left.

A young boy and his mother hold the empty debris of a rocket in the village of Kunje in the Kharkiv region.

It was in these regions that you could still find occasional pro-Russian mutterings. One farmer in a small village yelled at us, assuming we were Americans and saying that it was entirely the West’s fault for provoking this invasion. There were still memorials in all the small towns to the Great Patriotic War, as World War Two is known in the former Soviet Union, the memory of which was once a deeply contested topic in Ukraine.

This was a hinge moment, both for Ukraine’s international reputation and its self-perception. They had proved that they could carry out complex combined arms warfare, and that they could conceivably liberate not just territory the Russians had captured since February 2022, but even the territories of Donbas and Crimea that had been occupied since 2014. For Ukraine’s western backers, it proved that they were getting a return on their investment and that Ukraine was putting its newfound modern weaponry to good use.

Yet Ukraine’s toughest battles, in the south of Ukraine and in the Donbas, still lay ahead — and at times, I worried I wouldn’t survive to see them.

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