Letters from Ukraine | Lindsey Hilsum | Granta

Letters from Ukraine

Lindsey Hilsum

I reported for Channel 4 News from Ukraine during the first weeks of the invasion. These are expanded versions of letters that I wrote home.

Hotel InterContinental, Kyiv
Monday, 14 March 2022

My team and I are staying at the InterCon in Kyiv, reporting on the war day by day. It’s hard to plan, because things change by the hour. Central Kyiv is not that dangerous for now. The shelling remains on the outskirts, but every day the Russians get a bit closer.

At the railway station we saw little knots of women wheeling small cheap suitcases, accompanied by children who didn’t know whether to be fearful or excited, carrying multicoloured backpacks hung with stuffed toys. Men aren’t allowed to leave the country, and most would rather stay and fight (from what I can tell), so those leaving are nearly all women. We met a grandmother, mother and daughter who left northern Kyiv because the house next door to theirs took a direct hit this morning. A young woman in a purple woolly hat, jiggling a plump, smiling six-month-old baby, told me she had left not only her husband but also her mother in Chernihiv. Her mother refuses to leave her dad, but the young woman’s priority is getting the baby out. And then there was the family, including granny in a wheelchair, whose village to the north-east of Kyiv had been occupied by the Russians. The mother, Olena, told me, ‘They all had machine guns, and we weren’t allowed to go anywhere.’ A few days ago, the Russians finally agreed a ‘green corridor’, an evacuation route, but then they shot civilians as they tried to leave. ‘Some survived but others were wounded or killed. Many bodies were just left there. Any corpses that could be taken away were buried in gardens and in the park.’

I’ve been here nearly four weeks, and I was also here for ten days in January. The last time I spent so much time in Ukraine was back in 2014, when the Russians annexed Crimea and split off the eastern Donbas region from the rest of the country, creating the Donetsk and Luhansk ‘People’s Republics’ – separatist statelets that remain under Russian control. The war has sputtered on ever since but the lines have scarcely moved. It’s estimated that 14,000 people – Ukrainian soldiers, civilians and separatists – have been killed from the start of that conflict until now. When we ask Ukrainians about the war now, they usually say, ‘But we’ve been at war for eight years already.’ Back in 2014, when the Russians first appeared in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, I happened to be at the airport. Famously, they wore no insignia on their Spetsnaz uniforms, hence the moniker ‘little green men’. I went up to a group of them and stuck a microphone in their faces, asking, in my one sentence of Russian, ‘Voi Russki soldat? ’ – ‘Are you a Russian soldier?’ ‘No comment,’ they growled in English. If doubt was contrived then, it’s non-existent now. Putin denied he was planning to invade Ukraine, but from late last year we could see on satellite pictures how he was amassing forces on the borders. As Western intelligence agencies started to brief journalists that he was planning a full-scale invasion, I found it hard to believe. But they were absolutely right.

On the first day of the invasion I was in Kramatorsk, an unlovely town in the east near the area Russia has controlled since 2014. I was with my team: camera operator Philippa, producer Simon, local producer Maksym and Eduard ‘Red Shoes’, our taciturn driver. In the early hours of the morning we were woken by loud explosions, which turned out to be artillery attacks on military targets around the town. As we were staying in a small hotel inside an apartment block, we decided to drive through the darkness to a larger hotel where many other journalists were staying, which we thought might be safer. It was chaos. Some journalists were in the basement bomb shelter, convinced they were about to die. Others were broadcasting live from the porch. Nothing was going bang anywhere near. The press corps was overexcited. ‘I have never been in a war before!’ a Mexican journalist exclaimed. ‘What shall I do?’ I suggested that keeping calm was probably a good start. ‘Maybe at your age you don’t care about saving your life!’ a French journalist shouted at me as he hurtled past, on his way down to the shelter. I don’t think it was a compliment.

We decided to head west to Dnipro, given that the Russians were so near to Kramatorsk. It would have been easy for them to march in and take the town (in the event, they didn’t). People were beginning to line up at cashpoints, and as we drove out of town queues were forming at petrol stations. Luckily, we’d had the forethought to fill up the day before. We stopped to interview people. ‘I’m going to fill my tank and go fishing,’ said one old man, with admirable sangfroid.

Dnipro, on the banks of the Dnipro River, was not initially a target although it has been hit several times since. We stayed at the Menorah Hotel in the Jewish Centre. As Putin claimed to be ‘de-Nazifying’ Ukraine, we thought it would be a bit of an own goal if it was hit by a rocket. They also served very good cheesecake. The only disadvantage was that to test the air-raid alarm system, which involved VERY LOUD announcements through speakers in every room, they played ‘Guantanamera’ on a loop. At my behest, Simon took a screwdriver to detach the wires, and then replaced the speaker cover in each of our rooms. At least we would be able to sleep. There was really no point in going to a bomb shelter just because the siren sounded. Our hotel was unlikely to be a target. And – as every soldier and every journalist who has ever covered a war knows – sleeping and eating are the most important things. If you don’t sleep and eat, you get grumpy and make bad decisions.

Dnipro was getting ready for war. In a central square, next to a model spaceship, a small army of young women was making Molotov cocktails to throw at Russian tanks. One contingent was tearing up polystyrene foam to make the cocktails stick better to their targets, a chemistry lesson best not repeated at home. I got chatting to a young man who ran a music studio. ‘We heard stories of our grandfathers who had to fight Nazism,’ he said. ‘Now we are like our grandfathers.’ I asked if his generation was up to it. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘If Putin thought he can beat us he is mistaken big time.’ He was rather impressed by the British prime minister, because the UK had provided the Ukrainians with anti-tank weapons. ‘Boris is a strange man but we thank him,’ he said. The Queen, incidentally, is also popular. On at least one occasion it was remarked that I look like her. Again, I am not sure this was a compliment – I am after all more than thirty years her junior. I never understand what Maksym, our local producer, tells Ukrainian soldiers on checkpoints to persuade them to let us through, but I gather that the phrases ‘Very famous journalist’, ‘Knows the Queen’ and ‘Saw Gaddafi’s body with her own eyes’ have all been uttered. I just smile and wave.

We drove to the Moldovan border, where Philippa and Simon were due to leave us. Soren, the cameraman I normally work with, another producer, Rob, and a paramedic, Dom, were there to swap in. With Maksym and Eduard ‘Red Shoes’ we made a good team. No one who panicked. No one trying to be a hero. Everyone wanting to get the story. We continued our tour of places that might, or might not, become a front line. Odesa was beautiful and sad, the famous rococo opera house partially obscured by fortified barricades. Someone had spray-painted over the street names and wrapped the signposts in black plastic bags, like rural England circa 1942, with all those cunning plans to foil the Germans. I suspected, however, that the Russians had Google Maps. At the yacht club, we filmed an assembly line filling sandbags while the radio played ‘You’re Beautiful’. Volunteers had gathered at a food court to receive and pack supplies for the troops – clothes, food, medicines. A poster showed what should have been happening there that weekend: the Odesa Jazz and Oysters Festival.

The neighbouring Black Sea port of Mykolaiv was shelled before we arrived. We stood on the riverbank and watched black smoke rising from one of the buildings that had been hit. A food warehouse – the Russians appear to be targeting civilian food stores. A few days later we saw a similar scene north of Kyiv. All the hotels were closed, and we slept on mattresses on the floor of a makeshift police station, sharing a bathroom with fifty or so Territorial Defence volunteers who were stretched out in the corridors, fully clad in their uniforms and boots, rifles at their side. Luxury it was not, but they were incredibly kind and hospitable. On International Women’s Day, 8 March, Ukrainian men usually give women flowers. A rather grizzled volunteer came into our room and thrust a paper cone into my hands. ‘We have no tulips,’ he apologised, and when I looked I found a pot of honey inside. They also fed us soup, cheese and sausages, so we didn’t have to resort to the normal wartime journalists’ diet of whisky and Pringles. (But we consumed those too.)

The governor of Mykolaiv, Vitaliy Kim, is something of a President Zelenskiy lookalike. Both are in their early forties, and have adopted military garb. We interviewed Kim outside the municipal office. 1 He’s quite funny. The Russian flag sports an eagle, while the Ukrainian flag has a trident. ‘No country with a chicken as an emblem should invade one with a fork,’ he likes to say. He gave us a military escort to see the damage wreaked by the previous day’s bombing. We watched soldiers digging through the wreckage of their barracks, which had been hit by artillery: eight men had been killed and at least eight more were missing, maybe buried in the rubble. At a neighbourhood on the outskirts of town, we came across four teenagers with piercings and blue/pink/green hair; like most people their age, they had defined themselves through personal rebellion, but in a few hours their whole lives had changed. The previous night their homes had been destroyed. I asked Violetta, who was seventeen, what she would say to Putin if she saw him. ‘I would ask him, why are you doing this? Does this look like a rescue operation to you? People are dying, people have nowhere to live. Does this look like salvation to you?’

Because that’s the biggest lie – that Putin has invaded to save Ukrainians from their own government. He says he’s ‘de-Nazifying’ a country which elected a Jew as president. He’s ‘saving’ Russian speakers, who are perfectly safe in an independent Ukraine. But for how much longer will they speak Russian? ‘Russian is now the language of my enemy even though it’s what my family speaks,’ one young woman told me. ‘I will never speak it again.’ Maksym tells me that some people we interview insist on speaking Ukrainian, even though they would be more comfortable in Russian. Putin says Ukraine isn’t a real country, just ‘Little Russia’, a part of the Russian empire. His vision reaches back to tsarist times. For Ukrainians this is an anti-colonial struggle, and that’s one reason there’s such an upswell of patriotic fervour. The spirit of resistance is leavened by humour. In the Kyiv Children’s Hospital, I met thirteen-year-old Vova, who was badly injured when the car his family was travelling in was hit. He has tubes coming out of his nose and can’t speak because his jaw has been wired shut, so he writes on a pad. He wrote down what he wanted: ‘Phone. Toy car. Puzzle.’ Then what he was thinking: ‘Putin is a dick!’

I have been so busy reporting, I don’t think I have got my head round the import of what is going on. Yet I do know that this war has a significance beyond most stories I’ve reported. The two seminal historic events in my lifetime as a journalist have been the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11. Most of my reporting has been about what flowed from the latter: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria. But this is a third seismic event. At the time of writing we are in the perilous moment of not knowing if the war will widen, and bring NATO into direct conflict with Russia. Whether Ukraine will survive. Whether Putin will survive. Anything could happen.

Yesterday, we were shelled a little on the outskirts of Irpin, a commuter town north-west of Kyiv. Arguably I am too old for this. I run like a penguin. Two soldiers obviously thought I looked like their granny and tried to carry me, so I had to fight them off while under fire. It was more humiliating than dangerous – the shells all fell quite a distance away. I’m not reckless, but I wouldn’t be anywhere else right now. At some point we may have to pull out – if they besiege Kyiv there will be shortages and I’m not going to eat roasted rat. For the moment, the road south remains clear and (amazingly) there are still trains to Lviv. I want to hang on for a bit, as there is much more to report. Then I’ll come home and try to make sense of it all.

Lindsey Hilsum

Lindsey Hilsum is the International Editor of Channel 4 News. She is the author of Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution and In Extremis: the Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin, winner of the James Tait Black Prize for Biography. ‘When the Cholera Came’ is her third essay on Rwanda for Granta. ‘Where is Kigali?’ was published in Granta 51: Big Men (and LA Women), and ‘The Rainy Season’ was published in Granta 125: After the War.

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