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.

 

Hotel Axelhof, Dnipro
Friday, 18 March 2022

Kyiv calmed down a bit, so we headed east, back to Dnipro. The city remains mostly calm, and we wanted to find people fleeing Mariupol. Last time I was here, the hotel tried to force us into the bunker whenever the siren sounded, even though it was nearly always a false alarm. Now no one bothers. When the siren wails, they close the shops. No one hides or looks for a cellar. People queue on the pavement, waiting for it to be over.

We’re all sobered by the loss of our colleagues. On Sunday an American film-maker, Brent Renaud, was killed in Irpin, the town north-west of Kyiv, near where we were shelled the other day. Then the Fox News team went missing in Bucha, the adjacent town. Seems their car came under artillery fire. Their correspondent Benjamin Hall is in hospital; I’m told that his leg was amputated. The local producer, Oleksandra Kuvshynova, a young woman of only twenty-four, was killed, as was the cameraman, Pierre Zakrzewski. Pierre was a lanky, humorous fellow with a Borat moustache and curly hair, which went grey over the time I knew him. We were embedded with the same US marine unit during the battle for Fallujah in 2004. He was Irish, with a Polish surname, and a real traveller. Everyone knew him because you saw him everywhere. The story is that the Russians killed the journalists, and that may be true. Or maybe with Brent it was jumpy Ukrainian checkpoint guys. We’ll probably never know. What we do know is that it’s too dangerous to report from the outskirts of Kyiv.

I am amazed at how many journalists are in Ukraine – a couple of WhatsApp and Signal groups I’m on have exceeded their limit, one is up to 3,000 members. It’s a Wizz Air war: you can fly on a budget airline to Poland, then hitch a ride in or take the train. No visas, very few restrictions. That means lots of inexperienced freelancers have shown up, but they’re not necessarily the ones who get killed – Pierre was very experienced. It’s not like Syria, where it was hard to get a visa to report from the government side, and then you had to negotiate with minders to film anything at all. Going in on the rebel side became too dangerous for most of us, after Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik were killed by artillery fire in 2012, and James Foley was kidnapped and murdered by ISIS. This is more like Bosnia, which was also accessible. The InterCon in Kyiv is full of journalists swapping notes at breakfast before heading out into the city or beyond. It’s a sad reflection on my social life that much of it is here – half the people I’ve ever known are in Ukraine. The hotel staff were amazingly kind and adaptable, and many of them stayed in the hotel so they didn’t have to go home after curfew at 10 p.m. They served an extra meal between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. so we could all eat, and they even managed to keep doing laundry.

The Ukrainians have been remarkably successful in holding off the Russian advance. Back in 2014, in Crimea, I remember watching Ukrainian units being forced to surrender to the Russians because they had neither the weapons nor the men to resist. They marched out of their bases in formation, carrying their flag, trying to maintain pride despite being defeated without a fight. But they have spent the last eight years training with modern weapons provided by NATO countries, and have become a far more nimble force. The Russians, by contrast, seem to have overestimated their chances of achieving a rapid victory. But the war could go on a long time. The Ukrainian authorities are on the whole helpful to journalists – they can see that in a David and Goliath struggle, sympathy is with David. Every government and army has something to hide, but the Ukrainians have less than most: they were invaded, and this is a democracy, so there’s an understanding of who we are and enthusiasm for what we do. But soon Ukraine will slip down the running order of TV bulletins. We will start looking for less obvious stories. Some Ukrainian soldiers somewhere will be found to have abused or shot Russian prisoners. More will be written about the Azov brigade, which is defending Mariupol, and was originally a neo-Nazi force. It’s been absorbed into the Ukrainian military and now incorporates different political views, but still – there are always questions to ask. Things will begin to look less clear-cut, murkier. And then the Ukrainian authorities may get angry with the international press, introduce censorship and start to restrict us.

Every night in the early hours, the Russians shell residential areas of Kyiv. On Tuesday they hit at least three neighbourhoods. You will be familiar with the footage: flames licking out from blown windows, firefighters wielding hoses, black smoke billowing. On one block, after the flames were extinguished, we saw people sorting through the wreckage – a woman shaking a red carpet covered in debris from the balcony, a guy pulling out broken furniture from the ruins, another chucking out huge pieces of rubble with his bare hands. A great tangle of metal rods, crumbled concrete, splintered wood – all the ruptured interstices of a modern apartment block – spilled out. We drove to another block where the firefighters were still in action; grey smoke was billowing from the top half of the building, while sooty water from the hosepipes fell from the balconies in a thin, dark rain. The mayor of Kyiv, former heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko, had turned up to survey the scene. Standing six foot six, his bulk increased by a blue padded jacket and a khaki flak jacket, he’s an impressive figure. Maksym took a picture of our interview, in which I am between him and Soren, my six-foot-five Danish cameraman. I look like a tiny, delicate insect peering up at a giant. Klitschko is a popular mayor, now more than ever. I asked what his advice was to the people of Kyiv. ‘Keep together. Stay strong,’ he said. ‘Defend our houses. Defend our families, children, future, country, principles, values.’

I also met Olha, who’s twenty-seven, works for a British marketing company and lives in an adjacent block. She and her husband were asleep on the couch, which shook when the shell impacted. They spent the rest of the night sleeping on the floor, clinging tight to each other, expecting the next shell to hit them. ‘It’s always fifty–fifty,’ she said. ‘Either you get hit or not.’ She spoke precise English and seemed remarkably composed, until I asked how she felt about Russia, when her voice hardened. ‘Now I understand that we will never be friends again with anybody of Russian people,’ she said. I asked the typical journalist’s question about whether she distinguished between the Russian government and the people. She did not.

I keep thinking about how a country can be transformed so quickly. Back in January, we filmed at the Kharkiv Dog Show – the Ukrainian equivalent of Crufts. People were a bit anxious, but I don’t think anyone believed the war would really happen as they paraded their hounds around the ring. Now Kharkiv is under constant artillery attack; the buildings around the central square where we wandered have been destroyed. Slawa, the local producer we worked with then, volunteered to rejoin the army and was injured while fighting north-west of Kyiv. ‘It was shell splinter. Hit me in the back below the armour,’ he WhatsApped me. Hope was tinged with realism. ‘We will break their spine. But the cost might be very high.’

In the first days of the war, we filmed a checkpoint being built just south of Dnipro: a digger was excavating trenches, some guys were lugging sandbags into place while others did target practice. Now all the roads are studded with checkpoints, iron girders turned into tank traps that look like giant versions of the metal jacks we used to play with as kids, throwing them in the air and catching them on the backs of our hands.

We must have travelled thousands of miles, along endless avenues of trees, great balls of mistletoe hanging from their leafless branches, spread, it’s said, by rooks. In the first week or so, as we drove towards the war, everyone else was driving away – we passed long queues of cars heading to the borders. Ukrainian highway service stations remain stocked with biscuits, energy drinks, gadgets, soft toys and games to keep children entertained on a journey. The freezers are full of ice cream, as if the families packed into cars should be going on a summer holiday, not into exile.

New posters have gone up everywhere. A day after the war began, Russian marines tried to force a group of Ukrainian border guards on Snake Island in the Black Sea to surrender. The radio transmissions were recorded and broadcast: ‘I am a Russian warship. I am a Russian warship. Put down arms immediately to avoid bloodshed and unjustified deaths.’ To which the Ukrainians replied, ‘Russian warship, go fuck yourself !’ It’s become a meme. Everywhere we go, we see billboards plastered with variations on those words: ‘Russian warship/train/fighter jet, go fuck yourself !’ There’s even one depicting the Kremlin as a ship going down in a sea of blood.2

 

Hotel Opera Centre, Lviv
Thursday, 24 March 2022

We’ve been gathering testimonies of the people fleeing Mariupol. It’s the worst horror of this war so far, if I can create a hierarchy of horror. I think Mariupol will go down in history like Guernica, or Leningrad or Aleppo – places that have been besieged and bombarded with no regard for civilian life. Water, electricity, phones and internet have all been cut off, and both artillery fire and aerial bombing are relentless. The Russians are determined to seize control of Mariupol because it would enable them to link Crimea and the two ‘People’s Republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk, which they have occupied since 2014. It would give them a contiguous swathe of Ukraine.

We went to the car park of a DIY store on the southern side of Zaporizhzhia, which the local authorities had established as a place to register and help those fleeing Mariupol, and watched a caravan of bedraggled cars arrive. Most sported torn white cloths to show they were civilian, not military, vehicles, and had a sign with the word дитя, meaning ‘child’ in Russian, pasted on the windows. Many vehicles were held together with bubble wrap and tape, their windscreens shattered by shrapnel. One guy, Vlad, had driven for two days in a smashed-up car while towing his friend, whose car was even more damaged. He had managed to preserve the footage he had shot on his phone of Russian armoured vehicles with the characteristic Z on the side, the Russian symbol. He’d also filmed his own apartment, littered with broken glass from the shell that had taken out the floor below. Hard to understand how he, or it, had survived. Such footage is rare; most people we met told us that the Russians and Chechens on the multiple roadblocks they passed through on the way out had forced them to wipe their phones. The Russians know all about evidence of war crimes.

I felt a bit worried about sticking a microphone in people’s faces – all these years as a reporter and I still have that British reserve and concern about being intrusive. (Except with Russian soldiers pretending they’re not Russian soldiers.) But people were desperate to speak. Most had been on the road for at least two days, after weeks of relentless bombardment. This was the first time they felt safe, and they just wanted to talk about what they had endured and the horror they had survived. One woman, Maria, spoke English. She described how her two children – Igor, aged thirteen, and Eva-Elisabeta, aged fifteen – had been near the Mariupol Drama Theatre when it was bombed on 16 March. Everything turned into slow motion after she heard the explosion, and she found herself running through grit and flying stones, yelling out her children’s names. She could scarcely believe it when she finally heard their voices – in that moment she had been convinced they were dead. We still don’t know how many people were killed in that attack. Several hundred women and children are thought to have been in the basement, but it’s not clear if they survived or were buried in the rubble.3

Igor and Eva-Elisabeta were in the back of a white van, huddled with blankets and cushions, making sure their cat, peeping out of a small backpack, did not escape. The neighbour’s son was also there, and a large dog who growled when we tried to film too close. I liked that; I felt he was trying to protect them. Maria’s mother, who had cooked for the family throughout the siege, sometimes on a log fire in the street, was in the front seat. They were heading for Germany. The kids seemed relieved and happy to be out of Mariupol. No tears. Will they be traumatised? Possibly. But they have a strong and determined mother which must surely help. And one thing I’ve learnt from covering wars for three decades is that people are amazingly resilient, and often live productive and happy lives after enduring appalling suffering.

So many stories . . . all horrific. I have no doubt that these people are victims of, and witnesses to, war crimes. I fear we will hear many more such stories before this conflict is over. Maria said something that has stuck with me. ‘I heard that our president gave our city the name of hero. But it’s not true,’ she said. ‘People are horrible right now. The war shows your real face.’ People were stealing food from supermarkets and not sharing it with their neighbours. They weren’t helping each other – she had spent days trying to find a lift out but most people refused. It made me think of the myths war (and war propaganda) create. The British like to talk of the Blitz spirit, and forget the stealing and other crimes that went on in London under German bombs during the blackout. In Ukraine, everything is hung in the national colours – bright blue and sunshine yellow. There’s a spirit of defiance and unity, fomented partly by President Zelenskiy, whose refusal to leave Kyiv and nightly broadcasts have undoubtedly inspired the nation. One young man on a checkpoint told me it was Zelenskiy’s example that made him determined to stay and fight. But when it gets to the kind of pressure the people of Mariupol are under, it’s hard to live up to a patriotic ideal. Life becomes a matter of simple survival, and about saving your close family. War brings out the best and the worst in people.

Maria also said that some people in Mariupol were welcoming the Russians, because they believed Russian propaganda that the Ukrainian government was going to stop them speaking Russian. ‘I’m sorry to say but it’s bullshit – we all speak Russian and nobody ever denied us to speak like this,’ she said. Back in 2014, I met people in Crimea and the Donbas who looked east to Russia rather than west to Europe. In the subsequent eight years, while those areas stagnated, and sporadic clashes continued to take lives, many changed their minds. Young people moved to other parts of Ukraine, and now the ‘People’s Republics’ are largely inhabited by the elderly, surviving off their old Soviet pensions. But a nation is never entirely united, and nowhere is that more true than Ukraine with its fractured and contested history. I doubt Maria will see her Russophile neighbours again. She didn’t think she would ever return. Satellite pictures show that Mariupol is utterly destroyed. The Ukrainian army is battling to retain control of ruins. The Russians will inevitably take the city because they need the territory, but as one woman said to me, ‘Mariupol no longer exists.’ I thought of Tacitus writing in the voice of Calgacus, describing the Roman conquest of Britain, ‘They created a desolation and called it peace.’

If staying in Mariupol is unbearably dangerous, leaving may be equally so. We spent Tuesday at the children’s hospital in Zaporizhzhia, where they’re treating kids who were shot on the way out. I already mentioned the Russian checkpoints, many manned by Chechens, where they wipe people’s phones and demand to see their documents. Sometimes they then open fire. We found several children who were injured, including eleven-year-old Milena, who left with her family on 16 March. The doctor says she’ll survive, although she looked pretty sick with tubes everywhere, gasping for breath, her bed protected from potential shelling by sandbags piled up against the window. Her mother, Olena, said their car had become separated from the rest of the convoy and went through the checkpoint last. She recognised the soldiers as Chechens because of their appearance and their broken Russian. They pointed guns at the vehicle but let them through. Then they fired. The car stopped, and the Chechens came rushing up, denying that they had been the ones to shoot. Olena challenged them – who else could it be? There was no one else around. When they saw they had injured the little girl, they took the family to a hospital nearby. Later they helped them contact the Red Cross to take them to Zaporizhzhia.

Such is the insanity of war. First you shoot up a car, injuring a child. Then you try to save her. What was going through their heads? It made me think of Rwanda back in 1994, when I interviewed Hutus who had hidden a Tutsi neighbour in their ceiling, but killed many others. When accused of murdering their neighbours, the defence wasn’t ‘I didn’t do it’, but ‘OK, I killed some Tutsis. But I saved others.’

This letter is more grim than the last – I guess that’s how the war has gone. It’s not about the danger we’re in – apart from that one incident outside Irpin, we haven’t been near the front line, unlike other journalists who have been accompanying Ukrainian forces. The Russians have failed to take Kyiv or Kharkiv and are being pushed back. They’re not winning the war as Putin thought they would, and the Ukrainian military – so much more flexible and reactive – is doing incredibly well in defending their country. In the years to come, there will be much to discover about why the Russians thought they would have an easy victory, whether Putin’s generals and intelligence operatives told him the truth, and the roots of Russian imperial overreach. But while I’m here now, what interests me most is the stories of civilians who never wanted to be near a front line.

One positive aspect of modern reporting is that I can keep in touch with people I have interviewed by WhatsApp or Signal, so I message Maria and Olha from time to time. Maria has crossed the border to Poland now – her children will probably grow up in Germany. Olha and her husband, for the moment, remain in Kyiv. She says they could leave, but they’d like to stay if they can, and help the old people who have no means of getting out. Slawa, our former producer, is recovering in hospital – he doesn’t know when he’ll be well enough to fight again. Vova, the injured boy who wrote on his pad ‘Putin is a dick!’ has become famous – several other journalists have filmed him. He looks like he’s improving physically, but I wonder how he’s feeling inside. When we met him, his mother hadn’t let him know that the explosion that injured him killed his father. She must have told him by now.

I’m writing this on my last day in Ukraine, five weeks after I arrived. We drove west from Dnipro to Khmelnytskyi, named after a sixteenth-century Ukrainian military commander who led an uprising against Polish rule, but ended up doing a deal with the Russians that placed part of Ukraine under their control. I took a picture of a massive statue depicting him – of course – on a giant horse. (Inevitably, the old woman sweeping below suspected I was a Russian saboteur and turned me over to the local Territorial Defence volunteers. Luckily, once they realised I was a journalist, they were very understanding and chatty, curious to know what I had seen further east.) Geography condemns Ukraine to war, positioned as it is between the Russian and the historic European empires. Will Zelenskiy, like Khmelnytsky, have to agree to Russia retaining control over part of Ukrainian territory? If he does, would the Ukrainian people still see him as a hero, or would he suddenly become a traitor? The obvious sacrifice would be an expanded Donbas plus some territory in the south that links to Crimea, but it’s hard to imagine Ukrainians agreeing to that. How would you feel if you had defended your country as Ukrainians have, only to see part of it given away? And yet, how else can any kind of peace deal be agreed?

Onward from Khmelnytskyi to Lviv. In the time I’ve been here, winter has turned to spring. The snow has largely melted and the vast, flat, deep-brown fields are tinged with green. Ukraine is one of the world’s biggest exporters of wheat and sunflower seeds. If they can’t fertilise the crops now, or can’t export their produce, the price of bread and sunflower oil will shoot up all over the world, adding to the global cost-of-living crisis caused by a rise in gas prices. This war is a stone thrown into a pond – the ripples will spread. Maybe the increase in food and gas prices will trigger riots and revolution somewhere that has nothing to do with Russia or Ukraine, in Africa or the Middle East. Wars always have consequences that no one intends or foresees.

Lviv seems like another country: the shops are open, people are out on the streets, going to cafes and restaurants. I feel as if we have gone through a portal into another reality. Tomorrow we’ll cross the border to Poland and fly home. I feel bad about leaving, but I am also very tired. I need to stop and think. And then I’ll return.

 

Hotel Axelhof, Dnipro
Sunday, 1 May 2022

I’ve been back for nearly two weeks, and wish I’d returned sooner. It’s not as if I stopped thinking about Ukraine while I was at home – this isn’t a story you can leave behind. While I was away Russian forces retreated from the towns north-west of Kyiv, revealing a trail of horror behind them, as if their trucks pulled back the cover over a pit as they departed. Along with the destruction of Mariupol, the atrocities at Bucha will go down as the signature war crimes of this conflict: people with their hands tied behind their backs shot in the head, women raped, children’s bodies lying in the street. In one incident, Russian soldiers gave rations to people huddled in a basement – and then threw in a grenade.

The jocular patriotism among Ukrainians that I saw on my last trip has been replaced by grim fury. People I meet don’t care how long this war takes, nor even how much suffering they individually endure – they just need to win. And they believe that if they get enough new weapons, they will do. The Russians were forced to abandon a lot of armour when they retreated from the Kyiv area, and lost maybe 15,000 men; now they’re regrouping with the aim of taking more territory in the east and joining that to the area they control in the south. The Ukrainians certainly have the advantage when it comes to morale and determination, but this is an artillery war, and the Russians don’t seem to be running out of shells.

In Moscow and in Western capitals it’s all about arrows and shaded areas on a map. Here it’s about old people being shelled in villages, and young people fighting in trenches. We’re moving around the east, but as yet not in the area where fighting is most intense. As we drive along the roads we see long columns of trucks carrying soldiers to the front line. Most of the conflicts I’ve covered in the past have been civil wars, guerrilla struggles or Western interventions against scrappy bands of fighters. This feels more like the First or Second World War – conventional armies pitted against each other across the black earth, now turning green with the spring rains.

In the village of Kamianske, the last Ukrainian-held village south of Zaporizhzhia, we found a young couple called Lina and Yakiv. Although they’d left for the city after their house was destroyed in early March, they drove their battered old car back to bring supplies to elderly neighbours who had remained behind. We went to look at their destroyed home. Lina’s father, Leonid, had been killed while standing in the kitchen as a rocket struck. The moment of impact had been frozen in time. The roof was shattered and debris was scattered everywhere, but a frying pan lay untouched on the hob. There was a jar of pickles on the countertop, and a photograph of Leonid’s wedding to Lina’s mother still hung on the wall. Outside, the apple blossom was in full, delicate, white flower, and the tulips bloomed scarlet like poppies in the battlefields of the Somme. I tried to imagine Lina’s parents feeding the chickens and admiring their garden last spring. They could never have imagined what was about to happen.

We drove on to Zelenodolsk, where people from the southern city of Kherson and its surrounding villages are arriving. Kherson was the first city to be seized by the Russians back at the beginning of the war. I remember seeing lots of videos on Twitter showing Ukrainians protesting with their blue-and-yellow flags in the main square. Since then, protesters have been arrested or beaten, and the Russians have consolidated control, raising the Russian tricolour over the municipal building and installing a puppet leadership. They don’t seem to have committed the same atrocities as in Bucha, or at least not on the same scale. Still, every day people arrive in Zelenodolsk, usually by foot or on bicycles as cars are mostly turned back at the Russian checkpoints. The local Ukrainian authorities have gathered these bikes and store them in a huge shed – thousands are piled up, plus a few buggies and the occasional wheelchair.

We were chatting to some women who had arrived that morning when an old man shambled up, sat down on a chair and ate a yogurt that volunteers had provided. His hands were shaking. He removed his black woolly hat to show us his head, which was entirely bandaged, the ragged ends tied beneath his chin. His name was Oleksander. He lived in a village occupied by the Russians. A few days earlier, three drunken Russian soldiers had barged into his neighbour’s house demanding food and vodka. When he remonstrated with them, they set about him with an axe handle. His face was bruised, and his ribs were broken. He said he felt sick all the time. He seemed utterly bewildered.

How much longer will this go on? How many more Leonids and Oleksanders? The US and other NATO countries are sending in huge amounts of weapons. They clearly think they can help the Ukrainians not just to resist but also to defeat the Russians, incapacitating the Russian military for a generation. Ukrainian officers I meet thank me for the anti-tank weapons the British are sending. No one is saying they want to surrender, or that they fear Putin will be provoked into a nuclear strike, or that they are worried the munitions will only prolong the war – all the arguments being made against further Western involvement that you hear outside the country. Yet, despite the weakness of the Russian military revealed by their defeat around Kyiv, they seem to have an endless supply of artillery, and may continue to fight even if neither side is gaining ground. I fear how much destruction and death will have been wrought by the time the tulips bloom next spring.

 


 1 Two weeks later, the building was hit by a rocket. At least thirty-five people were killed, but Governor Kim wasn’t there. He said he was late that morning as he had overslept.

2  On 29 March, the Ukrainian government announced that the Snake Island soldiers had been freed in a prisoner exchange, and that Roman Hrybov, who had told the Russians where to go, had been awarded a medal.

3 At the time of writing, the Ukrainian authorities have put the death toll at 300, but no accurate count can be made as the Russians occupy the area.

 

Photograph courtesy of the author
Kamianske, Ukraine, 2022

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.

More about the author →