Russia’s occupation of Ukraine was never intended to take this long. Russian troops expected to take Kyiv in a few short days – but found themselves stymied by a determined Ukrainian defense that kept the multi-pronged assault on the country’s capital at bay. NV visited eastern districts of Kyiv Oblast, visiting some of the once-quiet villages that faced the brunt of Russia’s eastern push.
To the north and west of Kyiv, in the suburbs and settlements of Bucha, Iprin, Hostomel, Borodyanka, and Makariv, the Russian army committed atrocities, which have been declared by the Ukrainian government to have been acts of genocide. Evidence of mass murder, torture, rape, and looting has been uncovered, and as a final outrage the Russian invaders even left mines and booby traps on the bodies of the fallen as they fled. This was the Russian legacy in Kyiv’s prosperous and peaceful northern outskirts.
In the eastern part of the region, similar stories, though with relatively less attention, began to emerge as the Russians retreated from the war’s northern front. East of the Dnipro River, the Russian invaders found themselves struggling to secure supply lines stretching hundreds of kilometers along the highway that led from the northeastern Ukrainian border city of Sumy, which never fell, to Kyiv. With so much territory to hold and their supply lines so ludicrously overstretched, the Russian invaders to survive turned to looting and marauding, like barbarian war bands from humankind’s distant past, inflicting terror against numerous small communities.
One of the areas visited by NV was the periphery of the Kyiv suburb of Brovary, which suffered under Russian occupation for weeks. The roads there are choked with the carcasses of Russian tanks and vehicles and are often torn up and destroyed. Unexploded ordnance left by the invaders will be a problem for years to come.
These villages, and the settlements like them, comprise much of the Ukrainian countryside. Without the institutional support given to larger, wealthier towns and cities, they risk being left behind as Ukraine attempts to rebuild, and restore, its pre-war life.
Zalissya is about as small as a village can be. A few homes, a gas station, and some roadside cafes huddled around the village’s pair of roads. It is best known as the entrance to the Zalissya National Park, a large stretch of protected forest just to the northeast of Kyiv. However, one of those roads is the M95, the highway running north to Chernihiv and then on to Homol, Belarus. In better times, this road was a vital economic artery leading from Ukraine’s northern neighbor into the capital. But that same economic artery meant that Zalissya was a prime target to become a forward operating base for the Russian army, bypassing their frustrated siege of Chernihiv and serving as a base for the Russian attack on Kyiv’s Left Bank.
For Zalissya’s residents, the park became a refuge. Much like during the Second World War, there was no better place to find safety than going “into the forest.”
Not everyone was able to find safety in the dense forests that made their fame as a place to hide from fascist invaders, now in two separate wars. One such resident, Nadiya, was an elderly woman who chose to stay behind with her house, her dog, and her chickens, while the rest of her family fled westward, as her age and health precluded her from traveling.
One cold night, she was huddling next to the still-operating stove to stay warm, using a pot as make-shift helmet. That was when a Russian artillery round ripped through her roof, directly striking her kitchen. When Nadiya's son, Volodymyr, found her, her head had been blown into another room. She had only just been properly buried when we came to visit. Her bloodstains around the wall, and bits of her hair were still visible, where her body sat, for weeks. The dog, and the chickens she protected, shared her fate.
Nadiya’s brother, Oleksander, is a collector of artifacts from WWII, and the garden’s centerpiece was an old car from the period. He produced an old German artillery shell from behind the shed – memories of yet another invasion.
The two men pointed us to the town’s bus station and central market, currently being used as temporary housing for some of the village’s residents. A crater marked where there used to be a kiosk, typically found at these places. There we met Ira, whose home had been used by the Russians as a base. Her expansive and tended garden still had hints of its former beauty, but was scarred with trench works and debris.
While the soldiers occupied the house and its grounds, Ira and her family were forced to live in the cellar. There they stayed, cramped, with not even enough room to properly lie down, with minimal supplies, for two weeks. Her husband, a former Chernobyl liquidator – one of those responsible for cleaning up after the nuclear accident – was unable to obtain the medication he needed to treat his condition as a result. The radiation from his three rotations in the exclusion zone had poisoned his lungs, and large parts of them had had to be removed.
Ira’s grandson was pressed into forced labor, and was both compelled to bury dead bodies and haul stones to build fortifications. The great-grandchildren spent their early childhood in this dark, musty, cellar while invaders ravaged their home above them.
Leaving Zalissya, we made our way to the nearby village of Svityl'nya, a farming village just north of the Sumy highway, passing numerous other small settlements on the way. Not all villages had suffered as extensively as Zalissya. Some of the settlements we passed had been virtually untouched, while others were leveled, with nearly every building at least partially damaged. The road was marked by more destroyed Russian military vehicles and the remains of enemy fortifications. We passed Bohdanivka, the site of multiple confirmed rapes and murders by the Russian occupation forces.
In nearby Hrebelky, a village that Ukrainian soldiers were in the middle of de-mining, the Russians had established a miniature death camp in the basement of one of the village’s houses, for residents from the surrounding area. Some of the residents of Svityl’nya who have disappeared may possibly have been brought to this execution site.
Svityl'nya itself, like many others in the region, is a farming village – a typical example of a small Ukrainian village, relatively impoverished compared to the wealthier suburbs in the north, lacking plumbing and paved roads. The surrounding countryside is filled with grain fields, while many of the houses have extensive gardens, used in large part for subsistence, rather than sale. Following the occupation, however, these gardens are pockmarked with craters from artillery shells and are littered with shrapnel and destroyed Russian equipment, instead of sprouting vegetables and flowering berry bushes.
In Svityl’nya, we came to the home of the parents of an NV fixer, Svitlana. Their property had been hit several times, with one attack destroying the rear section of the house. Luckily, Svitlana’s parents had survived and escaped. Inside, the house had been ransacked and looted. Even the Christmas ornaments, which had not been taken down prior to the start of the war, had been smashed and destroyed by the occupying Russian forces.
A short walk away, a Russian artillery emplacement, stationed on the outskirts of the village, had been obliterated and turned to scrap.
On the other side of the Trubizh river, a minor tributary of the Dnipro, from Svityl'nya, across a destroyed bridge that has since been replaced with a temporary one, is the village of Kulazhyntsi. Unlike its neighbor, the village was spared some of the worst of the physical destruction, likely owing to the fact that there was only one paved road leading to the village, and thus it was not a priority for the invading troops.
There was no fighting here, and locals told us that the small three-man territorial defense unit that manned the village’s checkpoint had retreated without a fight. One, a 50-year-old local, was captured, taken outside of town, and summarily executed. The Russian army did not maintain much of a permanent presence there, instead settling for launching patrols that would fire randomly as they drove down the town’s roads. They riddled fences with bullets and even burned down some buildings. The locals pointed out a van that the Russians swerved out of their way to run over, for no particular reason that locals could surmise.
Even without the extreme violence, Kulazhyntsi was still a village under siege. Tetiana, one of the village’s residents, recounted how they did not have utilities for 35 days, and no bread for 21. There was a well down the street, but there was only limited access to it – Tetiana explained that the residents felt it was too dangerous to approach when the Russians would conduct their patrols.
Instead, the villagers had to rely on the quickly dwindling food supplies they had stored beforehand, with limited access to water, and without any way to receive information from the outside world. Even two weeks after liberation, supplies are slow to trickle in, and the make-shift bridge is not suited for large shipments.
/By Anthony Bartaway, with contributions from Svitlana Lytvynenko