War in Ukraine

RICHARD PENDLEBURY describes the humbling defiance he witnessed in Ukraine

Reporting The War In Ukraine: A First Draft Of History 

Edited by John Mair and published by Abramis at £14.95 

In a cottage garden under a cerulean sky, a spring afternoon is disturbed only by the crowing of a cockerel and the bark of a distant dog. A breeze rustles through the cherry trees. But otherwise silence prevails. By this point in the war, a wholly unaccustomed silence.

For almost two months, we had witnessed and reported on Putin’s brutal assault on northern Ukraine.

Our north-west horizon was marked by smoke from a perpetual fuel fire in the frontline district of Hostomel. A missile blast shattered both our sleep and the Little Opera house in downtown Kyiv.

And, from the 23rd floor of a shuddering tower block on another hellish night, we looked down upon the never-to-be-forgotten vista of an artillery barrage hitting Irpin.

Anatolii and Nadi pictured at their dacha outside Kyiv, where they returned for the first time with the Mail since the start of the war, to check for damage and start planting this year's crops

Anatolii and Nadi pictured at their dacha outside Kyiv, where they returned for the first time with the Mail since the start of the war, to check for damage and start planting this year’s crops

Richard uses his phone to take notes at Anatolii and Nadiâ's dacha outside Kyiv, where they returned for the first time with the Mail since the start of the war to check for damage and start planting this year's crops

Richard uses his phone to take notes at Anatolii and Nadiâ’s dacha outside Kyiv, where they returned for the first time with the Mail since the start of the war to check for damage and start planting this year’s crops

Thwarted around Ukraine’s capital, the Russians withdrew. But a new and more disturbing phase of reporting began: the revealed evidence of mass murder in Bucha, Motyzhyn and other communities where homes, gardens and forests are still giving up their innocent dead.

The Mail’s photographer Jamie Wiseman and I were among the first journalists to come upon the ghastly half-kilometre of civilian corpses and cars, strewn along the E40 highway, west of Kyiv.

This revelation took place on an April afternoon of cloying mist, from which emerged, scene by disgusting scene, the purple, orange and blackened bodies, stuck by fatty deposit to the shrapnel-covered Tarmac near pitted roadside signs indicating toilet and cafe stops of the kind you might see on the A303. A modern Gothic horror.

Then a Ukrainian armoured column surged across our path, leaving in its wake an ambushed Russian counterpart and further, but more recently cooked, human remains.

The Mail’s photographer Jamie Wiseman and I were among the first journalists to come upon the ghastly half-kilometre of civilian corpses and cars, strewn along the E40 highway, west of Kyiv

The Mail’s photographer Jamie Wiseman and I were among the first journalists to come upon the ghastly half-kilometre of civilian corpses and cars, strewn along the E40 highway, west of Kyiv

‘Hard to read,’ said a reader comment underneath one of our online reports. Hard to report, we felt, increasingly.

You cannot do this every day, for ever. There has to be light as well as shade. You must remove yourself, if you can, from the grind, or go mad.

Or numb, and bore the removed reader, who feels they have heard it all before, yesterday.

There were brief, unexpected, interludes in this war, informed by beauty and hope rather than hate and destruction. We sought them, for what they were worth.

Some happened by chance. In March we were interviewing those sheltering in a Kyiv Metro station when we came across Oleksandr, his wife Liza and their two daughters, Arina, 13, and Polina, six.

They were huddled miserably on one of the platforms, waiting for a train that would take mother and children to the west of Ukraine and out of the immediate firing line. It was the day before Liza’s birthday.

There would be no celebration.

Damage to tanks on the main E40 motorway West of Kyiv, close to Anatolii and Nadi's dacha, where Russian soldiers killed and dumped bodies in a storm drain, and ransacked a service station (pictured)

Damage to tanks on the main E40 motorway West of Kyiv, close to Anatolii and Nadi’s dacha, where Russian soldiers killed and dumped bodies in a storm drain, and ransacked a service station (pictured)

The next day, our fixer’s resolve broke in the face of expected Russian victory. She, too, fled to western Ukraine. Oleksandr was waiting for his call up to the oversubscribed territorial defence units. Until that time, he agreed to become our new translator.

And that is how we met his parents, Anatolii and Nadia. Both were retired engineers and, as I wrote then, ‘until the war came had hardly spent a day of their 53 years together, apart.’

They invited us to their tiny flat on the tenth floor of a crumbling Soviet-era block in Obolon to eat Nadia’s homemade deruny (potato pancakes), pickled cucumber and a hot sauce called adjika.

The ingredients for these traditional delicacies had been grown in the garden of the family’s dacha (country cottage) on the edge of a village more than an hour’s drive west of the city.

Anatolii and Nadia were worried about their dacha. Russian armour had reached the village, they had been told. The whole area was part of a contested front line. And it was almost planting season. If they could not plant, Nadia could not make deruny and pickled cucumbers. Those dishes made with ingredients from a supermarket would not be the same.

And so, with the retreat of the Russians from Kyiv, we set out to find if their house was still standing. Not the main news story of the day, but important to us and to them.

Buds showed on every roadside hedgerow and tree; huge fields lay beyond. I wondered what these vistas would look like in the full bloom of May. Or indeed in high summer, just before harvest. The Ukrainian national flag depicts such a scene: a field of corn under a blue sky.

And there was the rub. Ukraine is the bread basket of Europe, the fifth-largest exporter of wheat in the world. Much of the grain from the last harvest remained in silos; workers had gone to fight, and the Russians had seized agricultural territory.

Anatolii and Nadia’s concern about their potatoes for deruny was a micro version of a national and international problem caused by Putin’s attack.

Their fears grew as we reached the neighbouring settlement of Byshiv. A row of cottages had been destroyed. So, the war had come to their district.

We’d seen it all before but it was no less shocking on that glorious spring day.

Refusing to leave: 72 year old Anatolii and his wife Nadia, 69, and one of their cats Martha, pictured in their tenth floor apartment in the Obolonskyi District of Kyiv, where they vow they will stay until the end of the war

Refusing to leave: 72 year old Anatolii and his wife Nadia, 69, and one of their cats Martha, pictured in their tenth floor apartment in the Obolonskyi District of Kyiv, where they vow they will stay until the end of the war

But all was well. The gates of their dacha were unbreached. Anatolii fumbled with the padlock. Beside the entrance a Tatarian honeysuckle was in bud.

The little dacha, three small rooms of wood and clay and an acre-and-a-half of land, has been in Nadia’s family for a century. Windows had been broken by blasts in three neighbouring farms. Theirs was untouched by the conflict.

The garden was exquisite. Bees buzzed among the Siberian squill, white hyacinths and purple ‘glory of the snow’ were all in full bloom. A painted lady butterfly flitted about the orchard of cherry, plum, apricot, walnut and apple trees. Somewhere, a skylark was singing. This was pure Tolstoy.

Nadia began to clear away the dried brush that had been placed over the garlic and strawberry beds to protect against the winter frost.

A neighbour who owned a tractor would come to turn the soil. Then the couple would plant cabbage, potatoes, carrots, corn and cucumbers. In May, they would move into the dacha and remain there until October, as always.

‘If it is still safe,’ qualified Nadia, wistfully.

We left them there, feeling a little better about the prospects for humanity, as we did one afternoon earlier in the war. But you cannot escape Putin’s war. It was waiting for us only a few miles beyond Anatolii and Nadia’s dacha.

In the forest on either side of the road, slender pines have been felled by tank fire. A footbridge has been brought down across the western carriageway of the E40. At a ruined petrol station next to the empty village of Buzovaya, two Russian T-72 tanks are charred wrecks.

These losses seem to have spurred the tank unit into a frenzy of revenge. Certainly, the signs are of a military formation that has lost all discipline.

Like many petrol stations, this one has been comprehensively looted by the invader. The gutters have run with alcohol. On one wall a Russian has sprayed in English, ‘Bad Company 13’ and on another, in Russian, ‘Ukrainians you will be f***ing dead!’

The threat was carried out. A blood-smeared storm drain behind the petrol station was used for the disposal of at least two corpses.

So much for bucolic interludes.

Yet there was much to be thankful for. Having been granted refugee visas, Oleksandr’s family have now reached London and safety.

He was ‘relieved’, though he still could not sleep properly for Bucha nightmares. Nor can I. The Russian forces are pushing anew on the Eastern front. The Devil remains in Moscow.

The little pleasures of ‘normal’ life are still elusive in Ukraine.

EXTRACTED from Reporting The War In Ukraine: A First Draft Of History, edited by John Mair and published by Abramis at £14.95.


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