With the start of the “special military operation” by Moscow, the entire territory of Ukraine turned into a combat zone. From the Polish border to Kyiv, the France 24 team set off to meet Ukrainians, civilians or soldiers, brutally immersed in this deadly conflict. Travel.
All airports in the country have been closed since February 24. Therefore, it is necessary to cross the border between Poland and Ukraine by road on Friday, March 11. After the border post Grebennoe, there are the first checkpoints where armed Ukrainian citizens monitor the entry and exit of vehicles, and sometimes check the identity. It remains 70 kilometers to reach the city of Lvov, which at that time was still unaffected by the conflict, where most Western embassies had gone.
At the train station of this “cultural capital” of Ukraine, signs “free buses to Poland” are still visible, remnants of the panic scene of the first week of the conflict. Families are photographed in front of the National Opera. Posters on the walls urge citizens to resist the Russian invasion. Alcohol is prohibited, the curfew starts at 22:00.
From Lviv to Kyiv
On the way to the capital, most gas stations are filled with fuel. Trucks and cars traverse the center of the country without incident, these Ukrainian “black lands”, the breadbasket of Europe. Approaching Kiev, we enter the road along the Dnieper, the great river that crosses Ukraine from north to south. There, traffic is sparse, checks at checkpoints are much more persistent, residents are afraid of the penetration of Russian agents. Any unknown person or vehicle looks suspicious. In a gloomy atmosphere, we drive into the Ukrainian capital. Concrete blocks and anti-tank devices block highways and large deserted avenues.
“Putin is the devil”
Sunday, March 13, the capital wakes up in icy silence. Several believers attend Mass at Saint-Michel-aux-Dome-d’Or. The names and portraits of Ukrainian fighters who died in Donbas since 2014 adorn the walls surrounding the building in places. Metropolitan Epiphanius, Primate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, says that he prayed for those who are being bombed, for those who are in shelters, and for the salvation of the country. He reiterates that Vladimir Putin is the embodiment of the “devil” and that this war is nothing but “the confrontation between good and evil.”
A little earlier in the morning, the Ukrainian authorities announced that a base in Lvov, where joint military exercises of Ukrainian and NATO forces were taking place, was bombed at night. By attacking western Ukraine for the first time, Russian forces are demonstrating that they can attack anywhere in the country.
“I know that tomorrow there may be no water or electricity.”
On Monday, March 14, on the streets of Kyiv, rare passers-by line up in front of pharmacies and supermarkets that are still open. We meet Yuri, who contemplates the city from the balcony of his apartment, located on 13as well as scene. His wife and daughter fled to Sweden. Mobilized, like all men from 18 to 60 years old, he explains to us that “the war will be long because Putin hates Ukrainians.”
Only a few families remained in this huge tower in the south of the city. According to the mayor’s office, almost half of the residents left Kyiv. In another part of the capital, we come face to face with a young man, Eduard, with a suitcase in his hand and with tears in his eyes, who explains to us that he wants to go to France.
On the threshold of the house he has just left, four women are waiting for us, living in anticipation of a great catastrophe, which, in their opinion, is inevitable: massive bombardments or the encirclement of the city by Russian troops. They sleep in the basement. Natalia, whose companion is fighting the Ukrainian army in Mariupol, confesses to us her anger, but also her confidence that Ukraine will win the war.
>> Read: “In the city under Russian fire, the people of Kiev held their breath”
“I broke up with my Russian family”
On Tuesday, early in the morning, as on the previous day, Russian troops attacked apartment buildings in the city. Former boxer Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv, arrives at the scene with a bulletproof vest on his back. “This is a difficult and dangerous moment,” he said as firefighters finished putting out the fire. Surrounded by journalists and frightened passers-by, emergency services removed four bodies from the building.
Not far from there, several buildings were damaged by a powerful explosion. Windows were smashed and residents threw trash, furniture or broken door frames out of the windows. On the eighth floor, Nina, a well-made old woman, has packed her suitcase and is waiting for her son-in-law to leave her uninhabitable apartment.
Born in St. Petersburg, the daughter of a Soviet-era soldier, she lacks harsh words for Russia. “I hate them, they are hordes of savages. Now I feel like a Ukrainian,” she says. a 36-hour curfew was introduced in Kyiv; residents are prohibited from leaving their homes except to reach a shelter.
“We have tanks, artillery, ammunition”
When Moscow launched its “special operation” in Ukraine, the Russian military immediately tried to storm the Ukrainian capital, seizing the Gostomel airport and sending armed detachments into the city. After fierce resistance, the Ukrainian army drove them back; for days there were bloody battles in the communes bordering on kiev. In Irpen in particular, but also in Bucha or Brovary. It is to this front, north of Kyiv, that we will go on Thursday, March 17th.
Our military guide asks us not to take any pictures that could show the exact location of the trenches, dugouts and other lines of defense through which we pass. Along the way, we find dozens of empty crates of anti-tank missiles on the side of the road, including the famous “made in the USA” Javelins that have become symbols of Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion.
[INFOWAR] A meme from the first hours of the conflict, Saint Javelin, delivered by the British to Ukraine before the start of hostilities and apparently allowed to cause painful damage to a Russian armored gun. pic.twitter.com/wFGrGAmhgi
— djonne mcfly February 25, 2022
After all, Ukrainian authorities blame Russian troops for shelling and destroying the theater in Mariupol, where between 500 and 1,200 civilians, including many children, are reported to have taken refuge. A week later, the human casualties of this attack are still unknown.
“I want to do my job”
In Kyiv, local explosions do not subside. But little by little the inhabitants seem to get used to waiting, to anxiety. In the supermarket, employees are busy filling the shelves. Among them, Galina tells us that she “swarms” to come to work, because she has known “her” clients for a long time, that they need her and that she feels safer at work than at home. At the age of about sixty, she seems to have seen others and hopes that peace will come.
The roads south of the city remain open to traffic, and the capital does not suffer from food shortages, except for bread, which is always hard to come by.
>> Read: “In Kyiv, mutual assistance and solidarity resist at any cost”
Business leaders engage in warfare in their own way, like this boss who turned his industrial paint company into a logistics platform in the service of combatants.
>> See: “In Kyiv, residents join the resistance in order to survive”
Ultra-nationalists with a dubious reputation
After the Maidan revolution and the start of the war in Donbass, Ukrainian ultra-nationalist groups were viewed with suspicion by the West and branded as Nazis by the East. For Moscow, their very existence justifies an invasion of Ukraine.
The most prominent of these groups, the Azov Regiment, has been integrated into the Ukrainian army and is currently fighting Russian forces in Mariupol. For our part, we meet with the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), which we follow in training in the Kiev forests under the leadership of Oleg Magdych, a former pastor who oversees a group of young volunteers.
Blow up the Kremlin like Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible 4
With temperatures warm and spring approaching, the meeting with a small theater company quickly took on the air of a reunion of friends. Jokes and loud bursts of laughter erupt before tragedy ensues. The Russians are “killing” the country, and it’s time for solidarity and fight until the final victory, say Alex and his friends, who are in their thirties. The history of Ukraine and its encroaching neighbor is littered with corpses and atrocities, they add, lamenting that Europe did not come sooner to regard Russia as a mortal enemy. Three weeks of war finally swept away all forms of pacifism.
>> Read: “In Kyiv, the entry into the war of the Maly Theater of Alexei and his friends”
Departure from Kyiv
On Monday, March 21, the capital wakes up to open images “Retroville”, a brand new shopping center, completely destroyed by a powerful Russian strike.
The explosion was heard throughout the city and resulted in the deaths of at least eight people, and it is impossible to determine whether the victims were civilians or soldiers. The Russian military claims that this fashionable shopping center served as a warehouse for weapons and ammunition.
The Ukrainian capital has been holding its breath for several days, and the threat is getting closer. Before leaving the city, we meet in front of the station a former member of the Foreign Legion and a French military orderly, who arrived to serve in the Ukrainian army.
#Ukraine At the station #Kyiv this morning a short meeting with two volunteers who came to sign a commitment to the Ukrainian army. “Malachenko” from Luxembourg, former legionnaire. Boris is French, a military nurse. “We came to protect our values” pic.twitter.com/yuLiwRyiIZ
— David Gormezano (@dgormezano) March 21, 2022
Under the scrutiny of the whole world, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict raises the specter of a third world war. For their part, the people of Kiev are preparing for a new 36-hour curfew, torn between fear of a protracted dirty war and unshakable confidence that Ukraine will emerge from it.
This report was prepared from 11 to 21 March 2022 with the participation of James Andre, Jonathan Walsh, Alexey Gordeev, Natalia Parubocha and all teams from France. 24.