One year of resistance: Xhemajl Rexha writes from Ukraine - Kosovo 2.0

III - Three towns and the defense of Kyiv


A dispatch from Irpin, Bucha and Borodyanka

A destroyed bridge has become the symbol of Irpin, 26 kilometers north-west of Kyiv. When Russian forces reached Irpin in the initial phases of the invasion in February 2022, the Ukrainians acted quickly and destroyed the bridge so that Russian heavy machinery could not advance.

The old bridge is still there, destroyed. A new bridge, for residents of the city that was retaken by Ukraine at the end of March 2022, is being built

Drones fly over both the new bridge and the old one, which now is called The Bridge of Life. When the bridge stood, hundreds of people in Irpin found shelter under it while escaping from the Russian air and ground attacks. Then, under the same bridge by the church, they walked towards the buses which evacuated residents to Kyiv.

Almost a year later, there are baby carriages, shoes and toys near the bridge — indicators of the tragedy that changed the town forever. Over 20,000 civilians were evacuated within a month of the invasion. At least 290 were killed across the city.

Near the bridge there is also a line of burned cars. When the terrified inhabitants of Irpin realized that they could not leave the city by car, they left their vehicles behind.

Now sunflowers have been painted on the destroyed cars.

On the way to the rest of the city, a large billboard has a message of thanks to former U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Despite being unpopular and controversial in London he is often celebrated as a hero here in Irpin for his support and assistance in providing arms to Ukraine.

Destroyed buildings in Irpin, Ukraine. Photo: Agron Berisha / K2.0.

A Ukrainian man Andrii Ivanov comes with us from Kyiv to Irpin. As soon as we arrive in his city, he takes us to his house, which has been destroyed. Ivanov managed to evacuate his family before an attack destroyed it and other houses in the neighborhood. 

“I used to live here with my wife. We bought this house a year and a half ago,” he said as we walked carefully through the ruins of what used to be his home. “On March 6 [2022] we left because Irpin had been almost entirely captured. On March 8, according to the neighbors, a mine exploded and destroyed our house. We heard the artillery every day and night. After five or six days, shops were closed, bridges were destroyed and people started helping each other. The next day, there was no water or electricity in Irpin.” 

On the way to the suburbs, you can see other destroyed houses. Just outside Irpin, the buildings of an entire neighborhood have no roofs. Only the green cross of a pharmacist’s shop adds some color to the neighborhood. With burn marks covering the white facade and shattered glass in the windows, the buildings still stand, but no one lives there.

The vice-mayor of Irpin, Andrii Kravchuk, said that the town deserves the status of a hero city because it stopped the Russian army in their attempt to reach the presidential palace in Kyiv.

“The Russians traveled for three days from the border with Belarus to come here and on February 27 [2022] they started the attack. But, for a month, they could not progress. Because there were no more bridges and the level of the river was such that it could not be crossed by Russian military equipment. Maybe I sound immodest, but Irpin deserves the status of a hero city, because the enemy turned back from here and could not go further. And to think that the main bridge is only six kilometers from Kyiv,” said Kravchuk.

Bucha, a town full of pain

Hundreds of residents of Bucha’s town paid the highest price, just to prevent Russian forces from approaching Kyiv and the presidential palace. In March 2022, after Russian forces took control, they began mass killings of local residents and shot many of them in the middle of the road.

In a few days, going from house to house, Russian forces killed more than 400 civilians in Bucha. The bodies were first taken to the city church, before being sent 300 meters away to the morgue for autopsy.

Bucha’s Deputy Mayor Shepetko Serhii Anatoliiovych recalls how heavy the smell of death was. “The Russian Federation invaded the entire town on March 3 and held it until March 31. According to our calculations there were 4,000 Russian troops in the city and 3,500 residents who could not leave Bucha for various reasons. At that time, the massacres happened, and we were constantly carrying the bodies from the church to the morgue,” he said.

More than 400 civilians were killed during the Russian invasion in Bucha, Ukraine. Photo: Agron Berisha / K2.0.

On March 11, 2022, armed occupation forces entered the municipality building, violently trying to make the officials obey their orders. “I was here until March 12 and then I fled the city. The Russian forces forced their way into the municipality building and appointed a meeting with us for the next day, at 9 a.m. to discuss how the city will be managed with them in charge. We would never cooperate with them. Therefore, the next day, all the city staff management left, except for the mayor, who was here all the time,” recalled Anatoliiovych.

On the main street where the bodies of the murdered Ukrainians were thrown, houses are now being rebuilt. On both sides of the street, workers try to plug visible bullet holes in houses.

As you leave the town, you see that the cemetery has been expanded. Most of those who were killed in the first days of the invasion are buried there. Valeri, Vasil, Anna, Volodymyr and many other names.

However, the names of 78 who were killed by the Russian army remain unknown. City officials said many bodies were burned to such an extent that identification was impossible. On the graves wrapped with the blue and yellow flag, some names are written, then suddenly only numbers can be seen.

On the large crosses on the graves, numbers such as 275, 327, 328 and 431 are written. Residents find it difficult to talk about the massacre, which is believed to have pushed Western leaders to increase and consolidate the support for Ukraine.

An abandoned kid's scooter in Borodyanka, Ukraine.
Vira and her peers remember the terror after their town was invaded. Photo: Agron Berisha / K2.0.

Borodyanka, almost a ghost town

The first impression of the town of Borodoyanka, with only one main street, is that of destruction.

Among buildings reduced to cinders and ash, a kid’s scooter can be seen in one of the entrances, a sign that no one was spared from the attacks. Residents here used a nearby cave to hide for several days while Russian military planes destroyed everything above ground. Others took shelter in their basements.

Vira is sitting next to the destroyed buildings with her two neighbors. Although almost a year has passed, she remembers how she ran to escape.

“I am 65 years old and I ran five kilometers to hide in that warehouse here. This is something I will never forget. They were constantly shooting and bombing,” said Vira.

Even her two neighbors, the same age as Vira, hesitate to recall the horror. “We have suffered so much this year of invasion. It was terrible what happened here — everyone was crying and screaming in that basement where we were hiding. Then the water pipes burst and the basement was flooded, it was real chaos. Meanwhile, outside, everything was on fire,” said one of them.

“When one building was bombed, the pipes exploded and we were forced to leave. We went to another basement. Some were sheltered in this nursery near here. Everyone ran where they could. The next morning, the shooting continued. On March 1, Ukrainian forces created a safe corridor for the evacuation of residents on the outskirts of Borodyanka. From there they took us in cars and drove us to a nearby village. After five days there, we left for the west of Ukraine, where there was no fighting,” added the other.

Next to the empty buildings is an artwork by the British street artist Banksy. Protected by a glass cover, it depicts a Ukrainian girl defeating the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin in judo.

From Ivanov to Vira, everyone has an immediate answer to the question of whether Ukraine will win the war soon. “It is not up for discussion. Ukraine will win.”

II - 'You have one task: save as many soldiers as possible'


From a political scientist to a driver for the Ukrainian military.

The Veterano Pizza shop in Kyiv does not look like a normal pizzeria. Instead of paintings of pizza, glass display tables are filled to brim with bullet casings. A section of the wall is covered with a large fake machine gun, which hangs above emblems of police units and armies from around the world. This is the pizzeria where veterans gather and where we meet Mykhailo Lavrovskyi.

The life of this 26-year-old, a former student of political science, changed drastically on February 24, 2022.

On the night of the 23rd Mykhailo left the capital for the town of Vinnytsia, where his parents lived. On the way, he heard the speech made by Russian President Vladimir Putin announcing the invasion of Ukraine.

Like many others in Ukraine, Mykhailo decided that he must do something to fight Russia.

“I was in Vinnytsia with my parents for a few months to see what I could do to help. At first, I helped friends on the front line by sending various cars from Poland and the European Union. Then, I started to use Telegram more, where we received data about the enemy’s location and then sent it to the Ukrainian forces so they could attack the Russian forces,” he said.

But this was not enough. Despite the fears of his parents and grandparents, Mykhailo decided to go to the front. He used one of his strongest skills — driving heavy vehicles. Together with a medical team, he committed to saving wounded soldiers.

Mykhailo Lavrovskyi at the "Veterans" pizzeria. Photo: Agron Berisha.

“I had many friends in the army and when the war started, I immediately called them to ask what they needed. I started saving money and in April I decided to join the volunteer medical team, go to the war front and offer my help directly,” he said. “I am a CASEVAC driver [from Casualty Evacuation — the military term for the team that evacuates the wounded] and we have a mission to save as many lives as possible.”

Being in this position has made him much stronger than he was before the invasion. With his own eyes he has seen people that were injured and killed in areas that are being constantly bombarded by the Russian army.

“When you are there, your perception of everything changes. Before the war, I was even afraid to give blood — I used to faint. But now I’ve seen so many injured, some dead. Your brain just starts working differently. You know that you have only one task: to save as many people as possible and to ensure that the dead return to their families for burial,” said Mykhailo. “I found out that this is the role that suits me because I’m not a super cool soldier, but I’m just a good driver. Driving to the frontline while being bombed by the Russians is the best thing I know how to do.”

Mykhailo said that in the first few months when he was in the Donetsk region, they managed to save more than 300 soldiers. The most difficult feeling for him is the helplessness when they do not reach the wounded, who eventually die.

“The worst thing is that sometimes we can’t reach a certain area at all where a wounded person might be and give them first aid, because there might be a Russian tank shooting and we don’t have the commander’s permission to go,” said Mykhailo. “Then we hear on the radio that there are no more wounded, only the dead. This is the hardest because you still believe that you can do something and then you find out that the person has died. This is the most difficult feeling.”

He is now in Kyiv and is preparing a team to return to the front. After a year of fighting, according to him, the capital of four million inhabitants has changed a lot. Kyiv has gone from an “almost apocalyptic-looking city without people or cars in March 2022,” to an almost normal city in February 2023, with “many cars, people and open restaurants.”

The war shows no sign of ending soon and Mykhailo said he is quickly preparing for a new mission on the ground to save more soldiers’ lives.

I - 'May the next birthday be in a free Ukraine'


A year into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the war continues, but so does the hope for freedom.

At the Ukrainian border a soldier enters the Polish bus to collect our passports. The procedure is routine and happens quickly. He collects the passports of Ukrainian citizens left and right, who are returning to their homes across various cities of the war-torn country.

The ease with which he collects the passports changes when he encounters a foreign and distant one. “Kosovo?!” The soldier is surprised when he receives the passport issued in Prishtina. “Where are you going?” he immediately asks.

“To Kyiv, we are journalists.” This required media accreditation, which the Armed Forces of Ukraine handle. This accreditation, even more than a Ukrainian visa, is crucial to conducting media work in areas where there is fighting and a curfew. Without a green military card, one cannot even record on the streets of Kyiv.

My card has the number 13962. From February 2022, when my card was approved, until the end of the week marking the first anniversary of the invasion, more than 14,000 journalists, photographers, cameramen and other media workers will have crossed the border from Poland to Ukraine.

A big “Ukraine” sign in yellow and blue welcomes those driving on the road, which millions of refugees crossed this year. They were forced to flee their homes due to incessant Russian airstrikes and the occupation of several regions in Ukraine.

The same colors in different forms appear along the road that travels through the small villages and larger cities of western Ukraine. Lining the roads littered with potholes, which the bus hits repeatedly, are billboards with messages and prayers. Many of them, signed by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, say “God save Ukraine,” “God bring peace.”

As you get closer to Kyiv, the presence of army roadblocks increases. Cars and buses slow down and some are stopped by the army. The Ukrainian armed forces are present here, residing in make-shift buildings. They’ve been there since Ukraine regained control of these territories, part of what is known as the “de-occupation” process.

The road, about 900 kilometers from Poland, seems significantly shorter once we approach the city of Zhytomyr, one of the largest near the capital. Zhytomyr was used as a corridor for those who fled to western Ukraine at the beginning of the occupation. For the most part the city has been untouched by fighting over the last year. Two civilians were killed there in the first attack in February 2022 and the last attack in Zhytomyr occurred in December 2022, when several rockets were fired at energy infrastructure facilities. 

Buses here continue to come from Kherson, Odesa and other areas that find themselves in less peaceful states.

Life in the capital, 150 kilometers away, with over four million inhabitants, seems normal. Shops, banks and schools continue their usual activities.

“Bravery is Ukrainian brand,” reads a large sign on a clothing store. Instead of the usual “sale” banners adorning the doors and windows of shops, the locals have chosen to show their pride for the “Ukrainian brand,” which, according to them, cannot be bought off at any price. The lights here are back on again, after a long period of planned power outages to save electricity. Russian attacks on Ukrainian state energy plants and infrastructure have made this a necessity.

The first people we meet in Kyiv are Sergeiy, Lina and Andreii from the Union of Ukrainian Journalists. After a year of exchanging emails and calls to plan the housing of Ukrainian journalists in Kosovo, we finally met in person. This meeting falls on the first anniversary of what has become the most difficult period of work faced by Ukrainian media outlets.

From April 2022 to the present, 13 Ukrainian journalists have been sheltered in Kosovo, through a program financed by the Government of Kosovo and implemented by the European Center for Press and Media Freedom and the Association of Journalists of Kosovo.

Sergeiy, Lina and Andreii take us for dinner to a well-known restaurant in the capital. It is called “Musafir” and the owners and staff are from Crimea. There in the restaurant you feel the drive behind the slogan “Crimea is Ukraine,” or at least that it will be again when this bloody war ends.

The guests at the next table are served a big cake and they all sing “Happy Birthday.” The whole restaurant joins in and a single wish can be read in everyone’s eyes: may the next birthday be in a free Ukraine.

As 10:00 p.m. approaches, there is a growing silence and people are suddenly scarce. The restaurant’s customers flee to their homes, so the owners can close up. A little music is heard on the street. Someone finishes their last cigarette. With their hands in their pockets to guard against the cold, everyone heads to their shelter. Curfew starts soon.

By 11:00 p.m. Kyiv sleeps. The millions of inhabitants remain in constant fear that they could be woken up by a siren warning them of Russian rockets.

They can fly overhead at any time.


Feature Image: Dina Hajrullahu / K2.0.

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