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Gone is the battle, forever is the war

Article and Photos By Richard Wright

A video doing the rounds on social media shows young people dancing at a bar in Kyiv, provoking the typical “what war?” response from faceless Twitter accounts. There is no blood, no screaming, no disheveled, shell-shocked faces; nothing morbid to feed our conceptions of what we imagine war to be.

Yet less than an hour outside of Kyiv stand Irpin, Bucha and Hostomel: adjacent cities where in the absence of blood and screaming, there is a deep scar that connects these communities with the trauma of the past almost-nine months.

Artyom, 15, stands outside his damaged apartment block wearing an Irish rugby jersey.

Masha, a blonde-haired six-year-old from Irpin, affectionately hugs a dog by the spot his mother, Anya, 37, was killed in the opening days of the war. Anya was cooking food outside their apartment when a shell landed less than four feet away from where she stood. Standing nearby are Masha’s siblings, Artyom (15) and Dasha (13) who are now cared for by other residents.

In an early effort to encircle the capital, Russian forces attacked and occupied Irpin, Bucha and Hostomel. The plan was to take Kyiv, seize power, and take control of the entire country. In the final days of March, Ukrainian defenders successfully recaptured the trio of cities, which were to be the match in the powder barrel for the Kremlin’s ultimate goal of regime change. The cities were subsequently named Hero Cities of Ukraine by presidential decree.

In the destroyed apartments that Russian troops had once lived in, there is little evidence of their recent presence amongst the seemingly frozen-in-time homes: all that is left are a child’s drawings of angels and flowers still defiantly displayed on the wall, and a calendar that may forever be stuck on March 2022.

A fifty-rouble note, forgotten under debris, is the only visible reminder of the Russian occupation. The memories of the occupiers, however, are not gone.

Helena Kovalska, 67, stands outside her apartment in Irpin.

Helena Kovalska, 67, had lived peacefully in Irpin her entire life. A few weeks into the war, a Russian soldier came knocking on her door, looking for Ukrainian soldiers. By this point only seven people were living in her quiet community of apartment blocks, the rest had fled. From that point on, the Russians controlled their daily routines – ordering residents to bring them food and only giving them an hour per day of freedom.

In the beginning of the war Helena said she once passed out and couldn’t sleep for days. She is confused as to what Vladimir Putin wants to gain from his attack on her country; other than his desire to expand Russian territory.

“In this world, you suffer like this?” said Helena, becoming emotional at the recollection of the occupation.

This community cannot relax. The trauma is too entrenched, and the war still too close. Helena suffers from depression, but says it helps to go outside and be with other people. The day we met, the residents were sitting around a barbeque, chatting.

Lyudmila Holovienko poses for a photo with her neice Kateryna, nephew Vladislav and aunt Nadia

Neighbouring Bucha is synonymous with some of the worst confirmed atrocities of the war so far: as Ukrainian forces recaptured the city on March 31 following Russian retreat, there was evidence of systematic killings of civilians. The name Bucha itself recalls images of bodies lining a debris-littered street; freshly painted red nail polish on cold, grey fingers. It is these small details that remind us that war does not happen in a vacuum.

Speaking with Euronews, Lyudmila Holovienko described her tragic experience. The fifty-five year old from Hostomel lost her daughter to cancer on New Year’s Eve, two months before the war. Afterwards, Russian bombs destroyed her home, and in April her 86-year-old mother died, unable to survive “the cold, the hunger”.

The war has physically left this region since its recapture, but in the psyche of survivors it will remain there for some time. In Lyudmila’s mother’s home, where she now lives, the windows are still taped to protect from missile shockwaves sending shards of glass flying inward.

Leonide and Tatyana sit outside their apartment block in Saltivka, Kharkiv.

Further east in the Kharkiv region, the Russians are gone but bombs continue to fall on civilians. Leonide and Tatyana have lived in their Saltivka apartment for over 30 years, and since February their apartment block has been shelled five times. They are, however, confident that the war will end soon.

Since September 6, Ukrainian forces have successfully liberated the entire Kharkiv Oblast. Videos circulated online of residents overjoyed with emotion as soldiers with blue armbands (Russians wear white or red) entered the towns and villages – some of which had been occupied for almost the entirety of the full-scale invasion. There is already evidence of Russian brutality towards residents.

In the liberated city of Izium, Chief of the National Police of Ukraine, Ihor Klymenko, said that the 449 bodies of civilians were exhumed from a mass grave outside the city.

“[T]here are many bodies with traces of torture. Police forensic experts face a difficult task: to identify the body of each killed person. Relatives should bury them in a human way.”

With a vast amount of Ukrainian land still under Russian control, it is likely this will be a trend that will continue.

A resident shows where the residents of the apartment block took shelter during the shelling

The “what war?” question was answered on a sunny Monday morning as children walked to school. During the morning rush hour on October 10, Russia launched 83 missiles throughout the country – some of which smashed into the very centre of Kyiv, hitting civilian infrastructure near Shevchenko Park. According to Deputy Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Kyrylo Tymoshenko, 23 people were killed and over 100 injured during this attack. The attack has become a trend for Russia – again striking on October 17 and October 31 – in its tactic to subdue the Ukrainian people by brute force, it is systematically attacking critical civilian energy and water infrastructure as winter approaches.

Russia claims these attacks are retaliation for multiple Ukranian attacks on its installations in occupied Crimea, yet the truth may lie elsewhere. Frank Ledwidge, a Senior Lecturer in Military Strategy and Law at the University of Portsmouth, suggests that these attacks are a sign of desperation, intended to terrify civilians as Russia fails to make any substantial progress on the frontline. The Kremlin’s use of Iranian Shahed UAV “kamikaze” drones is further evidence of this tactic: as the drone drops, a terrifying dive bomber sound echoes through the sky until it reaches its target.

Thus, despite a lull in attacks on Kyiv and other cities throughout the summer, which allowed Ukrainians to briefly take a breath of fresh air, Russia is omnipresent. They can strike at any moment; despite the absence of battle, the war is still here and can return at the click of a finger.

Gone are the tanks; gone are the bombs; gone are the news cameras onto the next battle; forever are the victims of Putin’s violence; forever are onlookers making mistaken assumptions about another's war.

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Richard Wright | The Colloquium

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