Kyiv – from Hell to Heaven

Belfast writer Rosemary Jenkinson offers an eyewitness account of Europe’s war zone

My bus rolls into Ukraine on a glorious June morning, the mist rising across the fields, the forests a pale blue in the distance, and the first soldier I see is sitting by his camouflaged checkpoint, warming up in the sun like a chameleon, perfectly blended into his background. Every few miles, we encounter concrete huts topped with sandbags, and while some function as army checkpoints, many are unmanned. Along with tyre barricades, they act as chicanes to slow down the traffic. The tank traps are reminiscent of jacks thrown by a child across the tarmac.

There are billboards by the roadside portraying a young heroic soldier, either saluting or clasping the Ukrainian flag to his chest. In the city of Rivne, a mural looms large of a woman in traditional dress wearing sunglasses and holding a Kalashnikov.

It’s impossible for westerners to apprehend the scale of the destruction from images on the news. As we approach Kyiv, for a full half an hour we can see the trail of devastation left by the Russian army. We pass a bombed supermarket, the subsided, twisted letters of the Cyrillic alphabet disappearing into the ground as if into a sinkhole. It’s as though buildings have been caved in by giant sledgehammers; corrugated panels seem to have been welded into strange shapes by mad metallurgists and the signage has been warped into a melted simulacrum of the real world. Roofs have been pummelled and there are huge rocket holes in the paneling alongside the motorway. Scorched cars sit in the laybys. In some petrol stations, charred pumps lie toppled on the forecourts.

Everyone falls quiet on the bus, even the youngest children. It seems that the houses are crying out in pain through their gaping mouths. Above the black-kohled windows, sections of red tiles undulate and hang down the sides of houses like drooping tresses. Some buildings have been obliterated until all that remains are the rusty posts. A Ukrainian woman in the seat behind me is crying heavily.

Nature also bears the scars of war. In places, fir trees are broken as if from a terrible storm. We pass a chalet-style wooden lodge with the roof blown off, two untouched patio umbrellas in front standing as straight as sentries. Tin sheeting glints for miles along the verge. The most striking sights are the destroyed footbridges that used to cross the motorway but now lead up into thin air. They are veritable stairways to heaven.

Later, I check in at my hotel. While browsing through the options I’d noticed one hotel boasting “our own bomb shelter”, which struck me as a shocking change from a swimming pool or a well-stocked bar. But the whole of Ukraine is a war zone and, while my hotel is not exactly the Holiday Inn of Sarajevo fame, there are echoes. I’m immediately handed a disclaimer declaring that my hotel isn’t liable for what happens to me during my stay and that it’s my responsibility to pursue compensation from “the aggressor country”. I think it somehow unlikely I’d ever receive a payout from Putin. Next, I’m shown “the bomb shelter”, which is a stuffy subterranean locker room. During a war, the present is a foreign country: they do things differently there, as LP Hartley might have said.

Kyiv is a leafy, majestic city, but its central squares are touristless. Every day at noon in Independence Square, the song Kyiv, I Love You blasts out from loudspeakers, but it is oddly eerie when so few people are around to hear it. Restaurant and bar walls are emblazoned with posters hailing Ukrainian resistance. The statues are mostly sandbagged and the renowned Ukrainian writer, Taras Schevchenko, is enclosed within what can only be described as a giant packing case, topknotted with sandbags. It is as if he’s about to be shipped somewhere, caught in transit amidst this friable atmosphere of transience and exodus.

In St Michael’s Square under the golden domes, there is now an open-air museum of burnt-out tanks and ash-filled combat vehicles from Hostomel. On top of one tank lie a Russian jacket and disfigured gloves, personalising the tragedy. A rusty kettle, a melted phone, bullet cases and some tins of military issue meat are also on view and, juxtaposed in this way, it’s impossible not to liken this death trap of a tank to a meat can. Some Ukrainians I speak to disapprove of the tank display as they believe it’s far too early for this war to be neatly packaged as history.

Next to the tanks, I pick out an American accent. Chelsea came to Ukraine to be a critical emergency nurse, but lacked the military training to be sent to the front line, so “it was decided” by the Ukrainians that she’d be a humanitarian aid co-ordinator. With her is Nate, a Texan cop who works in aid when not training the Ukrainian army in hand-to-hand combat and house-clearing (not of the moving home variety).

“Do you want to volunteer?” Chelsea asks me, her eyes lighting up.

I’m taken to a night club called Heaven which has closed because of the curfew and been transformed into an aid hub run by dancers, actors and directors. Pavlo Vyshniakov, who set up the charity, is a well-known Ukrainian actor. He formerly worked in the Ukrainian film industry, but jobs have dried up since the onset of war. Such local charities are in direct contact with Ukrainian battalions and bring them their orders of ready-made meals, water and medicines. Heaven also provides custom-made boxes for civilians living in “hot spots”.

Yasya, a vivacious 31-year-old who before joining Heaven used to work as an assistant film director, is far from impressed with the Red Cross. They’re rarely seen in the war-torn east of the country, yet have warehouses bulging with aid in Lviv, she says. Another problem, Yasya explains, are the “skimmers” profiteering from the aid. While I’m there, she’s on edge as she has promised a delivery to a military base, but her Scottish driver partied too hard last night and has let her down. The war seems to attract an element of adrenaline junkies dressed in army kit who boast of their connections and make promises they can’t keep. There is a sense that Ukraine has turned into a kind of Fight Club for dysfunctional foreigners. On the other hand, there are extremely generous volunteers like 63-year-old stockbroker Jonathan from Texas who spent a fortnight loading refugees’ luggage onto the trains in Lviv until it wrecked his knees.

Through Heaven, I meet Ryan, an English guy who has just returned from a 10-day tour delivering aid to cities like Kharkiv and Severodonetsk for an organisation called Alex21. He still sports bruises from wearing his body armour, has seen Grads on the hill tops and witnessed the blackened, fly-ridden corpse of a Russian soldier protruding from the hatch of a damaged tank. At one point, the Izium police made Ryan seek shelter at a local hospital where he saw civilians stretchered in, including a child with chest lacerations. He also reports seeing a Ukrainian soldier who had his face blown off and says that the image haunted his dreams for three nights. When the rockets were at their most ferocious, he was instructed to follow a police car at 80 miles an hour along a cratered road. He jokes darkly that he’d never imagined in his life being told to drive fast by the police.

Ryan gives me an insight into the trauma of these areas. Many residents in hot spots, even after the shelling has passed, have some sort of apocalypse-complex where they believe that the world has ended and are too terrified to leave their shelters. However, Ryan plans to keep helping until the war is over. He’d been working in an airplane factory in England until he handed in his notice in May.

“There is nowhere else in the world I’d rather be than Ukraine,” he says. “When I’m away from the front line I feel so nervy and fidgety I’m dying to go back. One woman I gave food to said, ‘may the angels protect you’, so how can I desert her now?”

He tells me that another woman in Donetsk had asked him, “What are the Russians exactly liberating me from? Gas? Electricity? Food?”

He shows me a fresh tattoo of a trident, the symbol of Ukraine, but his version is partially broken. The tattooist promised him that when Ukraine wins, he will make the trident whole again. There is still great confidence among Ukrainians that the war can be won.

I also meet a Dubliner serving with the Ukrainian Special Forces. His nom de guerre is Rambo and, just like his namesake, he’s wearing fatigue trousers and a black vest top to show off his biceps. Rambo may be on leave, but he always wears his fatigues because, as he succinctly puts it, “war is everywhere”. He’s hobbling from recently fracturing his foot on the front line, but wants to return there soon. He doesn’t see the point of fear as in his view, “you’re not dead until you’re dead”. The tattoo on his arm says $50,000, as that is the bounty the Russians have on his head.

I ask at my hotel about visiting Irpin and Bucha, the towns that headlined the news back in March when the Russians retreated from Kyiv.

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?” the receptionist Yulia asks me. “I can’t even look at photos on Instagram.”

She tells me the bus times with the proviso that 2buses are going now but that could all change by this afternoon”. She appears so uncertain I decide to book a taxi instead.

The taxi driver only speaks a smattering of English and there is a comedy of errors when he thinks I want to go to a similar-sounding suburb. He seems astonished at anyone wanting to go to Irpin or Bucha.

We arrive at a checkpoint on a bridge into Irpin and are waved through. A nearby bridge is destroyed and a white transit van is lying upside down, its cab submerged in the river. Not far ahead, there is a section of asphalt like a huge scrapyard, hulked with burnt-out cars piled on top of one another. Among the trees are vestiges of military vehicles. It’s as though you’re entering the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max. I watch a woman combing through the scrap metal outside some destroyed shopping outlets. A sign, Comfy Store, is lying on the ground.

I realise that Irpin and Bucha, two relatively prosperous commuter suburbs on the outskirts of Kyiv, are virtually conjoined. Although it is over three months since the occupation, there is still a strong smell of burning in the air. Almost every street, even the narrowest lane, testifies to an indiscriminate rampage by the Russian army. There are bombed buildings, ranging from luxury apartments to the humblest shack. There is no hierarchy of suffering here.

“University,” says the taxi driver, pointing out a venerable edifice transformed into an empty shell.

In one roofless house, an entire room had been upended, cupboards and furniture in chaos. White streamers of wallpaper are blowing in the breeze as if the Russians had wreaked a destructive house party. It’s noticeable that the cemeteries we pass by are full of fresh bright prayer ribbons.

Nonetheless, there are signs of recovery. Through windows made cavernous by rockets, I spot joiners and electricians working away as if on a giant stage. As we pass a set of cracked shop windows, there are shadows of customers browsing through railings of clothes. Ice-cream is being sold from a grocery store surrounded by iron wreckage.

“Johnson,” says the taxi driver, nodding in approval at the British prime minister’s military support for Ukraine.

“Do you like Zelensky?” I ask him.

“Zelensky Churchill,” he states. He has recovered from his earlier astonishment and points from his eyes to the houses, wanting everyone from around the world to see them. “Come. Germany, USA, Canada…”

Back in Kyiv that afternoon, the air raid sirens sound, their haunting lift and fall echoing through the buildings. Once you hear it, you keep imagining it, even deciphering it in the acceleration and deceleration of a motorbike. Such is the frequency of the sirens, the passersby carry on with their daily business, just as folk used to do in Belfast whenever there were security alerts or bomb scares. Life in Kyiv has settled into its own normal abnormal. Yasya told me that some nightclubs have reopened as dayclubs. Society here is resourceful.

“Aren’t you scared to come here?” many Ukrainians ask me.

I explain I’m from Belfast, although most of them have never heard of it, let alone that there was a war there. But then I tell them, “If it’s safe enough for you, it’s safe enough for me.” That said, nowhere is safe in Ukraine. The day before I arrived, five cruise missiles hit Kyiv. The Russians claim they are hitting military depots, but the Ukrainians I meet explain that the targets are simply factories. “Do they really want to blow up Hoovers?” Yasya asks incredulously.

Yasya can’t imagine how she’d cope if Pavlo’s charity closed through lack of funds. Her original plans for this year were to furnish her new flat in Kyiv and to travel, but she’s had to move back in with her mother. She ruefully wishes she’d never bought a 12th-floor flat.

“This is the 21st century,” Ukrainians keep saying in disbelief, “and yet we have war.” As I check out of my hotel, Yulia explains to me the pervading sense of stasis, “It is summer, so hot and sunny outside, but for us it is still February. Time has stopped. It is still winter here.”

On the bus back to Warsaw, it’s noticeable that 90 per cent of passengers are women. Why are you here? I’m asked. I’m the only non-Ukrainian on the bus and they are curious about me. All I can say is that as a writer it is important to witness, to corroborate and, of course, to write about what is unfolding.

Sitting next to me is a professor from Kyiv University. She tells me that three-quarters of her students have left; almost all the girls are abroad studying remotely. Kyiv University encourages them to enrol in other courses internationally, so that they’ll emerge from these hard times with two degrees. Some of the boys have enlisted in the war, but the rest must remain in their country in case of future call-ups, meaning it’s difficult for them to receive government exemptions to leave. On the bus, I start chatting to 18-year-old Artem who is heading to Dublin for a one-month language course, but he hopes to get into Trinity to study marketing.

Ukrainians have a massive dilemma right now whether to leave, stay or return. The ones who stay like Yasya feel guilty about not doing enough, but they seem in a better psychological state than those who have left. In Warsaw, I met many Ukrainians, including Diana who kept touching her heart, her eyes filling up, whenever she talked of her country. She was very scared for her father who had fought in Mariupol and was still in the east. She hoped to return when things were better at the end of August, but as she spoke, her voice was full of doubt. She’d been told by her father to leave Ukraine but the problem was she now had “a war in my heart” because she wanted to defy him and go home.

Beside me, the professor is contemplating moving her family over to Germany for the duration of the war. “War has made us primitive,” she laments. “All we do is think of simple things like where to buy salt or fuel or how to take a journey safely. It is like we have gone back in time, reversed civilisation.” As we talk, the bus pulls into Rivne. A woman climbs aboard, collecting donations for victims of the war.

Soon we are in a long line of buses, almost a convoy of exiles. We pass many military oil tankers on the way. A mother is busy teaching her young son English.

“What is your name?” she asks him.

“My name is Mark.”

“Great!” she exclaims.

When we reach the border, aid workers dole out drinks and snacks. Such is the queue, we have to wait six hours at the border until night merges into misty daylight and we can finally leave Ukraine. It’s then that I notice Artem is missing. He hasn’t made it through border control and, surely, his Dublin dream is over.

Please donate to Charity Fund of Pavlo Vyshniakov at Heaven: vyshniakov.cf@gmail.com