BROVARY, Ukraine—A local legend says that in 1941, a Nazi soldier tried to burn down the Church of St. George in Zavorychi, a small town on the outskirts of Kyiv, but was stopped by an act of God. Just this week, Vladimir Putin’s tanks finished the job for him. As they shelled the town indiscriminately on their way towards the capital, the church caught fire and burned to the ground.
“A part of me has died” with no hope of being resurrected, said Julia Tymoshenko, a 22-year-old native of the town who supplied The Daily Beast with a video depicting the wreckage. “I always loved Easter… waking up at 3 a.m. to bless the food. People of our village used to bring baskets filled with goods and place them in a circle around the church.”
Now, Julia’s anguish has turned into rage.
“Those bloodthirsty bastards opened fire from their rusty tanks straight at my crib, my motherland… This church was a symbol of that community and my childhood at grandma’s. I can only imagine the sorrow my grandma felt watching from her window how the church was turning into ashes,” she said. “Everything that is left alive in me now burns.”
As Russian troops leave destruction in the wake of their advances toward Kyiv, the city’s frontline defenders are holding the line. Grainy cellphone video sent to The Daily Beast on Thursday from a Ukrainian fighter showed four charred corpses lying on a bridge in the town of Irpin, with the burnt-out wreckage of a Russian armored personnel carrier laying next to them.
“What is there to be scared of anymore?”
Fierce fighting has consumed the outskirts of the capital for the last two weeks, as the Russians desperately try to encircle the city and begin their siege in earnest. Towns like Brovary, Irpin, and neighboring Bucha are critical strategic locations—ideal for Russians to place their artillery if they intend, as is feared, to rain hell down on Kyiv.
“The air raid sirens are like lullabies now,” Olena Marchenko, a 47-year-old territorial defense volunteer says as she cooks a dinner of meat stew, eggs, and vegetables for the soldiers stationed at her outpost. She is posted at the crossroads right outside Brovary, some 20 kilometers from Russian army positions. The frequent clacking of machine-gun fire, though, suggests that the fighting is taking place barely a few hundred meters away.
On Wednesday, Russian rocket fire slammed into that checkpoint, killing one serviceman and injuring eight others. But Marchenko laughs when I ask her if she is afraid. “What is there to be scared of anymore?,” she says.
A 40-year-old Ukrainian commander who goes by the codename “Angel” showed us around the wreckage from the Wednesday strike. The roof of a building that had been used as a makeshift command center is now a caved-in wreck, with the carcasses of a few civilian cars dotted around the road. This area is coming under almost daily bombardment.
Spray-painted graffiti on a stone barrier next to a few smashed-up tank traps reads “Welcome to Hell”—but none of the few dozen soldiers holding out here seem particularly fearful. Sergey, a 52-year-old veteran who has been recalled for military service, points toward his son who is guarding a checkpoint barely 20 meters away from his own. He is comforted by the fact that if the Russians push through here, they will fight, and possibly die, by each other’s side.
Meanwhile, central Kyiv is looking a lot like the scene of a post-apocalyptic film. The streets and plazas outside many of the capital’s most recognizable landmarks, like the Olympiska Stadium, the Pechersk Lavra Church, and the historic Kyiv Opera House are completely deserted. Others, like the famous Maidan Square, are brimming with barricades, sandbags and tank traps. We suspect snipers have their guns trained on us from many of the rooftops. Soldiers patrol everywhere, regularly checking passports, documentations, and cameras to make sure no one has snapped any sensitive military positions. The city has been turned into one great fortress, which has so far proven impenetrable to invading Russian forces.
At first, it appeared as though the Kremlin had bought into its own propaganda about their soldiers being welcomed as liberators from Ukraine’s “Nazified” government, but Ukraine’s fierce resistance quickly dispelled those illusions. Russia’s aims of swiftly decapitating the government with rash paratroopers and special forces have been rapidly repelled. Instead, the Ukrainians are making them pay dearly in blood and treasure for each square inch of land they conquer.
Still, the Ukrainian government reports that Russian forces have killed more than 2,000 civilians across the country since the war began two weeks ago. They have also destroyed innumerable buildings, including apartment blocks, airports, churches and schools. Already, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has said he will visit Ukraine to investigate potential war crimes committed by the invading forces.
With the bulk of Ukraine’s troops committed to holding the line of contact against the Russians and their separatist allies in the eastern Donbas region, the capital is defended by a strange but oddly effective hodgepodge of Special Operations Forces and volunteer militias armed with everything from low tech Soviet-era Ak-47s to the latest flashy U.S.-supplied tech, including Stingers and MANPADS.
A 40-mile-long convoy of Russian vehicles once feared to be the architect of Kyiv’s annihilation has now become an international joke, lying stuck in the mud. Other offensives have also stalled. The Russians and their separatist allies have been held to a stalemate on the Eastern Donbas front and in the Northeast, having failed to take the city of Kharkiv. Only in the south, where Russian forces based in Crimea have captured the port city of Kherson and have encircled Mariupol, are they advancing anywhere near according to schedule.
“I might never see him again, but at least he will grow up to be proud of me.”
But the Russians could be closer than we think. The day after I visited Brovary, four colleagues of mine were trying to find an alternative route into the town of Irpin to cover the evacuation of civilians when they ran smack-bang into a checkpoint manned by Russian soldiers. The Russians allegedly pointed their guns on them, but their driver that day managed to convince them to let them go. Oz Katerji, a British-Lebanese war journalist who was in the car, told The Daily Beast that “they were as surprised to see us as we were to see them! We were lucky to escape with our lives. We saw firsthand how close the Russians are to Kyiv and the devastation that they were inflicting on [refugees] fleeing Irpin.”
Despite the overwhelming odds, hundreds more Ukrainian men and women volunteers join the frontline fight every single day. Many have dropped their families off at the borders of neighboring European countries and then returned to fight. Others are Ukrainians who are living abroad and have come home to take a stand for their country.
On a train from Lviv to Kyiv this week, I met Slava, a 33-year-old Ukrainian who had left his family, including his young son, in Slovakia before returning to fight in Kyiv. With cropped hair and full-sleeve tattoos, he looked like a muscled-up jock, but had a quiet voice and unassuming demeanor. He gave me the name of his YouTube channel.
He was trying to tell me that he may never see his son again, but struggled to get the words out. Eventually, he turned to Google Translate on his phone, and showed me a message that read: “I might never see him again, but at least he will grow up to be proud of me.”