Irpin Diary: Personal stories of war from the volunteers saving lives in Milwaukee’s sister city
“It’s gonna be an interesting one today, Igor,” Oleksandr says to me, upbeat.
I met this guy earlier in the war, when I was monitoring refugee evacuations at the Irpin River crossing, in case the Russians decided to casually drop some mortars and slaughter some families again, like they do.
He spilled out of his old silver van in front of me on the shattered bridge and asked me to go get a medic. One of his passengers was wounded in the leg. The other two were beyond the need for medics.
I helped him carry one of the bodies, his uncle’s friend, gunned down by the Russians in the village of Stoyanka for no reason; we got to talking. He’s a civilian volunteer, placed by Territorial Defense on a waiting list. Waiting is against his nature. Oleksandr couldn’t wait.
For weeks, Oleksandr and his friend Andrii have been driving into the war zones outside Kyiv, running critical supplies in and getting people out. Oleksandr reckons they’ve evacuated over 250 civilians and I believe it. In the one day I spent with them, they evacuated seven.
They also help deliver power banks, food and medicine, help rescue left-behind pets or, when it’s too late to save someone, bring out bodies to get a proper burial in Kyiv and hopefully serve as evidence in some future court of human rights against Russia.
“When people sit for over a week without light, internet or news, they come out and ask us ‘is Kyiv still ours?’” Oleksandr says. “We reassure them, yes, Kyiv is ours, everything is good there, look, we brought you some bread.”
Today, they let me tag along on one of their daily missions. While Oleksandr gave me permission to share, I’ve kept both their last names hidden for security purposes, as they don’t plan to stop sticking their necks out any time soon.
“It’s gonna be an interesting one today.” In a war zone, that can mean a number of things, like that Chinese epigram, “May you live in interesting times.” The remnant of a smoke pillar from an artillery shell that struck a nearby field a few minutes ago is still drifting skyward. Thicker smoke is rising from the direction of Bucha, a hell unending I’m not sure I’m ready to see.
No time to overthink it. We jump into the van with a woman named Iryna who needs to evacuate her dogs from Irpin’s woodside outskirts.
It is amazing how many dogs you see when war breaks out. The dogs are everywhere. Many aren’t even haggard mutts but handsome permutations of stately breeds; healthy, alert and well-fed. Sometimes, the beginning of a dog fight takes snarling shape, only to dissolve again moments later.
I don’t know how many are with the military and how many have been left behind and are now doing their best to survive like the rest of us.
Pets are a major calculus for people deciding to stay or leave. After figuring out what to do with their families, the hardest question many here grapple with is what to do with their pets.
In a few days, I’ve met half a dozen locals who couldn’t bring themselves to leave because of their animals. I saw a middle-aged woman sobbing like a child because she had to leave her dog and cats behind. Later this day, we’d meet a man, whose dogs were the main anchor holding him to the village where the Russians almost killed him.
“When people ask us ‘should I leave the dog,’ I say why?’” Oleksandr says. “Take it with you… We don’t leave anyone behind.”
Iryna, who already brought out the rest of her canine friends, is also determined not to leave any behind. When she unlocks her door though, I can see why several trips were needed, as two Spanish mastiffs the size of young grizzly bears barely squeeze their bulk through the frame. One of them has intensely bloodshot eyes. It’s frightening. You can saddle it up and ride down the Russians like the Cossacks of old.
I mention this aloud and they love it. My companions talk about finding some cavalry sabers to complete the effect. Alas, the mastiffs are show dogs: big, friendly softies, wholly untrained in the ways of war. They are, however, completely uncontrollable unless their mom is nearby. If one wants to go somewhere, a grown man’s grip on the leash will not even slow it down.
Iryna’s back a few minutes later, with three bags of dog food half the size of my body. They’re crammed into the van, along with bundles of frozen meat. She loads the last of her hellhounds in the back and we zoom off towards the crossing.
Fear and Risk
“We are here on our own fear and risk,” Oleksandr would say to me as we discussed my ride-along.
The phrase is a Russian saying, which means taking full responsibility for your own safety. In the battlegrounds outside Kyiv, it sounds especially poignant, even when translated.
But the dynamic duo’s risks are rarely uncalculated. They always check available intelligence in advance. And there’s always someone to ask. During the course of their volunteer service, they appear to have made friends with half the troops rotating through Irpin, from the uniformed regulars to the wild Cossack-looking character with the huge, decorative earring and the drooping mustache, looking like he’d been plucked from Stenka Razin’s rebellion of 1670 and handed an assault rifle.
Sometimes, Oleksandr said, their silver van even ferried sniper and mortar teams to specific locations, becoming a well-memed “taxi service.”
Most troops and locals are willing to share tidbits of information on what they know of the Russians’ movements, where it’s safe to go and where it isn’t, in exchange for a lusty “Glory to Ukraine.” They’re helpful but they’re not always right.
“They might say ‘don’t go there lads, it’s scary there, they’re killing people there,’ even though we just came from there and no one’s killing anyone,” Oleksandr says. “We always check with certain people who haven’t let us down. Then we analyze and decide. But it always comes with a big dose of risk.”
He’s not kidding. Bullets and mortars can and do come out of nowhere. The friends often had to take cover to wait out a barrage. As their forces face heavy resistance, Russians in the area may be edgy or angry. And they’ve made it abundantly clear they won’t bother sparing civilians.
As I chew on this information, we run into two Ukrainian soldiers with covered faces, who stop us and demand to see our documents.
“Allright boys, on the ground with your faces down,” gently says the older of the two. As quizzical looks creep into the volunteers’ faces, he takes the wrap down from over his grinning mouth.
“You can change your Pampers now,” he says. They crack up laughing. He’s a friend of theirs, just giving us a scare. He lets us go with an update and a hearty “good luck.”
Can’t sit still
Oleksandr, an IT entrepreneur, first became a volunteer in 2014, when Russia invaded Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts and annexed Crimea.
In February, he was sucked back into the life when he got the news from Hostomel on the third day of the war. His ex-wife had been shot and wounded, trapped in the city with her friend and her child from her second husband.
“No one could gather the courage to come get them, including her father and her second husband,” said Oleksandr. “We went to the bridge by car, then crossed on foot…. We carried them out.”
He hadn’t talked to his ex-wife in a long time over some personal disagreements but all of that fell by the wayside when life was on the line. Risking his life for her awoke a whole spectrum of emotions. Being the only man who came to get her has pushed their relationship into new, complicated territory.
“I was really afraid but didn’t want to lose her a second time,” he said. After being rescued, she’s gone to Italy, where Oleksandr’s sister and nephews are staying.
The experience realigned his value system. “I understood then that I can’t just sit in one place,” he said to me on the phone.
His friend Andrii, whom he met playing geocaching games, has a travel agency and has traveled all over the world. The friends would often meet time and again after not seeing each other for years. When they last reconnected, they became partners in what they consider their most important undertaking.
Andrii seems the brasher of the duo while Oleksandr is a bit more measured. With the calm detachment of combat medics, the lackadaisical quips of Marvel protagonists and their big hearts, the friends perfectly complement one another.
“Not too many people are ready to risk their lives for people they don’t know,” says Oleksandr.
But you can’t always get to everyone in time. Since they started working, the friends have evacuated over 30 bodies.
“I’m not much of a believer but I believe [funerals have] to be done the Christian way,” Oleksandr says. “The body has to be checked in, the cause of death established… people shouldn’t be buried in some mound like a dog.”
Unfortunately, the friends’ next mission is to go into the possibly-occupied urban village of Stoyanka and recover some of the deceased.
Bringing out the dead
In early March, the Russians shot up yet another civilian evacuation convoy near the village of Stoyanka-2 and the bodies were reportedly left slumped around the vehicles. The friends had been asked to get a few women’s bodies out to help bring them to Kyiv.
Irpin and Stoyanka-2 are in rough shape. Many buildings are damaged. Some are caved in. Windows have blown out in the freshly-built tall apartment blocks, billboards still advertising the new real estate. We drive past beautiful private suburban properties marred with ugly scars. Useless powerlines lie draped over the dirt. The blackened remnants of a Russian tank block half the road.
“You quickly get used to how things are,” Oleksandr muses. “It becomes normal (very fast). But when you step back and look at it with a fresh eye…”
After stopping by a friendly family’s house to get some intel, we make it into Stoyanka-2 and see the red van riddled with bullets. This was the van Oleksandr’s uncle Dmytro was driving with his friend Arkadiy, when Russian forces opened fire. Arkadiy died on the spot, several days before I helped him cross Irpin River to his final resting place. Dmytro crawled away and survived. He is now safe in Kyiv.
We have a problem. Last we heard, the Russians had a checkpoint up the road and we don’t know if it’s still manned and ready to fill us with holes. We move forward, using walls and fences for cover, crossing open spaces with a sprint.
The road is filled with signs of the Russians’ grim harvest. Cars, plastered with pieces of paper saying “Children” are shot up and left in the middle of the street. The suitcases inside have been rifled through. One paper sign has been shot through as though used as a bullseye. It’s all that’s left of that convoy.
The bodies aren’t there.
Searching for them, we move deeper into the village. Andrii takes point, with Oleksandr quietly nagging him to keep his head down. Our approach doesn’t stay silent for long. An entire swarm of dogs comes to check us out. They’re friendly enough but they’re not shy about gaily communicating with each other. I’ve never hated dog sounds so much in my life.
“Dogs seem calm,” says Andrii. “It’s probably clear.”
As we flank our way around the new-looking housing complex, we see that he’s right. The checkpoint is deserted. Half-empty cardboard boxes with Russian rations lie abandoned, along with an empty rocket launcher. There’s a bottle of Johnny Walker Red, a quarter filled with leftover whiskey or more likely, some invader’s terrified piss.
Our mission’s a failure. The only body we see is a man’s, skin sloughed off, chest torn open, meat gnawed clean from the ribs. I hope the locals managed to bury the women we were after before the dogs got to them too.
But speaking of locals, a middle-aged man named Petro approaches us. Something’s badly wrong with his leg. As soon as he learns that the duo are volunteers and have the means to evacuate people, he asks them to take him and an old woman that’s been stuck in the housing complex. Limping up to her first-floor window, he yells out for her to come out.
“Get your stuff,” he says, as she appears in the window. “We’re leaving.”
Rescuing the living
As she opens the door to Oleksandr and I, Tetiana can’t stop weeping with relief. “Thank god, thank go-o-od,” she sobs convulsively.
Oleksandr has seen this many times. He steps forward to give her a big hug and calmly talks her through how the Russians have been driven out and how she’s safe now and everything’s going to be okay. Tetiana is so overcome with emotion, it takes her a few minutes to be able to speak in complete sentences. She’s been here since the war began, cut off from her family, with no power or an internet connection.
Many people who have been trapped, especially the elderly, sometimes have a hard time coping with the stress, Oleksandr told me in the earlier phone call.
“I try to inspire optimism,” he said then. “My mother has a friend who was in Irpin and it got shelled. They were so scared. But when I hugged her, smiled at her and advised them to get out while there’s still a chance, they listened to me.”
Oleksandr’s charged phone catches the whiff of a signal and they call Tetiana’s son but cannot reach him. Then they try her granddaughter, Katya. She picks up, as Tetiana tenderly says her name.
There go Tetiana’s complete sentences. Helped along by Oleksandr, they bring each other up to date. Katya’s dad is fine, he’s outside Lviv and she’s in it. We tell Katya that we’re volunteers and are about to evacuate her grandmother to Kyiv and put her on a train to Lviv. By the end of the short conversation, both sides are pretty hard to understand, sobbing “I love you” to one another through the spotty connection.
We help Tetiana finish packing her clothes, religious icons and medicine. She has two cats but no carriers. Faced with the prospect of clutching the frightened, clawing animals all the way to Kyiv, Oleksandr decides to leave them with two weeks’ worth of meat and water on the kitchen floor. Hopefully the area will be secure by then and she can return for them.
Tetiana can’t stop weeping. “My boys,” she says of the volunteers. “My wonderful boys.”
As we walk outside carrying Tetiana’s stuff, Petro tells me of the fall of Stoyanka-2. It was late afternoon, when the mortars started to fall. Two landed near the clinic that contained two families with children, destroying nearby cars. One explosion damaged a gas pipe, causing gas to come hissing out. Everyone scrambled away but locals managed to shut off the gas before it ignited.
When Petro came out to feed his dogs in the evening, he saw Russian troops coming over the fence.
“I managed to shout out ‘don’t shoot, I’m a civilian,’ as I lifted my hands,” he said. “That’s probably what saved me.”
He was frog-marched into a nearby building, where the Russians had set up. They seized his phone and went through it. ‘What’s this about Putin?’ they demanded, reading his earlier messages with his brother. The phone was smashed.
As night came, his hands were bound behind him, his foot was secured by a rope and yanked up towards the ceiling, so he dangled there by one leg, back touching the ground. The long stress pose pulled his muscles, causing searing pain for a time. While he feels better now, he still can’t walk properly.
“The fear was such…” He trails off.
By morning, combat vehicles were everywhere.
“In front of my eyes, they shot a woman driving her car; she didn’t stop for whatever reason,” he said. “I heard the command ‘don’t shoot’ but it was already too late.’”
Later, a different Russian unit rotated through that no longer felt the need to tie him up. He spent most nights in a basement, where he dragged some blankets and pillows.
Hobbled and afraid of being shot, Petro remained behind in Stoyanka-2. But there was another reason for his reluctance to leave – his two dogs. One of them, a huge, black monster, perhaps even bigger than Iryna’s mastiffs, consented to be led on a leash. The other, a quarrelsome German Shepherd derivative, followed on his own.
The friends couldn’t bring out the dead that day but the changed mission parameters suited them fine.
“It’s always nicer to rescue the living,” the volunteers say.
Nothing is ever easy
Another surprise awaits us at the van. Damn thing won’t start. Walking all the way to the crossing with an old woman and an injured man is not an option.
Fortunately, Andrii found a really nice yellow mountain bike by the side of the road. He rode it to the bridge to secure another vehicle while the rest of us trudged up to the home of that family we saw earlier. They served us coffee, warmed on a wood-fired stove.
I’d interviewed them earlier about why they wouldn’t leave. The answers were noncommittal. One gets the feeling they don’t really know why they hadn’t left by now.
“There’s the chickens, the rabbits,” says one.
“The dog comes up and licks your hands and puts his head on your lap and you’re sorry to leave it all behind,” says another, unable to explain why they couldn’t just leave with the dog.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about humans, it’s that many of us are followers. When the family sees us evacuating Petro and Tetiana, two of their number, a pair of seniors, suddenly have a change of heart.
It’s a story I’ve seen play out many times in the past few weeks. Every other refugee I interviewed had a story about reluctant neighbors reconsidering on the spot, once they saw that someone else was going to brave it.
It doesn’t take long for Andrii to return in the most beat-up old sedan I’d ever clapped eyes on. After a hard time getting Petro’s hellhounds inside the tiny thing, he takes him and Tetiana to the bridge, before coming back. Complaining loudly, the sedan somehow tows the van over to a nearby friend’s house, where a shed full of diesel fuel canisters lies waiting. While Oleksandr digs around, Andrii sets a cardboard box next to me in the front seat.
“Here, try some Russian rations,” he says. “Look, ‘Made in Moscow’.”
The stale crackers that serve in lieu of bread are serviceable enough, as is the bland “ragu” in which I’m invited to dip them. The “pate” tastes like low-grade cat food though, and the less is said of the “cheese,” the better. I think about coming back to feed them to Tetiana’s cats but even animals have standards. Imagine being ordered to attack a country that hates you, fueled by nothing but this.
To my relief, some fuel is all it took for the van to be up and running, though it does nothing for comfort. Part of the driver-side window had been shot out, which the companions euphemistically dub “enforced ventilation.” Doused with freezing wind, they pick up the older couple and take them towards the bridge.
Chekhov and Dostoyevsky
At the bridge, we get a call about two groups of people needing evac, a few from Chekhov Street and one from Dostoevsky Street. We decided to hit Chekhov first, not for any literary merit, it just seemed closer.
The closer we get to the address, the clearer it becomes that the area is still in the Russians’ grasp. The road slopes up ominously, a sniper’s paradise. Andrii serpentines his way in and out of the side streets as we go uphill. We pause on the edge of one intersection. Oleksandr has a bad feeling, reason enough not to go.
All of a sudden, Andrii “wants to try something.”
Before anyone can stop him, he guns the van forward, swerves left onto Chekhov Street, then almost immediately swerves right onto another side street behind a tall apartment building and stops the van. Not a minute later, we hear the incoming whine, followed by a blast somewhere nearby.
“Oh, mortars,” Oleksandr opines. “Haven’t heard those in a while.”
There’s a second incoming whistle, followed by a third. “Are they aiming at us?” I wonder aloud. It’s hard to say. One thing’s for goddamned sure, the folks on Chekhov Street are going to have to wait a little longer for their rescue.
After waiting a little while ourselves, we jump back in the vehicle and swerve back onto our only way out. Simultaneously, the van door slides open, dumping two metallic racks onto the road. Andrii brings the van to a halt.
“Leave them,” Oleksandr says. “Just leave them.”
But Andrii’s already picking them up. “They’re not ours, is the thing. If they were mine…” He shoves them through the window to us.
“Can we go now please?” Oleksandr says.
“Look, I see something,” says Andrii, jumping out of the van once more.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” I say. “Is he doing it on purpose?”
Andrii jumps back inside. “Look, I found some chocolates!” He throws a sealed package of some gourmet snacks on the dashboard.
Andrii floors it and we race down the street, before any mortars or snipers can zero in on our position. It’s time to try Dostoevsky’s abode.
This author’s not as angry, although he does make us pass through a circuitous labyrinth trying to find the right address. Very true to form, I must say. We pick up a woman with golden teeth and her gorgeously fluffy rabbit. Thankfully, this one has a pet carrier.
Back to safety
As sunset bathes Irpin in apricot light, there’s one more rescue I can join the two friends for. An old woman had a stroke and now she can’t stand up. Thankfully, we drove over to her place without much incident.
She lies in the back room, rolled towards the wall. The interior is as frigid as the street outside. All the family members are clad in winter clothing.
They try to gently roll her on her back, as she makes a heartbreaking moan. As they lay out a sturdy blanket to load her up on, her reedy voice pipes up. “Don’t break!” she shouts. “Don’t break!”
It takes four of us to carry her out, each securely grasping one corner of the blanket. A thin white cushion laid over some wooden pallets in the van makes for a poor mattress but it’s the best we’ve got. Her adult daughter joins her, bags already packed for Kyiv.
Ukrainian soldiers stand at the bridge, olive drab stretchers at the ready. The stroke victim will be fine. They carry her off, with her daughter in tow. Unfortunately, the evacuation ends on a sour note, as I end up ripping the handle of the bag I was helping the daughter carry. She’s understandably pissed at me. I know I would be.
With curfew approaching in several hours and deadlines piling up, it’s time for me to go. I shake Oleksandr’s hand, thanking him for letting me come on this journey. He smiles and says he’ll see me later.
And crossing the river and jumping into a refugee vehicle, I head back into fortress Kyiv.
War is always a showcase of the worst that humanity has to offer. The devastation of Kharkiv and Mariupol, the slaughter in Bucha, Irpin and Hostomel, all showed what the Russian army is capable of, especially when commanded by a man with glacial poison flowing in his veins, who would crown himself Emperor of the Rus or order tens of thousands of men to die trying.
But around the broad red strokes of violence and sadism, one can see the little brushstrokes filling the negative space. Strokes of kindness and self-sacrifice, of heroism and loss, of quiet grace and nobility in the face of annihilation. The best that humanity has to offer.
As I ride back to my apartment in Kyiv, it gives me some measure of comfort to have examined this canvas up close. Because it reminds me that through this great sea of blackness, a lit pathway stretches, for most of us to pass through to the other side. And I’m reminded that there will always be people like Oleksandr and Andrii tending to those lights.
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