Deadline day in Irpin

April 14, 2023
This essay is written by Ukrainian warrior Serhii Mishchenko. Age: 45 years. Code name: Yar.
Photo credit: Shutterstock, Serhii Mishchenko

Deadline* day in Irpin

*It is a common superstition in the Ukrainian military to use the word ‘latest’ instead of ‘last’, as it is thought the ‘last’ things only happen once: at the end of life.

The battles in Irpin came to an end. I had known this green town in the Kyiv outskirts even before the war. It is here that three of my brethren-in-arms had been buried since the seemingly distant war began in 2014 -- the one that our society was trying to not call a war; that it tried to leave unnoticed amidst the everyday fuss; that burst out with new vigor in the February of 2022.

Today is the last day of March and the Russian occupiers are fleeing.

The town has no communications, no power, gas, or water supply.

Shattered ransacked shops. Here and there -- burnt Russian military equipment in the streets. Plenty of trip wires and anti-personnel mines in the parks.

Our observation points are located in a new residential area. It has a dozen battle-damaged 5-storey blocks of flats that, only a month ago, were prestigious new homes. Charred rooftops and upper-floor apartments, walls smashed by tankfire.

There's not a single door left in the entire area. The Russian invaders didn't skip a single locked door. Every single one was smashed with a sledgehammer. It must have been tedious work: going door to door, floor to floor, breaking open hundreds of locked doors. Whenever a door was too strong, the orcs would break an opening through the wall.

The apartments were trashed. The floors in every room were littered with remnants from Russian dry rations, home-canned foods, the clothes of the homeowners and bed linens. They didn't even spare the children's rooms.

They weren't trying to find anything of value, they were just destroying. 

Whatever they couldn't take with them was destroyed, broken, and smashed. There's not even a single surviving TV. Every screen has been broken by the orcs' rifle stocks.

The systematic vandalism and marauding is stunning.

Orc lifehack: if you need to drain petrol from cars in the car park, you don't need to mess with hoses or try to outwit the modern systems. Instead, just flip the car onto its side and punch a hole in the tank.

The Russian army tortured and killed many civilians here. The temporary cemetery is close by: next to the playground.

The city is battered and burned, but  beaten, charred, but unconquered. We stopped the invasion here. We gave a worthy defense and threw the invaders back. Afraid of being surrounded, the orc horde retreated from the capital.

We're packing up, too. The Kyiv Territorial Defense units are already taking up our positions, and my unit is getting a much-needed couple of days of rest at our base.

Almost everything is packed, there's just one piece of unfinished business -- the driver's license we found in the yard by the fence. One of the locals must have lost it amid the evacuation hustle.

It's quiet now, so the fires set up in the courtyards are rather crowded: the locals who stayed behind remaining are cooking hot meals and boiling tea. Yesterday the local dogs were huddling together near the soldiers; today they're attacking each other, each defending his exclusive right to a particular person, ignoring anyone else. 

Bella, a white dog with black spots and a hole in her ear from a mortar fragment, staked her claim on me first thing in the morning. She greets me at the door, fawning over me, rubbing against my legs, demanding attention, and growling at the other dogs, who just yesterday were the companions with whom she shared a bowl under enemy fire.

"Come on Bella, be a good girl, I've never had a bitch fight for me like this."

Near the entrance, I notice the constant cook and guardian of the fire. Regardless of the intensity of fighting and the fickle March weather, she always has a fire going and the smoky kettles are always full of boiling water. Hot morning coffee or evening tea have now become a traditional ceremony for the fighters.

"Baba Liuba, we found a driver license here in the bushes. Maybe one of the locals lost it? You can take it and return it to him when he gets back."

I hand her the license. The old lady looks at the face on the license for a long time, holding it in her hands. I'm about to move on, but I'm stopped by her first words.

"Oh... So his name was Volodia (friendly form of the name Volodymyr)? I saw it all."

Her trembling fingers are carefully wiping off the photo, or maybe just stroking it.

"I left tulips for him yesterday under his balcony... Dear Volodia..."

"When those beasts came, they forced him out of the basement, tied his arms and legs, beat him for a long time, and I saw it all.. Volodia..."

Maybe it only seemed to me, but the cheerful sounds of the yard seemed to disappear. Even the light breeze swaying in the pine branches beyond the fence stopped.

"It was a long time... First, there were four people kicking him, then two more came. And when they got tired of kicking him they just left him tied up under the balcony. He just had a T-shirt and sweatpants, and it was snowing and freezing cold."

Baba Liuba wiped a single tear from her face without taking her eyes off the license.

"It's a good picture."

"He lay there all day, about six hours. And I was watching, I saw the whole thing... Volodia... And right over there one of those beasts was standing and keeping watch so that no one could get close.

Then, their officer came, took a look without saying a word, then shot him and kept walking...  I saw it all."

"He was young, Volodia. Now, I bring him flowers. Later, I asked the boys from the basement to bury him. And I asked the Russians to let us do that. For a week they didn't let us, then it started getting warmer and they they took mercy on me, an old woman, and said we could bury him."

"Dear Volodia... We buried him over there beside the forest."

I look at the clear sky over Irpin while I'm listening, because I can't look her in the eyes. This old woman has become so dear to us in these few days and for some reason I feel ashamed. So we held out ground, we liberated it, but we didn't protect the people.

"All right boys, I'm going now," the old woman suddenly says, cutting off her monologue. "I'm not going to bore you with my stories. You have your own work to do. He was lying just about here. We'll need to make a marker for the grave. I'll ask Maria from the third entryway to do it. She's a teacher. She's making markers for all of our people, she makes them nice... Volodia..."

"Come by for tea or coffee. I've already boild the kettle. What am I going to do with you? You don't eat a thing."

We're packing up.

Today is a good day.

I'm alive.

This essay is made possible by the support of IREX Veteran Reintegration Program. The contents are the “sole responsibility of Recipient” and do not necessarily reflect the views of IREX.