“You can’t go that way.”
The polite young Ukrainian soldier, his face spotty, scans our passports at one of the many checkpoints along the Zhytomyr highway. “Orcs blew the bridge,” he said, referring to Russian soldiers.
A parlay with our driver, Vadym, soon establishes that the only way to reach Borodyanka, a small town once home to 12,000 in northwest Ukraine and occupied by the Russians until only days earlier, was to travel off-road through a few miles of muddy forest and bumpy cow patches. Vadym was unfazed. He could deftly maneuver his way at breakneck speed through snaking rows of concrete barriers and sandbags designed to impede the advance of incoming tanks within the city limits of Kyiv. Those tanks, thankfully, never came. By the time my night train from Lviv had pulled into the capital’s train station, the Russians had completely withdrawn from Kyiv oblast.
“Not too far!” Vadym shouted when we were halfway through the forest. My party had gotten out to answer nature’s call under the privacy of nature’s canopy. “Mines!”
Borodyanka was once a quaint commuter’s suburb for those working in the capital, about 30 miles to the southeast. Under normal circumstances, you could drive to Kyiv in an hour or so. It took us three owing to the convoys of cars squeezing through narrow roads via dusty villages, well off the major arteries. Most are filled with Ukrainians returning from internal or external displacement to their homes in Kyiv, following the complete withdrawal of Russian forces from the region. Few refugees, however, are likely to return to Borodyanka for the foreseeable future. The town has practically ceased to exist.
On either side of Central Street (formerly Lenin Street) lie charred or collapsed buildings fronted by an ever-lengthening graveyard of armored personnel carriers, transport and fuel trucks, and passenger vehicles. Ruined Russian equipment is conspicuous by the white spray-painted letter “V,” one of several cryptic symbols of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war and believed to be specific to the Russian military districts or units from which they hail. Anything with a whiff of industry, commerce or municipality is damaged or destroyed, including Borodyanka’s police station, a telecom office, the Avenue family restaurant and the Baby Band Shop, a children’s clothier.
After starting in Belarus, the Russians arrived in Borodyanka on Feb. 26 as part of the northeast axis attempting to take Kyiv. They met with fierce resistance from Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces. As has been amply documented in the past seven weeks, what the invaders struggled or failed to accomplish against the defending army they simply took out on civilians, blasting away at anyone and anything trying to escape the horror.
En route I saw a white Ford sedan with a white flag tied to the antenna and “дети” (the Russian word for children) scrawled on either side. The same cautionary word had been painted on either side of the pavement of the Donetsk Regional Drama Theater in besieged Mariupol, the port city in Ukraine’s southeast, which the Russians bombed anyway with a laser-guided munition, killing as many as 300 sheltering in the basement. The Ford met with much the same indifference: There were bullet holes in the windshield and, just a few feet away, I saw the spare tire surrounded by tiny socks with animal caricatures scattered about it. The bodies of the passengers had already been recovered.
In Borodyanka bodies did not line the streets, unlike in nearby Bucha, where corpses with hands tied behind their back and gunshot wounds to the head greeted returning Ukrainian troops, and where still more atrocities are being uncovered. As of this writing, 403 bodies have been recovered in Bucha. Most of the dead in Borodyanka have been buried already: not by their families but by the tonnage of rubble that fell on them when Russian warplanes began rocketing apartment complexes on the morning of March 1.
According to resident Oleksandr Tymoshenko, the aerial assault on his hometown followed a barrage of Russian artillery and tank fire. Oleksandr was hiding with his family in a yellow house behind one of the complexes, along with 40 others. “The first thing we heard was the sound of airplanes overhead,” he said. “It went that way, and then it turned and came back this way. And then it dropped the bomb. The roof was destroyed.” Oleksandr’s tool shed, where I found him clearing out his belongings, was also damaged in the attack.
Rescuers reportedly managed to save around 200 survivors who took refuge for more than two days in the basements and cellars of the targeted buildings. But the Russians in Borodyanka fired at those who tried to remove the wreckage to save more. This is why Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova have said they fear a higher butcher’s bill in Borodyanka than in Bucha.
The middle of one five-story apartment building is now see-through, with only the forward-facing facade of the uppermost story running across, like a catwalk. Another building has been blown in half, what’s left of either side blackened from smoke and soot. Workers from Ukraine’s emergency services were using earth-moving equipment to lift the ruins in a search for bodies.
In the air was what poet W.H. Auden called the “unmentionable odor of death,” but a death as yet underground, hidden from view and perhaps more menacing. Liza, my fixer, was filming a Volvo crane removing a giant slab of wall from the pile when a bit of dust blew into her eyes. “At least I hope it’s dust,” she said.
Central Street pours out into a roundabout with a large park complete with a playground; at its heart stands a monument to Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national poet. I can recall from the earliest days of the war seeing this statue slightly damaged, the pedestal chipped away and crooked, the head seemingly slumped lower on the shoulders than the sculptor intended. A man on a ladder was wrapping a white bandage around Shevchenko’s head, as though the bust were a living casualty of this carnage, too. In a way, it was.
Bullets and missiles have ripped not just through flesh and bone but through the very tissue of Ukraine’s unique history and cultural heritage. “Denazification,” Putin’s initial pretext for what he dubbed a “special military operation,” is now wedded to the very concept of Ukrainianness, according to RIA Novosti, a prominent Russian state-owned press organ. By these lights, every Ukrainian — from 96-year-old Holocaust survivor Borys Romanchenko (killed by a Russian airstrike in Kharkiv) to the retired schoolteacher Auntie Lydie (shot by a Russian outside her front door in Bucha) — is a “Nazi” marked for extermination.
Borodyanka, it bears noting, has no military infrastructure. Russian bombs perforce collapse places where noncombatants work, shop, play and live. That is the point. And it may be why U.S. President Joe Biden has now taken to calling Putin’s war a campaign of genocide.
I asked Venediktova if what she has seen so far meets that admittedly contentious legal definition. “We want to be a state, a nation,” she told me via Zoom. “This is our natural right. We fight for our independence, our freedom. Putin doesn’t like it. He wants to kill us as a nation. As a human, as a citizen, as a state official — this is genocide. But as a prosecutor I have to find all evidence, not just in our jurisdiction, but according to international humanitarian law. There are very high standards of evidence for this.”
Which is why, she said, Ukraine has invited any number of legal and forensic experts from foreign countries to come and see for themselves and collect the evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity for possible use at The Hague.
They could start with the park in the roundabout, assuming it hasn’t been cleaned up.
Scattered around Shevchenko’s monument were the possessions of the missing, blasted yards clean across the street by the force of the explosions. Bloodstained clothes, shoes (mercifully absent dismembered feet), bits of plumbing, a PJ Mask stuffie, a car seat, and dozens of books and papers. I found a certificate of an eighth-grader, Yulia Lapai, for first place at the All-Ukrainian Olympiad for the English language at her school. A notebook belonging to another young girl listed her goals: “To have a very nice income. To be independent in my job. To be slim and fit. To have a good environment of people who are useful and full of life. To have fluent English. To travel.” On another page, her list of gratitudes and pearls of wisdom: “There is no sense in saving money; there is only sense in earning more money.”
Someone had left water and kibble for the strays.
Ownerless dogs have come to visually embody Ukraine’s devastation as much as anything, and Borodyanka was no exception. Three hundred and fifty-five died in shelters during Russia’s occupation and 150 survived, according to UAnimals, a Ukrainian animal rights organization. Half-starved German Shepherds roamed the ghostly streets looking for food. A smaller mutt shot in and out of one of the standing apartment buildings on Central Street, gratefully rolling over on his back to receive a friendly belly scratch before I realized the poor thing was lying in shards of broken glass.
Here I discovered another way of Russian warfare: What is not shot or pulverized is desecrated and defiled. Every apartment in a building we walked through had been looted and ransacked, with the locked doors pried open and barely on their hinges. The one door, on an upper level, that seemed secure was also the one I didn’t want to walk through. “Take care. It’s mined,” stated a ripped-off piece of cardboard in Ukrainian affixed to the handle.
In one apartment, which belonged to a young couple, an emptied lockbox sat on the foyer floor alongside an equally emptied purse. In the bedroom, the closet had been raided, with clothes scattered on the bed. The jewelry box on the wardrobe contained only a few rings. A photo album was emptied of the couple’s wedding photos, which Liza and I collected.
We found a phone number for Mikhail, the groom, from his medical outpatient chart and rang him on our way back to Kyiv. He and his wife had fled Borodyanka before the Russians rolled in. He’s now deployed with the Ukrainian armed forces in the west of the country and seemed grateful that at least some of his captured memories were in safekeeping and would be returned to him. Mikhail professed to be more surprised that the invaders didn’t steal his blender, microwave and pressure cooker than he was that a Russian soldier had shit on his kitchen floor, atop his bathrobe.
Ukrainian morale and fortitude have arguably competed with Javelin and NLAW anti-tank missiles in ensuring the first phase of the war has gone in Kyiv’s favor. So has dark humor.
“Good thing,” Mikhail said, “I’m just a renter.”