This story contains pictures and descriptions that you will find disturbing.
IRPIN, Ukraine — This suburb northeast of Kiev has become one of the most fiercely contested and symbolic battlefields in Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. It was claimed this week that Ukrainian forces had succeeded in defeating the attackers after hundreds of civilians were slaughtered in the Russian advance towards the capital.
A few days after the mayor announced that Irpin had been liberated, we set out to see for ourselves.
After a 20-minute drive from Kiev on Thursday, a French colleague, me and our driver Sasha, arrives in Stoyanka, on the western outskirts of the capital. The place is destroyed: A petrol station has collapsed during shelling, burnt-out vehicles are scattered on the motorway leading to Jytomyr. This is one of the last checkpoints on the way to Irpin.
The exhausted members of the territorial defense manning it are trying to keep us from going any further. “It’s not safe there!” warns Viktor, a thief carrying an AK-74 on a sling. He invites us for a cup of coffee at their base, a former Georgian restaurant called Radio Tbilisi. We share a cigarette and discuss our idea of going to Irpin. He rejects. The whole city is not declared safe and it remains within reach of artillery and rockets.
After weighing the risks, we still decide to try our luck. “It’s your responsibility,” Viktor sighs as he shakes our hand.
A winding road through a forest leads us to the entrance to Irpin. As we approach the city, Sasha stops the car. About 500 meters ahead, a black car with a spray-painted white “V” blocks the road. Its windows seem broken, its trunk is open. We hesitate. “It could be the Russians,” our driver says wearily. About five minutes later, a Ukrainian soldier emerges from the forest. We ask him if it is safe to move on. He shrugs. “Maybe.” We decide to go for it.
A few kilometers ahead, we encounter members of Ukraine’s special forces clearing the city. After some negotiation, their commander, Phil, agrees to show us around town. “I can only take you around the area we have cleared. The rest of the city is not safe,” he said. We set off on foot towards a nearby two-story house where soldiers are taking a break.
Phil barks orders in Ukrainian and the men start picking up their equipment. One of them shows off his Savage sniper rifle with childlike enthusiasm. “It’s American!” he tells us with a smile. When they are ready, Phil turns to us: “Have you ever seen a headless body? It’s not pretty.” We have been warned that four civilians lying dead further up the road have been killed by either grenades or snipers, and according to the city’s mayor, Oleksandr Markushyn, between 200 and 300 Irpin residents have been killed since the beginning of Russia’s. invasion.
“Let’s go,” Phil says. We snake our way through alleys and stay close to the walls of the houses. Every building in this residential area bears the scars of fighting: the windows are broken, the facades are filled with holes from bullets or shrapnel. Around the corner of a house we come across a bus with a red cross that has been shot at, the windows shattered. Inside is a teddy bear face down, covered in dirt. “They shoot at kids, they fuck bastards!” exclaims a soldier. On the front seat of the bus, a first aid kit has been opened, its contents scattered on the floor.
We move further up the road. As we move into the city, the rhythmic down from air defense systems can be heard echoing through the surrounding forest. “It’s ours,” says one of the soldiers with a smile. We are led through a construction site where we encounter the first dead body, a man wearing blue jeans and a blue jacket. “Sit down,” Phil says, pointing to another body, a hundred yards ahead. It is a man. His face has rotted away and exposed his skull. Part of the torso is missing. His belongings are scattered all around. Once we have received the clarity from a spotter, we move on, constantly covered by a shooter. Behind us, soldiers stand guard.
“Take care of your feet, ”a soldier tells me as we walk through an open field. “To mines?” I’m asking. “Yeah, that kind,” as he points to the dog shit splashing the place. He laughs.
About 50 yards in front, the body of a man rots, his chest bare. Another, a woman, is lying face down next to a small crater. Her body has been covered by a jacket. “A mortar killed them,” Phil says. As we stop to take pictures of the scene, one of the soldiers escorting us discovers another corpse behind a nearby fence: It is a woman in a pink jacket still holding on to her purse. “She’s probably been there for a few days,” he says, hanging her belongings on a nearby post. To facilitate her identification later, he tells me.
We go back on the main road, up to a gray Renault, which, we are told, has been run over by a Russian tank. Luckily, no one seems to have been inside at the time. A school bag rests against the left rear wheel. That’s as far as we want to go into Irpin. “The rest of the city is not cleared yet,” Phil says, pointing to high-rise buildings in the distance. On the way back, the Ukrainian soldiers insist on showing us a car that was allegedly stolen by Russian soldiers trying to escape from the city. The car, a white BMW with a spray-painted “V” on the doors, is filled with laptops, telephones and ammunition. We are told that the Russians looted the nearby houses on their way out of town. We ask about the fate of the driver. “He was killed.” Despite our inquiries, we receive no further details.
After being assured over the radio that the road is clear, Phil leads us back to the entrance to the city. As we step into our car, he waves to us and shouts “Glory to Ukraine!” before heading back towards Irpin.