An armoured personnel carrier of pro-Russian troops drives at a checkpoint in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol. Reuters
Streets of shattered houses and twisted, burnt-out cars; a desolate landscape of rubble, broken glass and acrid black smoke rising from pools of flames. “Welcome to hell,” says the soldier at the checkpoint, pointing to the scene of devastation at Makariv.
There are other towns and cities in Ukraine that have suffered more killed and injured, that have also been the targets of pounding airstrikes and artillery barrages. But as this brutal and unexpected war reached its first monthly anniversary, this town 32 miles from Kyiv has become of great strategic and symbolic significance.
After weeks of fierce fighting, during which districts have changed hands and most of the population has fled, Makariv is now back under Ukrainian control. Russian forces have been driven out of the city, out of many outlying areas and, importantly, away from the main route into Kyiv.
Their failure to take Makariv is a telling blow to the Kremlin’s plan to encircle and capture the Ukrainian capital and enforce regime change, said to be the aim of Vladimir Putin’s 24 February invasion. Russian troops have also failed to break out of Irpin and Hostomel other nearby towns within striking distance of Kyiv, although they appear not to be surrounded as Ukrainian authorities claim.
There have been many lives lost in Makariv since the invasion began. More than 15 workers died when an industrial bakery was shelled; a dozen wounded were freed from under the fallen building. A video has emerged of a Russian armoured carrier apparently opening fire and blowing up a car with an elderly couple inside.
There have been alleged instances of Russian forces opening fire randomly as they drive through. Meanwhile, missile strikes and shelling have continued on Kyiv. Two people were killed in the Podil district on Wednesday, including Oksana Baulina, a Russian journalist who had fled Moscow after a clampdown on Alex Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation where she had worked, and has been reporting on the conflict. She is the seventh journalist killed since the war began.
There is still a Russian military presence in the countryside around Makariv. Rocket-propelled grenades aimed at a Ukrainian position, fired from a field of long grass, flew across the road as we travelled from Yasnagorodka into Makariv. “The Russians are no longer here in any numbers, they are now working in small groups, using things like RPGs [rocket propelled grenades] and machine guns, they can’t get back to the [Makariv] city now, we are cutting them off ,” says a Ukrainian captain as he advised us to take a slightly different route.
At the bottom of the road, Father Roman is clearing up debris at the garden of his church from the day’s stray shelling. I had met him eight days ago after St Michael’s Church was hit by a missile. He has stayed on since then, living in his tiny rectory without electricity or water, despite repeated pleas from his family to leave for a safer place.
He does not want to abandon his few remaining parishioners, mainly elderly people, who depend on him, he says. “The last attack was at 4.20 on Tuesday, it hit quite a few houses, including that blue one over there. But I saw Ukrainian military move up to the city, they gave me some food to distribute to those who are left in this area. Most people are still too nervous to go out much,” he says.
Shelling begins again as Father Roman speaks. “They are outgoing, aren’t they, from the Ukrainian side? I am getting to know a bit about incoming and outgoing ” he muses. “It’s not something I learnt when I was in my seminary studying. I could hear the missile coming in when it hit the blue house for instance, I was thinking it was very lucky that people there have left.” Not much remains of the blue house, about 75 yards from the church.
A patrol station close to it was demolished two days ago. “That could have been really bad,” says Father Roman, “but there was not much fuel left there thankfully, otherwise all the other houses would have blown up and probably the church as well.” Bishiv, a suburb of Makariv further along, has been a particular focus of the Russian onslaught. Almost every single building was damaged and a market purpose-built a year ago along with an arts complex, smashed to bits.
The blast had sent pieces of roofing flying 30 yards to hang from branches of trees from where a flock of blackbirds wheeled over the bomb site. Ivan Yusiovich, the head of the 16 districts in Makariv’s rural council, was holding an evening meeting of the emergency committee when the first wave of missiles came in. The blast threw him out of his chair across the room. “The noise was incredibly loud and the windows exploded, there was smoke and dust everywhere.
I could feel blood on my face, and knew I was injured – but did not know how badly,” he says. The stairwell outside his office is smeared with bloodstains from his wounds. With shelling continuing, Yusiovich spent the next three nights, swathed in bandages in an underground shelter. He insisted that the first ambulances which could eventually get into the area should take those more seriously injured to before going for treatment himself.
The doctors told him that he needed immediate surgery. He had arrived to survey the damage after a week at the hospital. “We feel that our building was targeted, they seem to have been targeting all government buildings in the Makariv region; they were trying to paralyse all forms of administration,” says Yusiovich. “And, of course, when they target government buildings, there are casualties among civilians.” Officials say they are still trying to establish the exact numbers of killed and injured from the attack.
One man was decapitated as he was sitting in his parked car outside the municipal offices. The occupants of another were severely burnt. The charred remains of both the vehicles still lay there emanating a stench of blood and gore. Around 550 pupils from Makariv’s suburbs attended the school in Bishiv. That, too, has been wrecked. The children were now getting remote lessons.
The internet tower was bombed, but an alternative source of connectivity has been found. “We’ll rebuild the school as soon as possible, that is our priority, education is essential in rebuilding our country”, says Mr Yusiovich. It is not certain that the market would be rebuilt anytime soon. Sergei Kalinduk, who owned some of the stores, had invested 2 million hryvnias – around £52,000 – into the project.
Outside the one shop left standing, he speaks of his loss, but also his hopes for the future. “We wanted it to be a modern place, modern European, there are lot of towns here with people who worked in Kyiv and this was mean to attract them,” he says. “Now the market has gone and half the people have gone from Kyiv and these areas.
But maybe things are changing, getting back Makariv from the Russians is a very good sign that we are beginning to win. If our troops can keep pushing them back then more people may move back to Kyiv.” Others hope they no longer see Russian troops and armoured columns moving through their neighbourhoods, bringing destruction. Anna Omelchenko was on her way to see what was left of the family home along a road that saw prolonged clashes.
“They were firing at any movement they saw,” she recounts. “The outside of our house is full of bullet holes. We would have been shot if we had stayed for more than a minute at a window. My husband and I left with our three children when there was a break in the shooting. We didn’t take anything with us. We’ll wait a few days to make sure that the Russians aren’t coming back before deciding whether to get back or not.” Ludmilla and Volodymyr Demetresko had moved from Kyiv with their seven cats to be with relations at a nearby village.
“There has been fighting going on here, that’s true,” says Ms Demetresko. “But we still feel it is safer than Kyiv. We think Putin is really angry he’s not doing well, so we fear what he may do to Kyiv. But now we must push all Russian invaders out of our land, nothing else is acceptable. It may take a long time, but we can do it.” Ukrainian troops who had been taking part in the battle for Makariv speak of how, after a while, they had been able to anticipate Russian moves and counter them.
“I think we had good intelligence, maybe our own, maybe from our foreign allies, I do not know the secrets," observes Taras Derkach, a fighter with a volunteer battalion. “But we have carried out some good ambushes. The Russians did not always have supporting fire or air support when they came forward. They did not stay long [in firefights] at the end, their morale was probably low.
But we are keeping alert, we are not getting too relaxed, this is a dangerous area.” One of the soldiers, Nicolai, says how lucky he is to be alive. He was meant to be at a checkpoint beside St Michael’s when the church, along with other buildings, was hit. “But my shift was changed at the last minute and that’s what saved me,” he says. “Five people died that day very near where I was meant to be.” But, on a warm spring day of blue skies and sunshine, with Makariv for the time being at least under their control, the soldiers seem a little less tense than before.
At one base they invite me and my Ukrainian colleagues, Demien and Ivan, to lunch. “It’s all fresh food, we cooked it ourselves,” says Nerses Yesayan as he serves a spicy soup, meatballs with potatoes and pickles and blinis with cheese. “We are thinking of opening up a restaurant when tourists come back after the war, we’ll call it the Frontline Cafe perhaps," says his companion, Sergei Grogoriev.
The blinis were for a delayed commemoration of Forty Martyrs Day, one of a number of religious events in the Orthodox Church leading up to Easter. Father Roman is considering how Easter will be celebrated at St Michael’s. “The service will have to be held outside, I think, we won’t have the church cleared up and made ready in time,” he says. “I am hoping that people who have left would start coming back to their homes now that Makariv has been retaken. Easter is a time of rebirth of course, it will be a good time to get our community back together and start again.”
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