One month has passed since Russia launched its "special military operation" on February 24, turning Ukraine into a war zone. On a journey from the Polish border to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, FRANCE 24 met civilians and soldiers suddenly plunged into a brutal and bloody conflict.
Ukraine’s airports have all been closed since the start of the war, so we cross the border from Poland by road on March 11. After the border post at Hrebenne, we come across the first checkpoints where armed Ukrainian civilians monitor the comings and goings of vehicles and sometimes check their identities. There are still 70 kilometers to go to reach the city of Lviv – still untouched by the conflict as we approach. Most Western embassies have withdrawn there.
At the train station of this "cultural capital" of Ukraine, signs reading "free buses to Poland", remnants of the panic scenes of the first week of the conflict, are still visible. In front of the National Opera, families pose for pictures. On the walls, posters encourage citizens to resist the Russian invasion. Alcohol is forbidden and a strict curfew kicks in at 10pm.
From Lviv to Kyiv
On the road to the capital, most petrol stations are stocked with fuel. Trucks and cars are still driving through the centre of the country, the Ukrainian "black soil", the breadbasket of Europe, without any trouble. As we approach Kyiv, we join a road along the Dnieper, the great river that crosses Ukraine from north to south. Here, traffic becomes scarce and checks at the roadblocks are much more stringent, as locals fear infiltration by Russian agents. Any unknown face or vehicle is considered suspicious. We enter the Ukrainian capital. Concrete blocks and anti-tank devices block the highways and deserted avenues.
‘Putin is the devil’
On Sunday March 13, the capital wakes in frozen silence. A few worshippers brave the bitter cold to attend Mass in St Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery. Names and portraits of Ukrainian fighters who have died in Donbas since 2014 cover the walls in places around the building. Metropolitan Epiphanius, primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, tells us he has been praying for those who are being bombed, for those who are in shelters and for the salvation of the country. He repeats that Russian President Vladimir Putin is the incarnation of the "devil" and that this war is nothing more than a "confrontation between good and evil".
Earlier in the morning, Ukrainian authorities announced that a base in Lviv used for joint military exercises between Ukrainian and NATO forces had been bombed overnight. By attacking western Ukraine for the first time, Russian forces are demonstrating that they can target any location in the country.
‘Tomorrow there may be no water or electricity’
On Monday, March 14, in the streets of Kyiv, rare passers-by queue outside pharmacies and the only supermarkets that are still open. We meet Yuri, who is looking over the city from the balcony of his 13th-floor apartment. His wife and daughter have fled to Sweden. Like all men aged 18 to 60, Yuri can be mobilized at any time. He explains that "the war will be long because Putin hates Ukrainians".
In this huge tower in the south of the city, only a few families have remained. According to authorities, almost half of the inhabitants have left Kyiv. In another district of the capital, we come face to face with Edward, a young man with a suitcase in hand and tears in his eyes, who explains that he wants to go to France.
On the threshold of the house he has just left behind, we meet four women waiting for the great catastrophe they believe is mere minutes away: massive bombings or the encirclement of the city by Russian troops. They sleep in the cellar. Natalia, whose partner is fighting in Mariupol with the Ukrainian army, confides feelings of rage but, no less, her certainty that Ukraine will win the war.
‘They are hordes of savages’
In the early hours of Tuesday morning, apartment buildings inside the city's perimeter are hit by Russian air strikes, as they had been the day before. Former world heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko, mayor of Kyiv, arrives at the scene, bullet-proof waistcoat on his back. "It's a difficult and dangerous time," he says as firefighters finish putting out the blaze. Surrounded by journalists and frightened passers-by, the emergency services pull four bodies from the building.
Nearby, several buildings are damaged by a powerful explosion. Windows are shattered and residents are throwing debris, furniture and destroyed door frames out the windows. On the eighth floor, Nina, an elderly lady, has packed her suitcase and is waiting for her son-in-law to collect her from her apartment, which has become uninhabitable.
Born in St. Petersburg and the daughter of a military officer during the Soviet Union, she feels only disgust for Russia. "I hate them, they are hordes of savages. I feel Ukrainian now," she says. Kyiv is under a 36-hour curfew; residents are forbidden to leave their homes, except to reach a shelter.
‘We have tanks, artillery, ammunition’
When Moscow launched its "special operation" in Ukraine, the Russian military immediately tried to storm the Ukrainian capital by seizing Hostomel airport and sending armed elements into the city. The Ukrainian army fought them off with fierce resistance, and for days there was bloody fighting in the municipalities bordering Kyiv – in Irpin in particular, but also in Bucha and Brovary. We head to this area north of the capital on Thursday, March 17.
Our military escort asks us not to take any pictures that could reveal the precise location of the trenches, bunkers and other defense lines we are walking through. On the way, we discover on the side of the road dozens of empty crates of anti-tank missiles, including the US-made Javelins that have become symbols of Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion.
Battle for Kyiv: FRANCE 24 embedded with the Ukrainian army01:52
At the end of the day, Ukrainian authorities accuse Russian troops of having shelled and destroyed the Mariupol theatre, where 500 to 1,200 civilians, including many children, had taken refuge. A week later, the human toll of this attack remains unknown.
‘I rush to get to work’
In Kyiv, the localized explosions have not stopped. But little by little, the inhabitants seem to be getting used to the wait, and to the anxiety. In a supermarket, employees are busy stocking shelves. Among them, Galyna tells us that she "hurries" to work because she has known "her" customers for a long time, they need her and she feels safer at work than at home. In her sixties, she says she has seen it all before and hopes that peace will come.
Access points to the south of the city remain open to traffic and the capital is not suffering from food shortages, except for bread, which is difficult to find.
Business leaders are participating in the war effort in their own way, like entrepreneur Dmytro Tymoshenko, who has converted his industrial paint company into a logistics platform for the fighters.
Since the Maidan revolution in 2014 and the outbreak of war in Donbas, Ukrainian ultranationalist groups have been viewed with suspicion by the West and labelled Nazis by Russia. For Moscow, their existence alone justifies the invasion of Ukraine.
The most famous of these groups, the "Azov Regiment", is integrated into the Ukrainian army and is currently fighting Russian troops in Mariupol. We meet the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (Oun), who we watch training in the woods around Kyiv, guided by Oleg Magdych, a former pastor supervising the unit of young volunteers.
Ukrainian nationalists enlist to defend Kyiv against Russian troopsThe Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), one of several nationalist and far-right groups participating in the country’s defense against the Russian invasion. © Screen grab, FRANCE 2403:22
Blowing up the Kremlin with Tom Cruise
As the weather turns warmer and spring begins to set in, a meeting with a small theatre group quickly turns into a reunion of friends. There is a need to joke and laugh before confronting the tragedy and horror. The Russians are "murdering" the country and it is time for solidarity and combat, until the final victory, say Alex and his 30-year-old friends. The history of the relationship between Ukraine and its invading neighbor is littered with corpses and atrocities, they add, regretting that Europe did not come to see Russia as a mortal threat earlier. Three weeks of war have definitively wiped out any form of pacifism.
On Monday, March 21, the capital wakes up to the images of "Retroville", a brand new shopping centre completely destroyed by a powerful Russian strike. The explosion was heard throughout the city and killed at least eight people, although it is not clear whether the victims were civilians or soldiers. The Russian army claims the fashionable shopping centre was being used as a weapons and ammunition depot.
The Ukrainian capital has been holding its breath for days and it feels now like the threat is getting closer. Before leaving the city, we meet a former member of France's Foreign Legion and a French military nurse who have come to join the Ukrainian army.
Watched by the whole world, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict raises the specter of a third world war. For their part, the inhabitants of Kyiv are preparing for a new 36-hour curfew, torn between the fear of a long, dirty war and the conviction that Ukraine will pull through.
This report was produced from March 11 – 21 2022 with James André, Jonathan Walsh, Oleksii Gordieiev, Natalia Parubocha and all the FRANCE 24 teams. It was adapted from the original in French.