This story contains pictures and descriptions that you will find disturbing.
IRPIN, Ukraine—This suburb northeast of Kyiv has become one of the most fiercely contested and symbolic battlegrounds of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. It was claimed this week that Ukrainian forces had succeeded in vanquishing the invaders after hundreds of civilians were slaughtered in the Russian advance on the capital city.
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 Kyiv on Thursday, a French colleague, myself, and our driver Sasha arrive in Stoyanka, on the western edge of the capital. The place is devastated: A gas station has collapsed under shelling, and burnt-out vehicles are spread on the highway leading to Jytomyr. This is one of the last checkpoints on the road to Irpin.
The exhausted members of the Territorial Defense manning it try to dissuade us from going any farther. “It’s not safe there!” warns Viktor, a twentysomething carrying an AK-74 on a sling. He invites us for coffee in their base, a former Georgian restaurant called Radio Tbilisi. We share a cigarette and discuss our idea of going to Irpin. He disapproves. The whole city has not been declared safe and it remains within range of artillery and rockets.
After weighing the risks, we decide to try our luck nonetheless. “It’s your responsibility,” sighs Viktor, as he shakes our hands.
A winding road through a forest takes us to the entrance of Irpin. As we approach the city, Sasha stops the car. Roughly 500 meters up ahead, a black car bearing a spray-painted white “V” is blocking the road. Its windows seem shattered, its trunk is open. We hesitate. “It could be the Russians,” our driver says warily. About five minutes later, a Ukrainian soldier emerges from the forest. We ask him if it’s safe to progress any farther. He shrugs. “Maybe.” We decide to go for it.
A few miles ahead, we encounter members of Ukraine’s special forces clearing out the city. After a bit of negotiating, their commanding officer, Phil, agrees to show us around the town. “I’ll only be able to take you around the area we’ve cleaned. The rest of the city is not safe,” he said. We set out on foot for a nearby two-story house, where soldiers are taking a break.
Phil barks orders in Ukrainian, and the men start picking up their gear. One of them shows off his Savage sniper rifle with child-like enthusiasm. “It’s American!” he tells us with a smile. Once they’re ready, Phil turns to us: “Have you guys ever seen a body without a head? It’s not pretty.” We’ve been warned that there are four civilians lying dead farther up the road, killed by either shrapnel or snipers. According to the mayor of the town, Oleksandr Markushyn, between 200 and 300 residents of Irpin have been killed since the beginning of Russia’s invasion.
“Let’s go,” says Phil. We snake through alleyways, keeping close to the walls of the houses. Every building in this residential area bears the scars of fighting: The windows are destroyed, the façades riddled with holes from bullets or shrapnel. Around the corner of a house, we come across a bus bearing a red cross that’s been shot at, its windows shattered. Inside, a teddy bear lies face down, covered in dirt. “They shoot at children, the fucking bastards!” a soldier exclaims. On the front seat of the bus, a first-aid kit has been opened, its contents scattered on the floor.
We move farther up the road. As we progress into the city, the rhythmic thud of air defense systems can be heard echoing through the surrounding forest. “It’s ours,” says one of the soldiers with a smile. We are taken through a building site where we encounter the first dead body, a man wearing blue jeans and a blue jacket. “Brace yourselves,” says Phil, as he points toward another body, a hundred meters ahead. It’s a man. His face has rotted away, exposing his skull. A part of the torso is missing. His belongings are scattered all around. Once we’ve received the all-clear from a spotter, we move ahead, covered at all times by a marksman. Behind us, soldiers are keeping watch.
“Watch your feet,” a soldier tells me as we make our way through an open field. “For mines?” I inquire. “Yes, that kind,” as he points toward the dogshit that litters the place. He laughs.
Around 50 yards ahead, the body of a man is rotting away, his ribcage exposed. Another, a woman, lies face-down next to a small crater. Her body has been covered with a jacket. “A mortar killed them,” says Phil. As we stop to take pictures of the scene, one of the soldiers escorting us discovers yet another body behind a nearby fence: It’s a woman in a pink jacket, still clutching her purse. “She’s probably been there for a couple of days,” he says, as he hangs her belongings on a nearby post. To facilitate her identification later, he tells me.
We walk back onto the main road, up to a gray Renault that, we’re told, has been run over by a Russian tank. Thankfully, no one seems to have been inside at the time. A school bag rests against the rear left wheel. That’s as far as we’ll go into Irpin. “The rest of the city is not cleared yet,” says Phil, as he points toward high-rise apartment buildings in the distance. On the way back, the Ukrainian soldiers insist on showing us a car that was supposedly stolen by Russian soldiers trying to flee the city. The car, a white BMW bearing a spray-painted “V” on its doors, is filled with laptops, phones, as well as ammunition. We’re told that the Russians looted the nearby houses on their way out of the city. We ask about the fate of the driver. “He was killed.” Despite our inquiries, we get no further details.
After having been assured over the radio that the way is clear, Phil leads us back to the entrance of the city. As we get into our car, he waves at us and shouts, “Glory to Ukraine!” before heading back toward Irpin.