I was in Kiev in October 2019 for a weekend with friends. At that time, Kiev could be reached like any other European capital with three hours by plane with one line discount. I went back with Riccardo Magi from May 4th to 7th with a delegation from United for Ukraine, a network of European parliamentarians, at the invitation of the President of the Ukrainian Parliament, Rada, Ruslan Stefanchuk. The fifteen hours of trains from Poland marked the entrance to another dimension, namely a country at war.
Phones turned off, train windows darkened at night. Departure and arrival times are determined by the risk of bombing. We were advised to carry a backpack as our only bag, containing at least a liter of water, extra phone batteries and food for 24 hours. In Kiev, it was explained to us that there is a curfew from kl. 22:00, the lights go out even in the hotel and you can only move if you have a password that is changed every day.
The train allows a slow access, it is not the impersonal detachment between two worlds sealed by air travel. Ukraine is an agricultural country, gripping in this sweet spring with buds and flowers. By crossing the western part of the country, essentially untouched by the bombing, it seems impossible that anyone has attacked these quiet countries. The people waiting at the stations, the elderly moving between the villages by bike, are the picture of the daily calm of what life could have been like before the war.
Snapshots of normalcy taken from the train window are overlaid with images of the houses destroyed by Putin’s aggression, of civilians executed by the Russians in the streets that fell next to their bicycle, of the massacre of civilians hit by a Russian missile at Kramatorsk station .
This is how it is to enter a country at war, on the border with Europe.
The first phase of mission includes a visit to the sites of the massacres. The residential towns around Kiev, east of the Dnieper River, were occupied in the early days of the war by Chechen troops and Buryat regiments.
Bucha, Borodianka, Irpin. Before the war, those suburbs were selected by young couples from the rising Ukrainian middle class, for their new apartments at a lower price than in Kiev and their green areas. Now they have become synonymous with places of horror all over the world.
In Borodianka, occupied by Kadyrov’s Chechens, lived 14,000 people before the war. Only 1500 people were left to live there at the worst of times. Kyiv’s young deputy mayor Konstayntin Usov tells us how he organized the emergency evacuation of Borodianka in the early hours of the Russian invasion using public transport buses, powered by anyone who could do it. With a request posted on social media within an hour, they had managed to find more than a thousand drivers available to go and rescue the citizens of the suburbs around Kiev. Some volunteer drivers were captured by the Russians along with their passengers. After their release, some of them returned to volunteer for the evacuation. Others, who were too afraid of Russian threats, preferred to let it go.
The evacuation saved many lives. The houses in Borodianka, which were completely bombed, paid the price for the savagery of the Chechens. The main square no longer has an intact house. The Chechens even played target shooting with the statue of the Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko. A disfigurement of the country’s culture that was repeated in other occupied territories, where at least 1,070 schools, dozens of libraries, 617 cultural centers were destroyed, where the Russian army burned books and theaters off.
Bucha, on the other hand, was the most profound horror theater. In the city there were 4 thousand people left to live, whereupon the revenge of the Buryat regiment was unleashed. More than 400 people were killed by the Russian army. In the garden of the city’s Orthodox Church, a mass grave containing 173 bodies of civilians was found, with their hands tied behind their backs and signs of torture in 95% of cases. Including 30 women and two children.
The Ukrainian parliamentarians who accompany us tell us that the Buryat Regiment, which comes from a very poor area of Siberia when it was told it had to retire, unleashed its anger on the people of Bucha, stole from homes, raped and executed civilians.
The Russians have committed war crimes across the country with the systematic intention of suppressing the very idea of a Ukrainian nation. Mass rape, attacks on cultural sites, deportations of the population in the occupied territories are some of the tools used to annul the right of the Ukrainian people to exist as an independent national subjectivity. Russia is repeating patterns from its own bloody past, using the tools of modern warfare that make this rage more destructive. The Ukrainian Rada demands that Western countries recognize the genocide of the Ukrainian people at the hands of Russia. So far, only 4 parliaments have done so. Magic and I will raise the issue in Italy.
The stories of the rapes, compiled in a report by the journalist from Radio Rai Azzurra Meringolo and by Massimo Vasciaveo, are among the most shocking testimonies of Russian war crimes. “The Russians raped the children here at school,” reads the voice of a woman from Hostomel. Sexual violence has become a weapon in the Russian military occupation. The Russians raped women, both male and female children, and older women. They said: “We will rape you until you can no longer bring a new Ukrainian into the world.”
The Attorney General’s Office has so far opened 9,247 investigations into human rights violations and war crimes. As Ukraine is liberated, new horrors are discovered. No one knows what will be discovered in Mariupol, where between 30 and 90 thousand people died. To be useful for litigation, evidence must be gathered within days of the atrocities. There is a short time and there are countless complaints. For this reason, many countries, including Italy, send judges, investigators, psychologists, forensic experts to Ukraine to cooperate with the Ukrainian authorities and the International Criminal Court in this effort. The evidence will be crossed with photographs, videos and wiretapping of Russian Army communications to understand not only who committed the crimes but also who in the army command chain is responsible for giving the order.
It is a testimony and evidence-gathering effort that has never been done in any war before. Ukraine, attacked by Russia for no reason, seeks justice, not revenge. This is also the difference between a democracy and a dictatorship.
Tales of war crimes are superimposed tales of Russian soldiers. They call them ogres, they say they have no food in their country and they come from areas so poor that they have never seen a toilet before arriving in Ukraine. An dehumanization of the enemy, which is inevitable in war, but which also serves to overcome the national trauma of the rift between two peoples so close and close. The Ukrainians do not explain how it was possible that the Russians, with whom there are long-lasting family ties, close relationships in almost every home, have carried out these atrocities without turning a blind eye. The concept is often repeated that Ukraine belongs to the civilized world, and it is suggested that Russia does not.
In the political meetings with Zelensky’s deputy Olga Stefanishyna, the Minister of Justice and Home Affairs, the Deputy Minister of Defense, the President of Parliament, Zelensky’s advisers, the requests were clear and simple: first and foremost weapons, to defend oneself. Help to bring about justice and bring to justice those who committed war crimes, those who ordered them and those who decided to attack. Finally hope. That is, help to rebuild the country and bring Ukraine into the EU. From Italy, Draghi, whose will is recognized for having sided with Ukraine’s accession to the EU, is being asked for extra help: to convince countries that are resistant to this accession, especially in southern Europe.
Our interlocutors are convinced that Ukraine will win, that the eastern part of the country will also be liberated. There is one thing that may not be as clear in Italy as in Kiev. The Ukrainian army pushes the Russians back and recaptures the provinces occupied by the Russian army during the first sixty days of the war.
The Kyiv region, the part of Ukraine northwest of the Dnieper River, are liberated zones. The Ukrainian army managed to defeat the second strongest army in the world. Those who ran away from their homes return and arrange the destruction. The parliament, the government, the citizens of Ukraine are determined to continue to liberate their country and win over those who attacked them. To win simply means to return to live freely by driving the aggressor out of Ukraine.
The Russian Federation changed military tactics to reduce its losses, which were enormous. Attacks with heavy artillery and long-range vessels. That is why Ukraine is asking for other types of weapons to continue to repel the attack. None of the people we have met want to go to war against Russia. They simply want to liberate their land, which is still partially occupied.
The Ukrainian leadership team is a young, serious, talented group with clear goals. They convey a sense of energy and determination. “We are fighting and dying to get into the European Union”, and that is how they give back the feeling of who we are and of our values. That is also why we owe them and their people all possible support and solidarity.