There are dozens of Ukrainian faces seared into my brain: the woman who saw her son-in-law shot on the street but couldn’t move his body because she’d suffer the same fate; the people who had to bury strangers’ children; the mothers sitting outside the surgery theatre waiting to find out if their wounded children would live; the four-year-old Mariupol girl too traumatised to speak.
And then there are the faces of those whose stories are too morbid to tell.
I learned to emotionally distance myself from the stories I covered when I became a crime reporter at The West Australian. But when I travelled to Ukraine to document the war — the story was literally too close to home.
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I was born and grew up in Lviv, a cobblestone-clad city in western Ukraine, often described as the country’s culture capital.
Just before I turned 10, my parents moved to the UK and I eventually migrated to Australia. But every other year I’d return home to see my relatives, fill up on borscht (beetroot soup) and briefly cure my childhood nostalgia.
On February 24, I broke the news to my family that war was on their doorstep. Like the rest of the world I was glued to the screen in disbelief, watching as Russia set my country alight.
While Western leaders warned of the Russian invasion, no one anticipated the horror that unfolded in Ukraine in the weeks and months that followed.
Likewise, no one expected the resistance and resilience shown by Ukrainians during these agonising days.
I wanted to cover the war in Ukraine before I even enrolled to study journalism. Many have forgotten but it started after the Revolution of Dignity in Kyiv’s Maidan eight years ago. We’ve been fighting on the front lines in Donbas ever since.
So after February 24, I could no longer sit at my desk and I took all my leave to go home.
On March 16, I crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border with two aims: to document Russia’s war crimes and to capture the quintessential character of Ukraine — the reason why I knew we could not lose.
How Putin’s invasion turned Ukraine into a ‘bee hive’
“Right now, we’re a big bee hive,” Irina, told me after she slotted the last box of supplies into a jam-packed mini-van for her husband to transport to the front line.
“We’ve flown all over the country and we’re working (non-stop) to provide for our Ukraine.”
We were in a small village hugged by the forest just outside of Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in south-west Ukraine.
One of my father’s friends, who served in Donbas, lived there with his wife. The pair turned their rural household into a vet rehab centre. A slice of quiet countryside to help heal their post-traumatic stress disorder.
When Putin launched his “special operation” — to quote the Russian propaganda — they went right back to their trenches. The household transformed into a small depot for military aid and a shelter for displaced Ukrainians from the east. Together with half a dozen other volunteers from the village, including Irina, they set up an operation to feed, dress and support the army.
Every day, they received a truck of donated food and medicine, which they would sort and repack into boxes and load into cars of other volunteers. Those people would then risk their lives and transport these supplies to hotspots around the country. The grandfather of the household spent his days making seat pads for soldiers out of gym mats. The grandmother made camouflage nets and fed the whole team including the four dogs, and seven cats that lived with them.
It was a remarkably well-oiled operation and one of thousands of self-organised initiatives in the western corners of the country. Restaurants, schools, theatres and other community buildings turned into depots or temporary homes for refugees.
All resources went to help those who lost everything in the war or risked everything to win it.
“If they (the Ukrainian army) don’t have anywhere to sleep or anything to eat — we soon won’t either,” Irina told me with burning determination.
“Every person is doing everything they can. Everything at the moment goes towards protecting our land.”
Suburbs reduced to smouldering ruins
I went to Kyiv several days after the Russians had retreated from the city and the occupied towns around it had been liberated.
It was a small win for Ukraine.
But it also uncovered grave war crimes perpetrated by the Russian soldiers.
Irpin’s suburbs, usually blossoming at this time of year, were reduced to blood-stained, smouldering ruins.
It was hard to believe that the apocalyptic town we entered looked more grim days earlier.
“It took us a long time to get (dead) bodies off the street,” Dyma, who was clearing rubble off the street with a wheelbarrow, told me.
“We had 14 on our street alone.”
He said he helped collect more than half a tonne of shell remains that rained on the town in the past month.
Civilians who fled from Irpin were not yet allowed to return, as the army was still clearing landmines and other explosives left by the Russians before they retreated.
But the father-of-two reassured us he knew where every mine was when showing us around.
Dyma and his family were among the residents that were unable to evacuate and hid in their basements for more than a month with no electricity, water or gas.
He showed me the makeshift stove he built out of bricks outside his apartment building.
It was there that he spotted a pair of Russians during the occupation.
Having seen people executed in the streets and with his family hiding in the basement, Dyma made a split-second decision to approach them with a bottle of vodka.
“I poured them 50 millilitres — a good amount — like they do in Odesa,” he told me.
“(They) chased it with a bite of apple. We stood there for about 10 minutes, had a smoke. I poured them another 50 millilitres.”
Another 10 minutes passed, and one of the Russians started to put his arm around Dyma.
“They relaxed,” he said.
“We drank for the third time and in that state I asked them if they had more cigarettes. That’s when they invited me back to their base.”
Dyma counted the number of soldiers inside, took note of their weapons and memorised their location. He later passed on those coordinates to the Ukrainian army, along with the nine packs of cigarettes the Russians gave him. Two days later, their base was blown up.
Locals ‘not allowed to bury dead’ after Bucha massacre
Five kilometres north of Irpin, Bucha fared far worse.
The bridge between the two towns was blown up by Ukrainian troops to stop Russian advances towards Kyiv.
I remember watching the news footage of people trodding through the river and concaved concrete under a blanket of snow.
The desperation on their faces as they fled from the terror behind flashed through my mind when I saw the site — now silent and still.
Several days after the invasion, the Ukrainian forces managed to ambush and blow up a convoy of Russian armoured vehicles as they entered Bucha.
The trail of burned-out tanks and chunks of scattered smouldering machinery stretched for about a kilometre, blocking the way for another 40-odd-mile long convoy heading for Kyiv.
The operation seemed successful at first but it came at a cost. The angered Russians were trapped in Bucha.
And they took it out on the innocent locals.
What happened in the following month became known as the Bucha massacre. The murder of more than 400 men, women and children.
“Ask anyone on this street, there was a body in front of every other house,” a woman carrying a shopping bag in one hand and holding a walking stick in the other told me as she walked past an incinerated Russian tank.
It was her birthday, she just turned 68, and she was worried she would not be able to find the body of her executed son-in-law. Locals were not allowed to bury the dead for days. And when they did, it would be in their front yards or the mass grave dug out at the back of their local church.
We passed another couple of burned-out tanks and two children playing with bullet casings, while other press interviewed their mum.
Most people in town recounted the hell they lived through with vacant expressions and weary eyes, long drained of emotion. Some sobbed. Others were oddly nonchalant.
But I was taken aback by the vigour in the voice of one grandmother when she recollected her interaction with Russian soldiers after they burst into her home one day.
She lived in a village on the outskirts of Bucha and said they had been going from house to house looking for three things: to kill men in camouflage, loot or rape young women and girls.
“He asked me why I was still here, why I did not flee,” the woman said, sitting beside a pan of perogis frying on an outdoor stove.
“I tapped my foot on the ground and told him ‘because I’m on my land, why haven’t you left yet?’”
Throughout the occupation, the stalwart and village matriarch fed her whole street. And after we finished talking, she did not let us leave without trying her potato perogis first.
Message from the people of Ukraine
Unlike other foreign media in Ukraine, I had no entourage of hired translators, fixers, drivers or guards.
I travelled without a plan or an itinerary and I relied on my family’s contacts and those contacts’ friends. I would hop on a train to a city I’d never been to before and get picked up by a stranger that I met on the phone a day earlier.
But I spoke the language, knew the culture and felt oddly comfortable “working” this way.
Every person in every spot I visited wanted to help. Be it a seat at their dinner table that night, a place to stay or a ride to the next town. The only thing they asked in return was for me to pass on a message.
They wanted people to know and they wanted people to help.
We may lack the tools to defeat Russia, but we certainly don’t lack in drive to fuel our fight.
There is a duality in Ukraine’s national identity. It embodies the overwhelming kindness, warmth and hospitality of its people, as well as their fierce and unyielding force to be reckoned with.
It’s something Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, did not count on when he decided to invade Ukraine.
He believed the very lie he sold to his people — that we were not a real nation.
But he strengthened the very thing he set out to diminish.
My Ukraine, an exclusive documentary produced by the studios of The West Australian, is a first-hand account from the middle of a war zone.
The West Australian’s journalist, Daryna Zadvirna, returns to her homeland during the Russian invasion, risking her life to capture untold stories.
Zadvirna speaks to those who remain as they share devastating stories of loss and harrowing encounters, along with inspirational tales of bravery, humour and hopes for the future.
Watch now in the video player at the top of this page.