The town that defied Vladimir Putin’s blitzkrieg: RICHARD PENDLEBURY reports from the ground zero of Russia’s failed attack on Kyiv
Perhaps the first missile of this whole, disastrous, conflict struck the airport at Hostomel a little after 6am. ‘I was having a cup of coffee in my sitting room at the time,’ says 78-year-old Helena. ‘I almost jumped out of my chair!’
Constantin is a security guard at the facility. Having just come off shift, he was lost in a deep sleep. ‘Then my wife began shaking me awake,’ he recalls. ‘She was shouting, “Get up! Get up! There are explosions. Something is happening!”’
We are at ground zero of Putin’s failed blitzkrieg against Kyiv. This is where the balconies of the crumbling Soviet residential blocks provided a front-row seat to Armageddon. It was here, against the airfield of the Antonov aircraft manufacturing company, on the morning of February 24, that the Russian military launched a helicopter-borne infantry assault.
The intention was to link up these crack troops with armoured columns that had crossed the frontier from Belarus and so capture the Ukrainian capital – 15 miles away – within 48 hours.
You can see spray-painted graffiti left by the then confident invaders on a wall of one of Hostomel’s shattered housing estates. One message reads – in Russian – ‘Wolves’ and the date: ‘05.03.2022.’ Another on a garage door boasts: ‘The Truth is Ours.’ But the wolves have now slunk back to Belarus. And the truth about what Russia did here and in neighbouring Bucha is an affront to humanity.
The Ukrainian town of Hostomel outside Kyiv, where Russians first landed at the end of February, intending to take the capital within three days. Pictured: A resident has been buried outside his house
After initial setbacks, Ukraine troops managed to contain Russian airborne forces in Hostomel. There followed weeks of artillery exchanges, causing columns of smoke to sit on Kyiv’s north-western horizon. Under this fug, several hundred if not a thousand citizens were living a subterranean existence.
On a day of steady rain we go to Hostomel. Along the way we pass innumerable battle wrecks, including a blue Ford Mustang sports car. It appears to have been used for target practice by a Russian infantry battalion.
Hostomel’s citizens have emerged from their basements. They demonstrate both resilience and community spirit.
But there is evidence of the grave impact, physical and psychological, caused by what they have undergone. The older women are also able to provide a fascinating insight into the mindset of the ordinary Russian soldiery with whom they conversed during the month-long occupation. Some of the invaders did not even know which country they were fighting in, they say.
Not everyone survived, of course. On the grass verge along Sviato-Pokrovska Street, under a sycamore tree ripped by shellfire, is a mound of earth and a wooden cross with the handwritten name ‘Valeri Korotin’. Mr Korotin was either executed by Russians for lighting a prohibited fire or died of natural causes during the fighting, depending on whom we speak to.
On a day of steady rain we go to Hostomel. Along the way we pass innumerable battle wrecks, including a blue Ford Mustang sports car. It appears to have been used for target practice by a Russian infantry battalion
It is impossible to clarify other than the forced indignity of his resting place. This is known as the glass factory district because of the Swiss-owned bottle plant, now a ruined hulk thanks to Russian air strikes. Sviato-Pokrovska Street was a front line before Ukrainian troops were driven out of Hostomel in the first days of March.
Sergei worked at the plant and watched the opening battle of the war unfold from his balcony.
‘There were two Russian attack helicopters over our district and I saw one of them hit by a ground-launched missile,’ he recalls. ‘The helicopter went down and fired off one of its own rockets before it disappeared from view.’
He said Russian soldiers demanded mobile phones be confiscated or smashed. They examined his hands for marks that showed he had been firing a rifle.
Kindergarten teacher Roksana at first refused to believe ‘catastrophe was around the corner’. She had even set off for work in nearby Irpin on the day of the invasion.
‘But by the time I got [halfway] it was clear that something was wrong,’ she says. ‘I got off the bus and walked back home. There were civilian cars coming down the road at incredibly high speed, heading for Kyiv. Everyone was panicking.’ She adds: ‘Later that day and the next I saw the helicopters arriving, about 20 of them. Russian. Within two days, power and water was cut off.’
We find a group of older women sitting outside an apartment block. All the windows are shattered, the grass covered with glass and two months of uncollected domestic waste is piled nearby. As we speak, the women alternately laugh and cry. ‘I’m sorry if we don’t make much sense,’ says Larisa (Pictured), ‘We are still in shock.’
We find a group of older women sitting outside an apartment block. All the windows are shattered, the grass covered with glass and two months of uncollected domestic waste is piled nearby.
As we speak, the women alternately laugh and cry. ‘I’m sorry if we don’t make much sense,’ says Larisa. ‘We are still in shock.’
They are waiting for Viktor to make their lunch on a wood-fired ‘field kitchen’ stove in the yard.
Viktor has done this since the start of the war, chopping wood and scavenging potatoes and other provisions from abandoned houses, to feed the residents.
Mostly he makes soup. Halyna is 84 and can remember being evacuated as a child from Hostomel during the Second World War. She was not afraid to talk to the invaders. What they told her was instructive.
‘One of the first Russians who came said, “do not be afraid, we have come for Zelensky. He is about to give up. We’re going to Kyiv”.
‘My house looks towards the airport. I saw one huge green helicopter and then two more above my house. They fired four rockets.’ Her voice trembles. ‘Later I spoke to another Russian guy who said that he had fought in Donbas and before that in Syria.
‘He said Syria was like a holiday for them compared to Hostomel. He also said they had come to liberate us from Zelensky. I told him, “First liberate your country from Putin”.’ She remembers a conversation her mother had with a German soldier when she was a child. ‘He told my mum, “We don’t want to fight here. It’s the business of Stalin and Hitler”.’
It was here, against the airfield of the Antonov aircraft manufacturing company, on the morning of February 24, that the Russian military launched a helicopter-borne infantry assault
Valentina says: ‘The young guys were telling us they didn’t want to fight. They had just been sent to Belarus for drills. They asked us, “Where are we right now? Are we still in Belarus?”’
The women show me the basement where they slept, with a parrot and a hamster.
Veronica says: ‘We are terrified the Russians will come back and do it all again.’
The police are conducting door-to-door searches and recording interviews with residents who remain.
It is a crime scene. But it is nothing compared to the devastated residential estate in the airport perimeter.
Nothing has survived intact. Trees, allotments, garages and playgrounds are ruined. Apartment blocks have been torn open, ignited and collapsed by air strikes and heavy artillery. There is the smell of decayed flesh.
It is a dead neighbourhood where once perhaps a couple of thousand people lived.
On the first day of the war Constantin filmed Russian helicopters flying low past his balcony, spitting flares to decoy heat-seeking missiles.
Now he has returned to find his apartment trashed by the recent occupiers.
Helena has also come back. But her block is a charred ruin. Only the walls remain.
She was born in Russia and her husband served in the Soviet army. ‘I never thought there would be a war,’ she tells me. ‘Still less that it would begin outside my window. It’s horrible, madness.’
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