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Letters from Ukraine: 05/04/22 to 09/04/22 – Remains

In a sequence of dispatches dating from 5–9 April, George Gittoes recounts his travels with Hellen Rose and their crew out from Kyiv, to document the damage done by Russian forces and the Ukrainian community's response.

BORODYANKA

On Tuesday we followed a convoy of animal rescue ambulances and trucks to a pet shelter in Borodyanka. 

The dog rescue team has several very well-equipped animal ambulances: two white and three red with silhouette profiles of a dog and a cat superimposed under the name “STAR.” The lead vehicle is a large red truck – when it stopped the two guys that got out were obviously well-trained military veterans. Tom, the younger one, is movie-star handsome, a cross between Brad Pitt and Chris Hemsworth with blond hair and an athlete’s physique. From his casual walk, Tom had to be former special forces. As we watched from our car, he turned his back to view and pissed on the front tire of the truck.

The shelter had been collecting family pets that had been left behind or had their owners killed. The Russians came to the shelter and shot or frightened off the shelter workers. The dogs were left over twenty days without food or water. Those outside got rainwater, but many left inside died of thirst. Some large dogs ate the smaller ones. It was going into a dog hell. For a moment, I felt I was re-entering Abu Ghraib in Baghdad where wild dogs and wolves dug out the shallow graves and were eating the last prisoners executed, on Saddam’s orders.

Tom is the founder of STAR. He gives calm, precise orders with accent of Paul McCartney. Like the Beatles, he is from Liverpool. Some of the larger dogs, especially those that had turned cannibal, were viewed as too vicious to handle and it was suggested that heavy tranquilisers were needed. Tom refused, on the basis that they were in such bad condition that this could kill them. He and his mate took it on themselves to subdue these dogs and get them into the transport cages.  I followed close behind them with my camera, and helped as much as possible. The community kennels were like long boxes with a very heavy lid. I found myself holding the lid up with my head, painfully, while filming as Tom and his mate wrestled with the dog, getting a blanket over it and then trying to tie its mouth shut without hurting the animal. I was impressed by their skill and the caring way they took to this risky task. They did not have gloves or protection for their arms to absorb savage bites. In the process we bonded. Tom read my body language the way I had his. 

While coaxing a dog into a cage, Tom told me how he had served in Helmand Province in Afghanistan. I naively asked if he was a dog handler there and he said, “No, but we had dogs accompany us on all patrols.” I know what those patrols were like. Afghans fear and do not befriend dogs. The dogs were part of the intimidation of the villagers.

There were remains of smaller dogs that had been torn to pieces and eaten. My journalist instinct was filming this as a good news story which animal lovers around the world would find comfort and I decided to avoid showing any sign of the cannibalism. But Tom turned to me with the lower jawbone of a dog in his hand and said, “You need to film this!” I disagreed and switched my video record button off, saying, “This is a good news story Tom – I do not want this part told.” Tom was instantly angry, saying, “This is the saddest part, people need to know this, these poor dogs will have to live with what they have done for the rest of their lives.” I was chastened by his reaction and turned the camera back on and asked him to repeat what he had said. As he spoke, I knew he was talking about himself and the harm done to his mind when following orders in Afghanistan.

Then Tom opened up. He had returned with severe PTSD, and felt his life was over. It destroyed his relationships, taking him to a very dark place. Nothing was helping until he started working with animals.

The animals fixed him and gave him back his life. It is simple: Tom feels he owes animals for saving him, so he has dedicated himself to saving them, wherever they are hurting. 

As we were leaving, Tom told me they have an extraordinary job coming up. They have to rescue the exotic animals from a zoo that was overrun by the Russians. He has agreed that we can come and film. 

The Russians had left Borodyanka only a day or two before we got to the shelter. It took five hours on back roads, in a journey which would have been no longer than ninety minutes on the freeway. We had been warned that some Russian forces were still in the forests, either abandoned or deserting. 

The destruction in the town centre was the worst we have seen. High-rise apartment buildings had been collapsed, with the inhabitants buried in the rubble. We were ahead of the media and among the first to document this. Hellen almost picked up a fake baby wrapped tightly in swaddling clothes, a booby trap to deceive someone into thinking it was a real baby. Luckily, I was able to call a warning to her. The rubble and all around have been heavily mined. My years of experience with minefields meant I could negotiate the area and get footage without us being harmed. Europe has not seen this intensity of bombardment of civilian targets since Bosnia and World War II. Sarajevo all over again . . . will wars in Europe ever end?

BUCHA

Kate and I are heading back to Bucha and Irpin today. I will write in detail about Bucha when I can bring myself to do so. It was a horrific experience, and I am bracing myself for what we are about to witness . . . 

Russia has placed the commander who destroyed Aleppo in charge. This is a definite message that Putin is prepared to grind Ukraine to dust, rather than withdraw.

IRPIN 

Irpin has a key bridge at the entrance to Kyiv, a twenty-minute drive to the centre of the city. To enable Putin to achieve his goal of taking Kyiv in three days, Russian tanks needed to cross this bridge. For days, we had heard the battle raging at the Irpin crossing. From our apartment it sounded too close. The Ukrainian army had to make a terrible decision. They knew that if they blew the bridge, it would cut people off from fleeing into Kyiv. Once the explosives were detonated under the bridge, its broken half gained the name “The Bridge of Death.” The first cars to arrive as it collapsed were immediately prevented from escaping by the Russians, who fired indiscriminately into them and torched many. Those who remained alive were executed in or near their cars. The smell of death was overpowering.

Since these were families, most cars had children’s toys, books, clothing and digital game boards. In several there were items needed by mothers caring for babies. On one packet there was a picture of a cute smiling baby. I zoomed my lens onto it and then pulled out to the front of the car riddled with bullet holes. For a second my camera hand shook, as images of my grandchildren flashed through my mind. 

It would be easier to simply roll our cameras past a scene like this and leave quickly, to try to insulate our minds from the impact. But it is not a matter of simply recording; we must find ways to tell the story that will cut through what used to be referred to as “compassion fatigue.” An overload of war coverage from Ukraine will make TV audiences want to switch off and tune out, unless the way it is told is inventive.  

For the Ukrainian army, who have pushed the Russians back over the last couple of days and liberated Irpin, the cars and their contents are sacred and not to be violated. The ghosts that surround them, especially the child ghosts, need respect. I climbed onto the roof of a burnt-out van to get a high vantage point for my camera, and looked across to the critical stare of a soldier, realising I had stepped over the line and broken an unspoken taboo.

In one car, I saw an expensive-looking book resting on the driver’s seat. It was black and a pen was inserted, holding a place between the pages. I walked to the other side of the car and opened it to discover it was a diary. The pages were dated. It ended the day the writer’s life ended. I put my camera through the shattered window and filmed my hand opening the diary to this last entry, flipping the blank pages. The diary would never be completed, like the life of the writer. I was tempted to save the book and those last writings, but it had to remain on the driver’s seat.

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