Letters from Ukraine: 14/04/22 – Guernica Village

George Gittoes and Hellen Rose visit Lukyanivka, which has survived Russian presence – but not unscathed. Here, they find stories of human and animal resilience, and loss.

Kate, who is our assistant on this project, is a horse and animal lover. Before the war she was a show-dog trainer. Her passion is dressage. The horse she rides, Chestnut, is stabled at an animal centre in the village of Lukyanivka. When Kate told us that the stables had been attacked by Russian missiles, this was something we knew we had to film. 

Only a hundred meters from the village centre there is a ruined Russian tank destroyed in a fierce battle with Ukraine forces. In the park behind the tank is a statue in memory of the fallen local soldiers killed fighting the Germans in World War II. An old couple walked up to me as I filmed the tank with the memorial in the same frame, and said, “We fought with the Russians then, but now the Russians have been crueller than the Germans.” At that time, the Russian and Ukraine armies were united against the common enemy.

As we drove along a narrow dirt road, we passed another destroyed Russian tank surrounded by tangled metal, and evidence of an intense battle. The stables and animal centre were only about two hundred metres further on. As we pulled up at the bullet-pocked gate, many of the buildings and fields were still smoking from the firefights and bombings.

Missiles had destroyed the adjoining stables of the neighbouring property, incinerating three horses.  

Olena, the owner of the centre, had been waiting for us. Olena lives on her own with a community of dogs, pigs, goats, and the horses. Olena is beautiful, with a face that could be adapted into a children’s animation heroine, to star in a Disney fairy-tale.

Olena showed us fragments of rockets that had exploded near a side wall only meters from the horse stalls. We were relieved to hear that only one of Olena’s horses was injured. I walked over to him. His name is Kesha, and his shrapnel-damaged left eye had blue clotting. The cuts on his forehead were drying up, but the rocket blasts had made him deaf. I am a horse lover, and pressed my nose up against his and he responded affectionately. Later I was told he is a shy, nervous horse that does not, usually, like people. Kate had purchased carrots and apples. Unlike the other horses that munched the whole apple or carrot and chewed it down in a single movement, he took small bites, and when there was just a tiny piece left in the palm of my hand, he would take it gently with his lips like a kiss.

Olena’s world would be a child’s delight, with puppies, piglets, and a cute white kid goat. At the back there is a covered arena for teaching dressage. Olena lead a horse down there and showed off its skills, but above her the canvas roof was perforated with bullet and shrapnel holes. The structure is also damaged, so it will need to be demolished and rebuilt. Like all the people whose houses are now rubble, I wonder where Olena will raise the money to do this.

Olena was delaying and bracing herself before showing us the carnage that was awaiting next door.

Spaces where recent violent death has occurred have a psychic force field around them, and entering them is like pushing aside invisible curtains. It is no different when it is animals that have been killed to humans. The whitewashed brick stalls had been blackened and the roof blown away. I stepped over rubble and bent under broken frames, knowing I was not going to like what I would see. A horse’s hoof with its ankle bone exposed lay outside the first stall, small flies and insects swarming over it. I entered to see the charred remains of one horse and then the other with bits of white jawbone protruding from the charcoal burnt flesh. This black and white scene took me into the unpainted alternate universe of Picasso’s Guernica, which has a terrified horse at its centre.  

I picked up the hoof – my fingers lifting it by the exposed ankle bone – and placed it back near the horse. Olena watched this appreciatively, and grabbed some moist tissues for me wipe my hand with. I asked her if I could bring the baby white goat in there as a way of cleansing the space, releasing the spirits of the horses from any dark bonds that could be keeping them earthbound.

I hugged the little goat to my chest and once again thought of Picasso and his sculpture of a man holding a goat in the same way. Olena told me he was a boy goat and had not yet been named. She asked me if I would mind if she called him George and, of course, I was delighted.

As we walked out from Guernica, Hellen, my partner, noticed an old woman, Galaya, gingerly approaching with a walking stick. Hellen was drawn to Galaya and soon they were hugging like mother and daughter. Galaya is eighty-three. She told us that the Russians had killed her cow. Hellen drew her to her breast as she began to cry. The cow was her only remaining companion and she was able to make a little money from selling the milk. 

They killed her cow!

It was Olena’s birthday, and she took us back for a cup of tea, biscuits, and cheese. By then, the local head of police and his deputy had arrived to discuss the efforts he was coordinating to clear landmines and booby traps. Olena asked me if I wanted sugar for my tea and I said, “No, but do you have any milk?” She smiled and said, “I will go and milk the goat.” She returned quickly with a plastic soda bottle filled with the goat’s milk. The cop resembles a handsome sheriff from an American cowboy movie, and his name is Dima. Dima smiled towards Olena and poured some of the milk into his tea. Olena offered me the bottle to take back to Kyiv. As we left, she opened her arms to Dima, the “sheriff” and they hugged a farewell that was tight and lasted enough seconds for me to think there was more to their relationship.

If Hollywood wanted to make a family movie set in Ukraine, the “sheriff” protecting his community against the Russians and Olena with all her animals would make the perfect script. 

In the ploughed field outside Olena’s gate fifteen farmers has fanned out, each walking in step with one another, and holding a handful of sticks that had red-and-white strips of plastic attached to their ends.  When they would find a mine or unexploded bomb, they would plant a stick. The fields must be cleared before they can plant their spring crop of wheat.

The next day we met up again, with Dima, the “sheriff” and his deputy. They wear black, tight-fitting, and well-designed uniforms making them resemble elite special forces. We followed them to meet Sasha, a local farmer who had tipped them off about a trail of deadly booby traps and landmines left by the retreating Russians. 

Sasha had been proud of a small yellow car he had recently purchased, new, for his wife. It resembled a tangled abstract sculpture after a Russian tank had deliberately driven over it as it fled. Half of Sasha’s house had been turned to rubble, along with those of his neighbours.

This small farming community has a recreation area next to the nearby river, with picnic tables, a barbeque set up, and a sports field for children and footballers. 

In several places the Russians had placed trip wires at chest level for adults which dogs could run under, making the way seem safe. Thin rusted wire was strung between trees or posts, and attached to a hand grenade or a much more deadly improvised bomb, made from two recycled RPG shells.

I am experienced with mines and booby traps, but these were so invisible I would have walked into them. The track to the river had randomly buried anti-personnel mines. Under the supervision of the “sheriff,” the local farmers were gradually de-activating the booby traps and digging up the mines. 

I interviewed Sasha and he told me how when the Russians first arrived, they were starving and asking for eggs and water. Then they came back for clean clothes and underwear as they were “filthy.” Then, they returned more aggressively and stole everything of value, from sneakers to wedding rings and the children’s school computers.

I have been imagining that many of the Russian soldiers would come from small farming communities like these people and would have felt some empathy, but Sasha denied this, saying that everything they did was at the point of a gun. Sasha said, however, that they felt lucky that these soldiers were regular Russian army – it could have been a lot worse if they were mercenaries. Unlike Bucha, Irpin, and Borodyanka, there have been no mass killings or torture. Then Sasha repeated what I have heard over and over again in Ukraine – that the Russians are jealous of what the Ukrainians have. That the Russians homes are much poorer with no indoor toilets or running water, and few consumer possessions.

After two days at Lukyanova, I am thinking we should go back a few more times to film and complete this story of the village surviving the Russians. Sit down with the old lady and record her story about the Russians killing her cow. I know Hellen and Kate want to do this.

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