Letters from Ukraine: 21/04/22 – Punisher

Writing from a trip to document the effects of war in Borodyanka, George Gittoes reflects on the ways that families grieve lost loved ones, and on the aestheticisation of war. This dispatch makes mention of violence and death.

Climate change was doing the job of destroying the planet slowly, but now we are on the brink of nuclear apocalypse. We don’t want this, but don’t know how to stop those doing it. I wonder what children are thinking about the failures of their elders, and how many are suffering from doomsday nightmares?

I’ve always owned dogs and cats, and loved all of them. I thought I knew everything about pets, but Ukraine has taught me some big lessons. Many of the refugees getting off the trains in Poland had pet carriers. A pair of confused eyes peering out at their new reality from the little windows in the boxes. The refugees were limited in the personal luggage they could take, but put their pets ahead of precious personal objects. There are, however, thousands of pets left behind to wander and forage for food. Ukrainians like big wolf-like dogs, mainly Alsatians that can be intimidating. They are living wild on their own instincts, but we have not encountered one dog that has grown savage. Scary-looking dogs come up to us and nuzzle their faces against our hips and look into our eyes wanting human-to-dog affection even more than food. They miss their owners, and all plead to be taken. Kate loads the trunk of our car with dog and cat food. Dogs locked behind fences are the hungriest. They bark hysterically to be noticed. We push food under bolted gates, and they gobble it up. We keep returning to these dogs whenever possible. Cats are better at schmoozing to seduce a new owner into making them theirs. A long-haired ginger cat at Borodyanka, today, tried every trick in the book. Her trump playing card was to lie on her back and wriggle her whole body with paws up like open arms and connect with her wide-open, soft green eyes.  

I went back to Borodyanka today with Kate to draw, leaving my film and photography hats behind in Kyiv. The little girl’s white party dress was still hanging from the window of her bedroom on the ground floor of the bombed and fire destroyed apartment building. The strangest thing about that room is the blast crater of a missile or cannon round that has hit bedroom wall. The iron security bars over the window are undamaged. Where could this thing have been fired from? If it had been fired from within the room, whoever triggered it would have been killed by the shrapnel that was everywhere.  Trying to find words to explain this Kate said, “This is like Salvadori Dali.” Yes, it was surreal, but a different kind of surreal. The children’s toys and clothes were scattered with broken glass, tiny sneakers, and bits of furniture. A violently deconstructed children’s reality.

I had been at Borodyanka yesterday and found a beautifully illustrated children’s fairy-tale book, opening to a page where a prince aimed his bow and arrow at a six-headed monster. There is still the sense of monsters outside. The Russians have gone but their after-evil aura dominates the atmosphere.

Outside I drew the party dress, but found no way to graphically show how the breeze made it move constantly in a kind of haunted dance. My film camera got that. No one medium is enough to describe these experiences.

The middle apartment building, between the one with the child’s room and the next, has been completely destroyed. When we first came here, weeks ago, the top floors remained like a bridge over a void where all the lower floors had been blown away. Now there are only the foundations standing like a concrete Stonehenge. I climbed up onto one of them to draw the side view of the opposite building. The side wall of the building, where the architects had placed all the occupants’ kitchens, was gone – revealing what resembled a multi-storey theatre set. Amazingly, tables, chairs, tea crockery, fridges, and sets of drawers had remained intact in their original settings. All the news crews who came to Borodyanka, a couple of days after us, filmed into these private worlds, left exposed to view. Drawing takes longer than filming, and my 6B pencil notes things like a stainless-steel kitchen sink with its taps dripping, hanging out in space.

Wherever we have gone we have seen destroyed cars with “Children on board” scrawled in large letters over their passenger doors, fronts, and backs. Inside there are pools of congealed blood, baby chairs, nappy packs and kids’ stuff.

I began drawing one of these cars which with the title “Our Car,” when Kate rushed up and said, “We have to go, be quick!”

She had been chatting with two young police officers curious about our activities when a call came in to report on a backyard burial. The family requested someone in the media be there to let them tell their story. Kate immediately volunteered. On our way Kate said, “There is something I can show you that you will want to film when we come back.”   Kate was right – we passed what I’ve called Punisher House, a spectacle so evilly theatrical it was like it was made for my art. 

The small farmhouse was in a village a few miles out of Borodyanka. We met the cops at an intersection and then a small white refrigerated van followed in behind us.  

There were a lot of barking dogs at the high brown metal gate. Two women opened it and guided us past an animal pen containing well-nurtured goats and handsome-looking ducks, roosters, and chickens. The dogs continued to bark excitedly, but were friendly. The two men from the van had shovels and looked tired. One turned and said, “This is our tenth grave today.” At the back of the yard, they began digging and muttering that the soil was hard because it was partly frozen. The two cops stood back in their clean navy-blue uniforms as observers.  

I knew nothing other than that the Russians had killed the man who was buried, and his name was Sasha. The pile of soil grew until some white plastic was revealed. I zoomed down onto it and saw that it had floral designs. The body had been wrapped in a plastic tablecloth, but the cold temperatures saved us the smell of death. The older woman, who had introduced herself to me as Valentina, stood closest to the digging and when a bunched hand was revealed resting on Sasha’s chest, she turned her head and spat onto the ground. The hand was small like a child’s, and making a fist. The younger woman, Natalia, was further away and partly obscured by a leafless bush. The gravediggers grasped either side of the plastic shroud and pulled Sasha up. I had prepared myself for a grotesque sight, but Sasha’s face had not decomposed. The tablecloth had protected him from the soil. His eyes were protected by a white substance, where fingers had pressed into the sockets and made star shapes with some white substance like flour or plaster. They lifted Sasha’s torso up to ground level, leaving his legs hanging down into the grave. 

Sasha looked like he was made of plastic like a shop mannequin, but his features were more like a wooden string puppet, a Pinocchio doll. He was a small man and his legs, bent down into the grave, were childlike. We were all unmoving, transfixed, stunned by his presence. This doll apparition was more powerful, for these moments, than the living. Then a shiver went through me as his mouth opened and shut again in the manner of an automaton. Sasha wanted a last word, but it was a word from the other side, from where we could not hear. 

Then Sasha was lifted into a thick, black body bag and carried from the farmyard, past all the animals he’d cared for, to the white van. The animals knew and followed with their eyes. The back doors were swung open to show the nine other un-graved filling the space. Sasha, the farmer, had to be squeezed into the narrow gap at the top. 

Valentina had asked for media to be there as she did not want the death of Sasha to be anonymous, like so many of the others. She wanted it to mean something, and to tell his story. I suppose it was because of my age that Valentina had created a bond with me from when we first met eyes when I looked over the gate into her world. She asked me to wait while she went inside to change for the interview. She returned wearing a brown fur coat and lead Kate and I back to the empty grave with her daughter Natalia following at a distance. I could see that Valentina was being strong for Sasha, but was churning inside. Normally, there would have been a priest and family there to comfort her but Kate and I, two complete strangers, were all there was. I gave her a hug, rubbing her back through the soft fur, and she began telling the story.

In early March the Russian troops had entered the village. They entered the humble little farmhouse and took away the family’s mobile phones, food, and some cloths.

This was of less concern than the way they had looked at Natalia. They told her to turn around for them and show her figure. Later when they returned Sasha met them at the door and they asked to see Natalia again. Sasha said she had gone away but they did not believe him and pushed their way in. They grabbed Natalia and dragged her out with them. Valentina stayed inside but she heard Sasha protesting and saying they could take him in her place. Then there were two soft thuds that did not sound like gunfire. Valentina came outside to find Sasha on the ground, dead, next to the chicken coop. 

It has been twenty-seven years since I came away inwardly damaged from the Kibeho massacre in Rwanda. I never thought there would be another Kibeho in my lifetime but seeing Sasha dragged from the ground told me this is my second Kibeho, but more prolonged.

The dead rotting in tanks and tripping over the bits of human remains in Bucha and seeing what was left of mothers and children and after being gunned to pieces in a family car on the Bridge of Death at Irpin are memories are what will never leave. 

I had asked Kate to stand back from the grave while Sasha was exhumed and she kept her distance, filming from where the two young cops had stood – but, even from there, the experience was not good. 

During the drive to the place of the skull graffiti we remained silent about the experience we had just shared. I thought of Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness and Coppola’s adaptation of it into the script for Apocalypse Now. When Martin Sheen’s patrol boat reached the end of their odyssey down the Mekong River, they found themselves drifting into Kurt’s compound, met by severed heads on spikes. 

Kate was driving us to the Heart of Darkness in Ukraine.   

A local government administrative building had been turned into a fortified headquarters by the Russian occupiers.  Trenches had been dug, with machine-gun nests built behind camouflage. What made it scarier than Marlon Brando’s Cambodian base was the skull graffiti. The skull’s origin is from the Punisher, the Marvel comics vigilante whose creed is “the end justifies the means,” including torture, murder, kidnapping, and intimidation. But, long ago the Punisher graphic was adopted by white supremacist groups worldwide as an emblem equivalent to the Nazi SS skull. The Russians have made it their own, with their “V” sign incorporated into the side of its face. The largest was sprayed in black onto a white billboard. Others were on the entrance the gate and walls of the building. 

My mind went back to interviewing soldiers for Soundtrack to War in Iraq, with one telling me that “war is heavy metal,” and others how they had wired their tanks to play Slayer, Drowning Pool, Slipknot, Metallica, and AC/DC as they rolled into Baghdad, hyped by the music to shoot everyone they saw. But that was over twenty years ago. To these young soldiers, metal music is as highbrow as opera. They’re plugged into artless, macho rap with aggressive thumping beats and lyrics that plead for rape, murder, and mayhem. 

On previous days, in the ruins of Bucha and Irpin, those who we have asked about the Russians have said “they could not understand how they could act in such a cruel and inhuman way. That they were worse than animals.” I had not been able to understand the callousness of it, myself, until I stood in front of this Punisher House. The obvious answer is that the Russian soldiers have been “off their heads on drugs.” There were syringes in the trenches of the Punisher House, suggesting crystal meth. I wondered if this is where they brought Natalie after killing her husband Sasha when he tried to protect her. Natalie had been too traumatised to talk when we interviewed Valentina and Valentina said, “I have promised never to tell what was done to my daughter, no mother could ever want that to be known.” The Punisher House had been a fun house, a party house where the worst fantasies of Russian rap lyrics could be played out in a drunken and drugged reality that was pure evil.

I looked around to see Kate kneeling to adjust one of the cameras. A very cute grey tomcat had pounced up into her lap and Kate was stroking his head. Very earnestly Kate said, “Look at this, he has found me and now I have to keep him.” This was totally against Kate’s own rule of never taking anything away from the ruins. I had been criticised for collecting small pieces of melted shrapnel from a tank in Bucha. I remembered the body pulled from the ground in front of Kate and immediately decided help convince her to take the cat home by offering to nurse him in the car for the duration of the journey back.

Leaving Borodyanka the first roadblock we passed had AC/DC sprayed, with a lightning bolt, on the side wall of its guard post. Was this the Ukrainian army’s answer to the V and skull of the Russians? 

As the cat snuggled into me, and began to purr with contentment. I played the day back in my mind. I thought, “Putin has sent these young Russian soldiers of the Apocalypse on a highway to Hell.”  Please forgive me AC/DC song but that is the best way to describe it.


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