Letters from Ukraine: 29/03/22 – Guardians

In Kyiv working on their film "Love in War," Hellen Rose and George Gittoes find their relationship with the city's soldiers, and its security in the face of ongoing attacks, shifting swiftly.

George Gittoes in Kyiv with camera, photographed by Hellen Rose

Over the last week we have become familiar to the Ukrainian soldiers at the corner of our street and Maidan Square – have grown used to us passing. I decided today was the right time to make friends. If the Russians get this far into Kyiv it will be block-by-block street fighting, and these will be the guys defending where we now live. As we came out the front door the most approachable of the soldiers, Yezgeny, was passing. We introduced ourselves and discovered he is regular army, not a recent volunteer – he is a young career soldier who joined up in 2014. He still has braces over his teeth and looks like a teenager, but he must be at least thirty-four. I gave him my card and told him to google me. This morning it was snowing, and the temperature is below freezing, and these poor guys must be bored out of their minds standing at attention and looking out onto an empty square. When we returned from filming, he came up to me and said, “It is an honour to know you – when this war is over, I want to read more about your art and see all your films.” I went back up to the apartment and got him a copy of my book Blood Mystic. I can see him down there devouring the pages with the rest of his crew. People will look at our film and ask, “How did you get their trust?” It is simple: show love and affection, and a lot of interest in their well-being and lives. Hellen will start taking hot drinks down to them and soon these guys will feel like we are family they can rely on. As I write, an email had come in from Leimyrain Moses, one of the soldiers I filmed more than twenty years ago in Baghdad at Bandit Island. Moses is a brilliant rapper, and had the dangerous job of delivering tankers of fuel to remote units around Iraq. The highly flammable and explosive tankers were prize targets for the Iraqi resistance. And now another email has come in, and it is from Janel Daniels, the beautiful vocalist from Soundtrack to War. Janel is still a singer and we continue to collaborate, do phone calls, send photos, and meet up in real life, when we can. Like all the soldiers from Soundtrack to War, we are still close. They keep me informed of all the intimate changes in their lives, their successes and sadnesses. By the time we leave Kyiv, Yezgeny will be another surrogate son in my ever-growing family from the war zones of the world. Everyone at May Bock in Chicago is watching our social media posts and reading my dispatches with concern for Hellen and my safety. We take them all on the journey with us, and their lives interact with ours way beyond our film projects to wherever our next stop is – at present it is Ukraine. 

Back on the street we were stopped by a bunch of heavy, black-uniformed cops. They prevented us filming some sandbags walling up the front of a shut-down McDonald’s. A battleship had been painted onto them and there was other graffiti worthy of Banksy. These guys were “heavy,” and going over our papers as though they were looking for a loophole that would enable them to arrest us. Suddenly, they turned and ran from us, taking out their handguns. A few minutes later they were dragging a woman along who was fighting to be let go. Hellen and I signaled to them that we were witnessing. Their struggling prisoner was taken behind the bags, and we realised the former MacDonald’s was now a police detention centre. No wonder they did not want it filmed. I had to pull Hellen back – she was ready to go in fighting for her, imagining rape and worse. We had seen the same woman in the morning, exiting the building she had been arrested in. She had tight, shiny vinyl slacks, and a lot of street charisma. Was she a Russian spy? We will never know, but we had seen the other face of Ukrainian men in uniform. It felt like we had witnessed a scene in a Nazi-occupied city in the days of resistance fighters.

On our way back, the air raid sirens began blaring close to our apartment – the building manager pulled us in through the door and told us to take immediate cover back in our room. Earlier his ten-year-old son had been playing a virtual reality game with goggles over his eyes and hand sensors as he swung and lurched at whatever he was seeing in a 360-degree digital reality. Now, a frightened kid in a too real unreality.

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