Propaganda or providence: one Ukrainian’s wild story of survival

Borodyanka Ukraine

A giant “V” is painted on Ohla’s front door.

The symbol — used by Russian troops in Ukraine to identify themselves — is scrawled in black, below a hand-written notice to ward off intruders.

But Olha isn’t Russian. The Ukrainian woman lives in an apartment in the pulverized village of Borodyanka, about 60 kilometres northwest of Kyiv.

Behind this door, Olha says she spent four weeks living under the protection of Russian troops — the only Ukrainian left in a 60-room apartment block. But unlike others in the devastated village, Olha speaks of her ordeal with a curious lack of resentment. In fact, she considers herself “lucky.”

Olha, a villager in Borodyanka, says Russian soldiers allowed her to cook for them and in exchange, she was left alone throughout the occupation of the town. Ashleigh Stewart

“I do not know if you will translate this or not,” she says in Ukrainian, squaring her shoulders and shaking her tousled, blonde hair out of her eyes. An older woman of medium height and build, she wears a worn, green fleece jacket and resembles a kindly neighbour. “But they did not do anything bad to us. They gave us food.”

Her benign memory of the occupation stands in stark contrast to the nearby ravages brought on by Russians.

In early March, a series of missiles and powerful FAB-250 bombs all but obliterated Borodyanka. FAB-250s were designed to destroy large military targets — none of which exist here. High-rise buildings were cleaved in two by the force of the detonations.

Advertisement
Click to play video: 'Scenes of destruction in Borodyanka, Ukraine in the wake of the Russian retreat' Scenes of destruction in Borodyanka, Ukraine in the wake of the Russian retreat
Scenes of destruction in Borodyanka, Ukraine in the wake of the Russian retreat – Jun 3, 2022

The sleepy commuter village posed no military threat to Russian forces. It was simply on the main axis of their advance on the Ukrainian capital.

Almost 200 buildings were completely or partially destroyed. Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova deemed the situation in Borodyanka the worst in the Kyiv Oblast in terms of civilian casualties — a death toll that stands at more than 120 people, with dozens still missing.

Read more: In ruined Ukrainian village, stranded elderly residents are all who remain

It is a village rife with stories of senseless murder, widespread looting and violence. And one single narrative that flew in the face of all evidence otherwise.

Olha, a former veterinarian, refuses to condemn the soldiers who occupied her town, killed its occupants and bombed it beyond recognition.

“If you were good to them, they would be good to you,” she says, matter-of-factly.

The remains of Building 371 on Tsentralna Street, Borodyanka. Ashleigh Stewart

Olha’s story casts the complicated relationship between occupied and occupier in Ukraine in a new light. In her case, Russian soldiers were exactly the white knights their propaganda campaign has made them out to be.

In the fog of war, there are no easy ways to test the veracity of Olha’s claims. And against a backdrop of disproportionate devastation and death, it seems crass to highlight one woman’s survival against all odds, when her “bodyguards” are those responsible for the killing and pillaging.

But, perhaps, that’s the point.

Building 359 on Tsentralna Street, Borodyanka. Ashleigh Stewart

In the weeks since, we’ve analyzed thousands of witness statements and interviewed dozens of authority figures to understand if, and why, some villagers were granted a divine right to survive while others were murdered.

What made Olha one of the select few that got the “V” on her door? Was she a conspirator? Should we even believe her? And most importantly, how do you reconcile the dissonance between one woman’s survival and the massacre of others?

As much as Olha’s story was a quest for truth, it also became a pursuit for glimpses of humanity, however brief, amid Russia’s barbaric war on Ukraine.

‘I went out on purpose, I just wanted to be shot’

Less than 500 metres from the smouldering remains of two residential high-rises on Tsentralna Street, an apartment block remains standing, relatively untouched.

Inside its concrete stairwell, the word “vendetta” is scrawled in Russian in large, black letters with an extra “V” in front of it. It’s unclear if all the “V” symbolism here is interconnected.

The word ‘vendetta’ is written on the wall of Olha’s apartment building, where she says Russian soldiers lived. Ashleigh Stewart

Apartment doors hang from their hinges, revealing room upon room of overturned furniture, strewn clothes and smashed glass. The stairs are coated in debris.

Advertisement

On the wall of the fourth floor, another spray-painted message says “they live,” with an arrow leading up the stairs, pointed towards a grey door, still intact. There is a large black “V” on it, underneath a piece of paper stating in Russian: “People live here. The keys are kept by Olia from Apt. 48.”

A ‘V’ sign was painted on the door of the apartment Olha lived in throughout the siege on Borodyanka. Ashleigh Stewart

Olha was just one of 1,500 of Borodyanka’s 14,000 residents who remained throughout the occupation, according to village council data.

She stayed to look after her 38-year-old son who was battling a severe COVID-19 infection in the nearby village of Nemishajeve, she says.

But on March 1, with Russian troops already in the village, Olha says her son died. Intense fighting nearby meant ambulances could not reach him and he “suffocated,” she says.

“Four volunteers carried him to bury him. They carried him on a blanket. There was shooting. So they buried him in the backyard,” Olha explains slowly. Midway through her sentence, she breaks down in tears, covering her mouth with her hand.

Read more: Exclusive: How a 15-year-old Ukrainian drone pilot helped destroy a Russian army column

We have not been able to confirm Olha’s son’s death; Ukraine’s coronavirus website stopped being updated the day war broke out, and authorities in Nemishajeve did not respond to questions.

“When I learned that my son passed away, it was 3 a.m. and there were checkpoints around, and the Russians shot at every movement. So I went out on purpose. I just wanted to be shot. I could not bear it. I went out and just stood like this at 3 a.m.,” she says, standing with her chin pointed to the sky and her arms outstretched at her sides, palms facing up.

Doors have been ripped from their hinges in Olha’s apartment block, but hers remains intact. Ashleigh Stewart

“I kept standing for some time and just when I wanted to move, three (of the Russians) came running.”

The soldiers asked what she was doing outside, to which she replied: “I want you to kill me.” She says she was told that they don’t shoot civilians and to go back inside.

And that, she says, is where she stayed.

‘The scariest day was March 2’

Borodyanka was infiltrated just days prior.

On Feb. 26, two days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, a Telegram user wrote one word in a sporadically used Borodyanka channel: “Russians.”

Telegram is one of Ukraine’s most popular social media apps and has become a wartime lifeline.

Responses poured in asking about reports of explosions and cruise missiles. On Feb. 28, an urgent message heralded the invasion: “There are columns coming to Borodyanka,” it said. “People living in houses near to the road, leave immediately as they are shooting at them so they are not bombarded with cocktails.”

The bombed remains of Building 429, near the entrance into the village of Borodyanka. Ashleigh Stewart

“I saw the column of tanks entering town from my apartment,” a resident named Rayisa recalls.

“There were helicopters too, flying very low, at the level of my window. It was very scary.”

Videos began circulating showing shops blown to bits, buildings on fire and homes destroyed, as the town was indiscriminately shelled. But that was nothing compared to the horrors that would ensue in a deadly 48 hours beginning late on March 1, the day Olha says her son died.

Advertisement

That was when bombs began falling from the sky. Eight residential buildings, home to more than 600 families, were hit, according to Amnesty International. 

Click to play video: 'Video shows moments after Russian airstrikes hit Ukrainian village of Borodyanka' Video shows moments after Russian airstrikes hit Ukrainian village of Borodyanka
Video shows moments after Russian airstrikes hit Ukrainian village of Borodyanka – May 6, 2022

 

“The scariest day was March 2. Everybody was running and hiding. It was chaos,” says Borodyanka resident Valentyna Tsvicynska.

Tsvicynska has lived in Borodyanka for 45 years. Like many others, she worked for an excavator factory in Kyiv, which developed the village in the 1970s by building high-rises to house its staff.

“That day, the planes were flying so low we could basically see the pilot and they also saw us. But they were bombing anyway,” she says.

Valentyna Tsvicynska says civilians were deliberately targeted in Borodyanka. Ashleigh Stewart
“It wasn’t at nighttime, it was daytime, and [Russians] definitely saw everything. The plane came and then went away and then came back to bomb again.”

Telegram messages grew desperate. People shared pictures of missing relatives and requested help for elderly people left stranded outside in frigid temperatures. A grandfather was trapped under a concrete slab for more than a week. Someone asks for help recovering his friend’s body and taking it to the morgue in Bucha.

The village was now completely occupied by Russian troops. All electricity and phone lines were down.

A white armband and a ‘V’ on her door

Olha survived the strikes by sheltering in a basement, she says.

Afterwards, she spent her days in the apartment with the “V,” leaving only to go downstairs to a makeshift kitchen set up in a grimy corner of the building. The space remains muddy and sparse — a couple of tables and chairs shielded from the elements by a plastic sheet wound around a few pieces of wood.

Olha, pictured in the ‘kitchen’ she says she cooked for Russian soldiers in. Ashleigh Stewart

It is here that she cooked for locals and Russian soldiers throughout the siege, she says. She was accompanied to the cooking area by soldiers, one on each side, and was given a white armband to wear to identify herself.

But this area was too exposed when the fighting was intense, Olha explains. So Russian soldiers showed her a hidden nook. She leads us across a patch of grass, to a cluster of small buildings, pointing out other places along the way where Russians had taken up residence.

We step through a gate and she slips into a sliver of earth shrouded in branches, between a brick building and a shed. She points to the sky and feigns cowering in fear.

The fire pit Olha says she cooked on under orders from Russian soldiers, so no one would see the smoke, and she would be ‘safe.’. Ashleigh Stewart

“They said: if there’s shelling, gunfire — they won’t see you over there,” she says.

“They said they won’t see the fire when you cook. And you will have somewhere to hide.”

Advertisement

Beside her left foot, there are the remnants of a small fire pit — ashes surrounded by blackened cinder blocks.

As supplies dwindled, Olha says Russian soldiers shared their food and water with her. They asked if she was well and offered to go and buy her medication.

Read more: Wounded soldiers at Dnipro hospital reveal horrors of Ukraine’s war

The troops rotated every few days from her building, she says, but incoming soldiers knew to let her be.

Other villagers sometimes lived in the apartment with her, she says. We haven’t been able to find any of those other villagers.

Borodyanka remains closed off, supplies dwindle

As March wore on, Telegram messages revealed a situation growing more dire by the day.

Volunteers were blocked and, in some instances killed, trying to enter the village. Basements were overwhelmed.

Official evacuation corridors were organized and then cancelled on the day by Russian forces.

On March 5, Oleksiy Kuleba, the head of the Kyiv Regional State Administration, said that a unit of Kadyrovites (militias from Chechnya with a sinister reputation, controlled by Chechen head Ramzan Kadyrov) had captured Borodyanka’s psycho-neurological boarding school and were firing artillery at the Ukrainian army from there, using it as a shield.

Click to play video: 'Russia-Ukraine conflict: Drone video shows destruction in town near Kyiv following airstrikes' Russia-Ukraine conflict: Drone video shows destruction in town near Kyiv following airstrikes
Russia-Ukraine conflict: Drone video shows destruction in town near Kyiv following airstrikes – Mar 4, 2022

About 500 patients lived in the institution — 100 of whom were bedridden. According to local media, 13 patients died during this time and were buried in a mass grave on the school site.

Villagers say Chechen troops were more brutal than the Russians.

“They were shooting animals for fun,” resident Liudmyla Petunina says. They were also strip-searching men to look for military tattoos, she says.

Click to play video: 'Russian forces advances closer to Ukraine capital Kyiv' Russian forces advances closer to Ukraine capital Kyiv
Russian forces advances closer to Ukraine capital Kyiv – Mar 16, 2022

When asked about the conduct of Russian troops, Petunina says a friend’s wife had been sick at home during the invasion and asked Russians to help them. The soldiers brought them medicine, she says, but were also asking about the whereabouts of their fighting-age son.

Reports of random shootings became common.

Online, a Google document began circulating of missing Borodyanka villagers. It accumulated about 130 names.

’And then it got quiet’

Olha did not escape Russian aggression entirely, however. Once, she says, she was rounded up with three other villagers by a “firing squad.” Russian troops had discovered weapons in a basement they were using and thought they were theirs.

“But we knew nothing. We sat like … flies in this dirt,” she says.

After being interrogated, a woman in the group asked to be shot, Olha says. An officer told them they do not shoot civilians and then kept the group under surveillance.

Click to play video: 'Ukrainian villager says she survived month-long occupation under Russian “protection”' Ukrainian villager says she survived month-long occupation under Russian “protection”
Ukrainian villager says she survived month-long occupation under Russian “protection” – Jun 3, 2022

“Then they said, ‘Okay, aunties. In five minutes, we are leaving. Get to your homes quickly and sit there like mice. Don’t even look out the window,’” Olha says.

Advertisement

“The Russians came to check on us every half an hour and they reported, ‘Yes, four people are present.’”

She runs a hand over her face and shivers. “I am getting nervous when I recall these things,” she says.

The retreat at the end of March came out of nowhere for villagers.

Click to play video: 'Devastation left in Ukraine as Russia’s troops withdraw from Kyiv' Devastation left in Ukraine as Russia’s troops withdraw from Kyiv
Devastation left in Ukraine as Russia’s troops withdraw from Kyiv – Apr 2, 2022

There had been a period of intense fighting, Olha recalls, and Russian soldiers had rushed to tell her to run away or to find a shelter because “something will happen.”

“And then it got quiet,” she says.

“The next morning, we woke up and there was such silence. We did not know if we should come out or what happened. There was nobody — no Russians, no Ukrainians, nobody. There was nobody at all.

“We were afraid of going out because of snipers. And then we walked outside and there were no tanks where they used to stand. There was nothing.”

Damage to Borodyanka worst in Kyiv Oblast

In the days and weeks that followed, local authorities and international organizations poured into Borodyanka to investigate the damage.

Unlike in nearby Bucha, the streets in Borodyanka were not strewn with civilians with hands bound and bullet wounds in the back of their heads. The murdered here were harder to find, lying under the rubble of destroyed apartment blocks for a month.

Click to play video: 'Drone footage shows extent of destruction as Ukrainians return to Borodyanka' Drone footage shows extent of destruction as Ukrainians return to Borodyanka
Drone footage shows extent of destruction as Ukrainians return to Borodyanka – Apr 8, 2022

The death toll remains uncertain; Kyiv prosecutor’s office says it stands at 122, while village data states it is 140, with 80 still missing.

Between 40 and 50 bodies were pulled from the ruins of eight high-rise buildings that were bombed. Many died in basements where they sought shelter.

Forty-nine state buildings — including the council, police station, schools and kindergartens — were destroyed, according to council data. At least 110 houses were ruined, and 300 more were damaged.

Read more: The first 100 days of war through the eyes of a Ukrainian village

 

It became clear that the majority of Borodyanka villagers had a very different occupation experience than Olha had.

We analyzed more than 7,500 statements from Borodyanka residents and 31 surrounding villages who endured the occupation.

Very few — about 25 — reference offers of help of food, medicine or other supplies from Russian soldiers.

The vast majority were stories of inspections, widespread looting and violence — consistent with interviews with the UN, Amnesty International, Borodyanka authorities and the Kyiv regional prosecutor’s office.

A looted apartment next to Olha’s in Borodyanka, Ukraine. Ashleigh Stewart

More than 550 people reported looting, while 250 said their property was damaged or destroyed. Cars were commonly stolen, as well as phones and valuables.

About 35 people reported instances of torture or beatings, while almost 40 people were detained, held in captivity or abducted. About 200 people witnessed the deliberate shooting or murder of civilians.

Advertisement

Acting Borodyanka village council head Georgiy Yerko said villagers were also shot randomly from Russian motorcades.

A message on an apartment building warning that there are children inside. Ashleigh Stewart

About 45 people were asked about the whereabouts of their children and more than 50 people were strip-searched.

“[Soldiers] would look at their bodies to look for signs that perhaps they were fighters,” Matilda Bogner, head of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, says during an interview in Kyiv.

“They would look at their hands to see if there were signs that they’d been shooting weapons and so on. … When they identified people as possible combatants, in many cases, they just executed them.”

About a dozen villagers say they were visited by soldiers looking for women or girls, and there were two instances of rape.

Read more: Young and old tell of harrowing escapes from Mariupol

The UN’s Bogner says the “intensity” and number of atrocities committed in northern Ukraine were worse than any other conflicts she had investigated.

We could walk along the street and literally stop any individual who was walking along and ask them, ‘Were you here during these last two months? What was your experience?’ And in over 90 per cent of the cases, they could tell us stories that they had personally witnessed or they themselves were victims.”

Villagers ‘forced’ to cook for Russians

More than 160 people were visited by soldiers asking for food, vodka, cigarettes and fuel, and even socks or a bath. Fifteen people said they saw soldiers throwing grenades into a pond to catch fish.

Donatella Rovera, senior crisis response advisor for Amnesty International in Ukraine, said Russian soldiers, running low on supplies, often visited villages to source food.

“They came with weapons in hands, and demanded villagers cook for them,” Yerko says. “And people had to cook, not voluntarily of course, but under duress.”

Click to play video: 'Russians occupying Borodyanka subject residents to ‘inhumane living conditions,’ village chief says' Russians occupying Borodyanka subject residents to ‘inhumane living conditions,’ village chief says
Russians occupying Borodyanka subject residents to ‘inhumane living conditions,’ village chief says – May 30, 2022

Both the UN and Amnesty International confirmed instances of civilians being forced to wear white bandages as a form of “protection.” Bogner also said she had heard of others living behind doors with “V” signs.

Among the witness statements, about a dozen people say they were evicted from their homes so Russian soldiers could live there, while 15 say they lived alongside Russians.

Like Olha, Natalia Lysenko was one of them. She does not bear the same gratitude for her survival.

‘It’s a wonder that we survived’

On March 16, snipers burst into Lysenko’s house in Druzhnia, on the outskirts of Borodyanka. They came from the impoverished Russian republic of Buryatia.

The soldiers lived in the attic of their house while Lysenko lived downstairs with her husband, brother and elderly mother.

Arriving with stolen pillows and blankets to take up residence, they were polite at first, she says, but they “turned everything upside down” during an initial search and confiscated their phones. The family hid a radio and used it sporadically to listen to news of the war — but lived in constant fear of the men upstairs. They were too scared to cook in case the snipers smelled it and stole it.

Natalia Lysenko, pictured with her husband, lived alongside enemy snipers in Druzhnia, near Borodyanka.

“We tried to avoid any communication with them,” Lysenko says.

Advertisement

“We tried to move quietly, and we spoke in hushed voices to make sure that we didn’t make them angry.”

The snipers told Lysenko’s family to wear white armbands and tie something white to their gate, with the number of people inside written in chalk.

“They said they will shoot everyone outside who isn’t wearing a white bandage,” Lysenko says.

Druzhnia
From this window in Lysenko’s attic, enemy snipers monitored Druzhnia for two weeks.

The Buryats stayed in the attic for two straight weeks, monitoring the surrounding area. Other soldiers sometimes came and went. The family heard shots fired from the attic from time to time, but do not know what, or who was being targeted.

On March 31, trucks arrived at the house next door, which soldiers had been using as a warehouse for pillaged goods, and military vehicles left town.

“It’s a wonder that we survived. During the occupation, there were about five times we panicked so much that we just wanted to run away to the forest.”

‘People are afraid of tomorrow’

In recent weeks, Borodyanka authorities have turned their attention toward recovery and accountability.

Acting council head Yerko appears tired and drawn as he speaks to us in late May from a room in a local school — his makeshift office.

“Today, Borodyanka is slowly recovering,” he says slowly.

“We restored power, communications and public transportation. We reopened our hospitals and clinics, including the District Hospital, where twins were delivered today for the first time (since the occupation).”

Click to play video: 'Ukrainian town Borodyanka is ‘slowly recovering,’ village head says' Ukrainian town Borodyanka is ‘slowly recovering,’ village head says
Ukrainian town Borodyanka is ‘slowly recovering,’ village head says – May 30, 2022

A mobile camp has opened to house 300 residents but many more remain homeless. Frustrated residents have begun directing their stress toward local authorities.

The propaganda war has made things work. Many Borodyanka residents have relatives in Russia, Yerko says, who don’t believe the war in Ukraine is real, despite the insurmountable evidence.

Many buildings in Borodyanka were cleaved in two by the force of the blasts, such as Building 359.

He worries about the impact that this, and the ongoing trauma, is having on his population.

“It is hard to hear when children are asking their parents whether they are going to die. For them, Putin means death and fear. When they hear explosions, they are asking whether Putin is going to kill them,” Yerko says.

“I am not sure that those who are going through this tragedy right now can be healed.”

Borodyanka has become synonymous with war

The destruction of Borodyanka has become a symbol of the brutality of Russia’s war.

A day before we visit, on Ukraine’s Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation, President Volodymyr Zelensky set a stylized black-and-white video address in Borodyanka.

“Never again?” he asks, comparing Ukraine’s fight against Russia to the Second World War. “Try telling Ukraine that.”

Click to play video: 'Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra favoured to win Eurovision 2022 as rap turns into rallying cry' Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra favoured to win Eurovision 2022 as rap turns into rallying cry
Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra favoured to win Eurovision 2022 as rap turns into rallying cry – May 11, 2022

Kalush Orchestra also set part of the video for their Eurovision-winning song, Stefania, amid the ruins of Borodyanka.

Advertisement

But the villagers just want to move on.

On a sunny afternoon in early May, the sounds of hammering and metal scraping fill the air as residents scramble to rebuild. The debris has been cleared. Booms echo in the distance as demining works continue.

The remains of Building 371 on Tsentralna Street, Borodyanka. Ashleigh Stewart

From the ground, the crumbling high-rises serve as a grisly glimpse into a life interrupted — with the walls blown out, interior doors dangle from their hinges into thin air and sofas teeter over an abyss.

Doors still bear messages stating “children inside.” A missive on a gate, in front of a damaged house, says: “Alyosha, Mama is looking for you, April 12.”

A message left on a gate in Borodyanka reading: “Alyosha, Mama is looking for you.”. Ashleigh Stewart

A monument to famous Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko has been shot in the temple, execution-style.

We find Olha sitting outside her apartment under the shade of a tree, flanked by two women, a half-empty litre of beer and three cups sitting between them. They are framed by a half-destroyed apartment block, its insides spilling out into the street.

Olha shows us where she cooked during the Russian occupation. Ashleigh Stewart

The women ask us for money or food. They say their apartments still have no electricity, gas or running water, and they live in the same clothes day and night.

Read more: One month after liberation, Bucha’s morgue is the city’s new nucleus

This is true for Olha and her green fleece jacket.

During our investigations, we found a Ukrainian volunteer named Alina who provided us with a raft of pictures from a supply run to Borodyanka on April 4.

Among them, the back of a blonde head and a green fleece jacket is visible. In another, Olha is pictured, in the same clothes, receiving aid outside her building.

In photos provided to us by a volunteer, Olha is visible near her apartment receiving aid more than a month earlier. Supplied

Most of her days are now spent this way, waiting for aid.

There are few signs Olha has lived through anything traumatic other than the destruction around her. She has not become a pariah, speaking freely about her ordeal in front of her friends.

She does not question her survival. She simply believes divinity played a role.

Pointing up to the window of her apartment, two pictures of religious icons are visible, stuck to the glass.

God saved me, she says. She doesn’t ask why.