This Article is From Apr 25, 2022

Blog: In Ukraine, A Town In Hell, Landmines In Kindergarten Grounds

In the Ukrainian town of Borodyanka, north of Kyiv, all that remained of an entire apartment block was a stuffed bear, the carcass of a kitten at its feet. Next to it, a broken cell phone and a small umbrella. 

The bear sat out in the open. Other stuffed animals lay nearby. This had been a child's room. 


An entire chunk of the apartment block all around the bear had been brought down. How it remained sitting at the same site, seemingly untouched, is anyone's guess. 

When I returned to Borodyanka a few days later, it was still there, amidst the rubble all around. Though bulldozers had started clearing out debris, the bear hadn't moved. When I went closer to look at it one last time, I noticed that it didn't have eyes. 

Borodyanka is hell - a middle class township overrun by the some of the worst excesses of the war. It is one of the areas being probed by the International Criminal Court after allegations that retreating Russian soldiers had committed crimes against humanity. 

In the central square of the town, I met an elderly woman who had survived the assault on the town. The smile she flashed when I reached out to her to say "Hello" changed to tears when I asked whether it was true that women and children had been raped and murdered here. She told me she was scrounging around for food on one of the days that the town was occupied by Russian soldiers. There was a rumble of tanks in the distance. She spotted a young woman and asked her to move to safety. "I am not scared of their tanks," the young woman told her. "Tanks don't scare me anymore after what their soldiers did to me." 

There were other accounts of Russian excesses. A second person I met told me that a car clearly marked with stickers saying "children" had been targeted by Russian soldiers. The vehicle was attacked; he does not know how many inside were killed. 

Right opposite the central square in Borodyanka is a kindergarten on a large plot. One saw playgrounds, colourful picket fences adorned by paintings done by children... and bunkers, land-mines and booby traps. 


This had been the main Russian military base in this town. 

When I visited the kindergarten in Borodyanka, it had largely been de-mined, but we were warned that it remained extremely unsafe. There were clear warnings by Ukrainian soldiers - don't try and walk into the bunker complex dug by Russian soldiers into the ground along the periphery of the school. When they retreated, the Russians laid traps all around - trip wires attached to concealed grenades, landmines dug into the soft soil. The goal was clear - slow down efforts of Ukrainian soldiers to reclaim these areas and, if possible, maim and kill as many as possible. 


The Borodyanka Administrative Building which had been converted into a sniper's nest by Russian forces

As Ukrainian municipal authorities worked furiously to clear out debris of destroyed buildings, I came across one building that remained standing - a white structure with skulls spray-painted all over it. This building also had bunkers dug into its front garden. Ukrainian volunteers working to clear out the building told me that this was a Russian sniper's nest since it had clear views of the surrounding area. The woman who led the group of volunteers also told me the Russians used to store their loot here. ''They stole everything they could find in the area. When they retreated and were unable to take everything with them, they tried to burn down the place.'' She points to a series of shelves full of files - some of them scorched. ''This used to be the main administrative centre of Borodyanka. These files have municipal and other details of residents who lived here. They tried to burn down this archive.'' 

At the rear of the building, under a window used as a gun position, there was a pencil sketch, immaculately drawn. It showed the view from the window and exact distances to buildings and structures in the vicinity. This was a ready reckoner for soldiers manning this position. They knew the exact range to their targets if one appeared in the distance, a handy aid for a sniper looking to pick off targets. 


The area behind the Borodyanka administrative building - several homes and structures have been completely destroyed

On the ground floor of the building, at another gun position partially concealed by bricks, a strange irony - right next to a gap between the bricks, through which they used to fire, there was a message scrawled on a wall. It said, "Peace to the world". 

With progress towards Kyiv disastrously stalled by the middle of March, the Russians moved into townships like Borodyanka on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital which they ruthlessly attacked, while at the same time, fending off attacks from Ukrainian defenders armed with anti-tank missiles provided by NATO countries. Unable to defend their soldiers and weaponry from pin-point attacks in populated areas, the Russians chose, instead, to bring down the towns - everything that came in their path - schools, apartment complexes, stores. 

We saw signs of this devastation everywhere - Irpin, Makariv, Bucha, on the outskirts of Chernihiv further to the North and here in Borodyanka. 

In Chernihiv, a historic town that lies just 30 kilometres south of the border with Belarus, from where Russian soldiers invaded, we came across a graveyard being rapidly expanded. 


There were at least a thousand freshly dug graves here, the date of the death of every individual having been inscribed on a wooden placard beneath each cross. Almost everyone here had died in March this year. Bodies in caskets were still being brought in after they were found from debris of collapsed buildings. 

Viktor, the gravedigger, told us that everyone buried in individual graves had been identified. There was also a mass grave nearby for individuals whose identity remains unknown. 

''The bodies kept coming in. There were Russian aircraft in the skies bombing the area. I just kept digging,'' he said. 

On Day 2 of its invasion of Ukraine, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had told journalists, "Nobody is going to attack the people of Ukraine." And that there were '"no strikes on civilian infrastructure." 


Reporting from outside the Borodyanka administrative building

(Vishnu Som is Executive Editor, NDTV 24x7. He has reported the Ukraine war from Lviv, Kyiv, Chernihiv, Bucha, Irpin, Makariv, Borodyanka, Odessa and Mykolaiv.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.