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Context

Travel Sketchbook Ukraine – by Kees de Groot van Embden

On February 24 early in the morning, I wake up with the news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is not a small invasion, it is a full blown war, by an atomic power. The Russians throw bombs and  missiles everywhere, from east to west. I don’t know why, I am in tears. I have Russian friends in Amsterdam I love. I sympathise very much with the Ukrainian people who want freedom. I also sympathise with the ordinary Russian people, who are kept ignorant, and are misled by their leader, who turns out to be a brutal dictator. It is an attack on our western value of liberty, no matter how much criticism I also have on our society. For freedom I will fight, I am ready to risk my life. That is immediately clear.

The documentary maker inside me wakes up. I know I want to go there, see with my own eyes. I have some experience. I have been to war zones before. In Afghanistan, Somalia, former Yougaslavia, Sierra Leone. As I am now a painter, I will go with my sketchbook, and paint. 

I cancel my appointments, get prepared. On170322 I fly to Krakow in Poland. I take the train to Prezmysl, the small border town with Ukraine. From there I will take a train to Lviv, as I hear the railway still functions.

180322 The station of Przemysl is filled with Ukrainian refugees, sitting on the ground and aid workers. Since the Russian invasion three weeks ago, ten thousands Ukrainians have fled their country to seek safety in Poland. The scenes  are heart breaking. 

My first drawing is of this girl and the sibling, she is carrying in her arms. She belongs to a family that is going back into Ukraine. They are waiting on the same platform as I do for a train to Lviv. I draw them on the platform, while waiting.

220322 In Lviv I know want to go closer to the front. As Kyiv is the primary focus of the Russians, to topple the regime. I decide to try to go there. The Russian army is trying to surround Kyiv. Also in the south in the direction of Odessa the offensive is intense. 

In Lviv everything is closed. The city has been hit several times. To my surprise I manage to rent a car. I drive to Zythomyr, a town closer to Kyiv, to gather more information. The highway to Kyiv, from the west, the E40, is under attack by the Russians. They are also approaching from the east, from Chernihiv.. The southern highway from Bila Tserkva to Kyiv is still open.

After crossing many check-points I arrive in Kyiv. The city is under siege.

The streets are deserted. There are lots and lots of defence posts. The tension is very high. The front is at  25  kilometers form the city center, near Irpin. The Russians are throwing bombs on civilian areas in Kiyv. Yesterday a big missile was dropped on a shopping mall in Retroville. Eight people are reported dead. The mayor called a curfew for 24 hours, till tomorrow morning 8 AM. Nobody is allowed out on the street. I find a hotel, which is empty, except for a handful of journalists. I spend the day in my hotel. I draw the view from my room. The heavy thumps from the front are audible constantly, the pressure of the blasts makes make my window shake at times.

230322 I go to Retroville, it is a 20 minutes drive from my hotel to the north-west of the city.  It is closer to the front. The sounds from the front are louder here. I go to the place where the missile was dropped close to a shopping mall. The damage is enormous. The debris extend over hundreds of meters. It was the biggest Russian missile launched on Kyiv so far. I paint the scene. I am not allowed to go very close because there are still unexploded parts of the missile lying around a soldier tells.

Today in the morning a hail of rockets slammed into a residential area on Danyla Sherbalivskoho street, close by. I already noticed a destroyed car on my way here. I go over there now to draw the car bleeding oil. On the right side you see the impact of the rocket in the pavement. I can see the shell of the rocket in the hole. The damage in the district is bigger than I thought. I hear that the rockets come from a multiple missile launcher Grab, which has 40 launch tubes. It is the first time this weapon is used to target the civilian population on Kyiv. It is unclear how many casualties there are, I hear four were wounded. The rockets fell over a distance of a few hundred meters, hitting a block of appartement buildings.

 240322 I go back to the district hit by the Grab missiles on Danyla Sherbalivskoho street. Although the streets in Kyiv are almost deserted and one million residents have left, two million stayed. The Ukrainians I meet are resilient and absolutely determined to hold their heads high. This is inspiring and hopeful. A cleaning team is already feverishly clearing the shards of the hundreds of broken windows. While I work, next to me a family is packing their car to leave the city. Their apartment was hit. It is a dramatic sight.

28022 Kyiv is huge. It is heavily defended. There are blocks every few hundred meters. When I drive around Kyiv, impressed by the size of it, something reassures me, the Russians will have a hard time in surrounding it.

There is a change. It becomes clear that the Russian advance around the city is faltering. The Russians are brought to a halt near Irpin. The prospect of being surrounded was terrible.

The blasts form he front are nonetheless incessant. There is very fierce fighting going on. The sound of the air-raid-siren, that goes of every so often, I get used to, but not to the rumbling pounding sounds of rockets, tanks and airplanes. They cut through the bone.

260322 Every day I go to the Poznyak district, a civilian area, on the west side of the city. For the Russians it is at shooting range from the front. 

The district was hit several times. I draw a truck and bus station destroyed during a previous attack. The contrasts are huge. On the one hand there is death and destruction, and on the other hand, people carry on living. Nearly everything is closed in Kyiv, but on the main road in Poznyak, a vegetable kiosk is open, and the fruit looks good.

Near the vegetable kiosk the silhouette of an old lady slowly walking to her flat, breaks my heart. The loneliness, particularly of the older people, who have stayed behind, of having to stand all this.

010422 While atrocities committed by the Russians on the civilian population are revealed in Bucha and Irpin, I to go back to Zhytomyr,  hundred fifty kilometers south-west of Kiyv. I have received permission to report on a check-point there. This is a privilege, because check-points are military objects, and it is strictly forbidden to photograph and film for anybody. I wanted to do this, because a checkpoint is the war in miniature form, a micro universes. 

In Ukraine, checkpoints are not called checkpoints, but ‘block posts’.

020422 The block post in Zhytomyr. Block posts defend every entrance, every main road, every quarter of all the towns and the villages in Ukraine. They are mainly manned by civilians, who before February 24th led normal lives, and now carry arms. They are like little fortresses.

020422 Oleksiy, 47, the commander of the block post. Before the war he was a business man in agricultural wholesale. The day the invasion started, his wife was working in the Kherson, close to Crimea, which was heavily under attack. He immediately went there to bring her back. But Zhytomyr was hit too. They began making Molotov cocktails. Oleksiy proposed to set up a block post on this spot, at an access road into Zhytomyr from the east. ‘I felt calm, not afraid, and patriotic’ Oleksiy says.  ‘We were expecting something to happen. Belarus is only 150 kilometers from here. I am not sure about what will happen now. We have given the Russians a strong punch in the face, but the bone is not broken.’

It’s cold, Oleksiy’s is cutting wood for the wood stoves of the block post.

040422. The block post is between the trees and the burning wood stoves. You can be sure no vehicle will pass the ‘block post’ unnoticed. One of the fears is Russians infiltrators, and spotters who will locate for the Russian army. Eight hundred meters from here a fuel storage was bombed. One kilometer away a training camp was attacked by an airplane.

030422 Dima, 36, block post crew. Dima was a soldier fighting in the Dombas in 2014. On the way back from a mission on an airport terminal near Donets, he got wounded by Russian artillery. This was in 2014. He and his colleagues, six of them, were driving back in an armoured vehicle. When they went out of the vehicle for a minute, at a block post, they were attacked from behind. Four died. His helmet saved his life. One of his hands and a leg were shattered. 

Before the invasion, he had a job in security. ‘I right for freedom’, he says. He is determined to resist the Russians till he can wave the Ukrainian flag on the the Red Square.

080322 Commander Oleksiy shares images of the brutal missile attack on the train station of Kranatorsk, this morning. Fifty civilians were killed, a hundred wounded – all of them people trying to leave the Dombas, where the war is intensifying. After seeing the images Oleksiy sighs deeply, and remains silent for a long time. 

The weather is bad, it is cold, and it rains.

060422 In case you had forgotten how they look like: the Molotov cocktail. They have dozens of them at the block post. They will not stop cruise missiles, but can create a lot of mayhem. Dark, greasy, non-descript bottles, probably more difficult to paint than to make.

110422 Yurii (36), ‘block post’ crew, is a sniper. He was wounded in 2016 in the Dombas, near Donets. He was resting in a shelter, when he was hit by a Nona-SXK 120 mm self-propelled grenade, designed to hit people in shelters. It went through the roof, pierced his right leg and did not explode. Yurii’s recovery took two years. Then he went back to battle, hit four more targets, before he could retire satisfied. 

‘Being a sniper is very dangerous, tough and demanding’, Yurii says. It takes three to four years of special training. Only 5% of it is shooting. There is a lot of psychology involved. ‘You have to be a stable person. You are trained to become a professional killer. When you return to normal life you have to be mentally sane.’

Yurii: ‘I am now invalid, a fisherman and a father. I do not regret joining the army. I was born here in this time and place to do what I did. I would do it again. As a sniper you do not shoot the human, you shoot a military target, to defend your country that is attacked. My twins were born in November 2021, five months before the invasion. A boy and a girl. We decided to stay here as a family. We are okay.’

120422 It is impossible not to think about what is happening at the same time in Mariupol. The cruelty displayed by the Russians is beyond imagination. It gives me a stomach ache. I realiseUkrainians are also fighting for us, for the rest of Europe. 

President Zelensky said a sentence that keeps coming back in my mind:  ‘It is evil in concentrated form that is coming at us.’

This is true.

050422 I follow along in the daily rhythm of the block post. I becomes clear to me that these people are the army behind the army, taking up army tasks, liberating the combat troops to do their tough job at the front. They play an important role in the succes of the Ukrainian army at the front, a success surprising the whole world.

Here Oleksiy and his men are building a long trench a bunker, and an escape route, next to the ‘block post’ in the background between the trees.

090422 The  post is run la bit like a family business. Before the war started Ludmilla is a business woman in charge of quality control of agricultural products for export. The war took her business down. She was working in the Dombas when he war began. She immediately jumped on a bus to Mykolaiv. Meanwhile she heard that the Russian were already in Kherson. On day two she and her husband decided to set up this block post. They got armed, gathered friends and neighbours, some of them experienced soldiers. She took on the task of caring for Tamara, their six-year-old daughter of 6, who’s school was destroyed, and to cook for the men every day, which she does expertly, keeping the morale of the crew high. Dinner is always a highlight in the day. Ludmilla makes no fuss about it, she just does it, ‘of course’.

Above, what remains of Tamara’s school in the centre of Zhytomyr, which was bombed by the Russians.

110422 I add two unfinished drawings to my report. This is Dima on guard. Nothing much is happening today.

He is sitting in the hut next to the stove following events.

It is a moment of relative quiet in the war, despite images of civilian executions keep coming in from Chernihiv and other places.

At the time of my departure, the Russians are regrouping their forces, in order to concentrate on a large offensive in the Dombas and on the south coast to take Mariupol and maybe further to Odessa and Transnistria.

I feel uneasy about what will happen next, the war might turn into a long lasting war. And still the unimaginable might happen, a president Putin driven into the corner, acting in despair.

I drive by a cemetery close by. I see a Ukrainian flag next to a fresh grave. The flags are placed at the graves in honour of those who died for their homeland in the war. Out of piety for the deceased, I do not mention the name, but read the dates.