Rescue mission

Before the Russian retreat, a rescue mission and reunion in Ukraine

MAKARIV, Ukraine – “I didn’t know if they were dead or alive,” said Vadym Tokar, a 39-year-old man in combat gear, sucking on a cigarette as he recalled the moment he decided to save his wife and their children. from behind enemy lines seven days after losing contact with them.

As fighting raged in the nearby town of Borodyanka during the early days of the war in Ukraine, it was clear that Makariv could be next to be targeted as part of Russia’s effort to encircle kyiv, some 40 kilometers away. to the East. Many of Makariv’s 10,000 residents decided to evacuate before it was too late.

Tokar, the mayor of Makariv, resolved to stay in the city. But his wife, Svitlana, decided to take their children – Zakhar, 8, and Hanna, 6 – to a dacha in a quiet location five minutes from town. It was a decision that had terrifying consequences.

Svitlana and the children left Makariv on February 26. Two days later, Tokar said, a column of some 300 Russian tanks and armored vehicles drove through the town and fanned out on its outskirts, apparently attempting to encircle it. In a scene filmed at a junction in Makariv, gunfire from the column blew up a car and killed its civilian occupants, a 72-year-old man and a 68-year-old woman. Indiscriminate attacks on other civilians in the area were reported hourly and Russian forces bombed the local hospital a day after their arrival.

“I grew up in this town. I know every corner,” Tokar said, explaining how he assessed the risks of his mission to retrieve his wife and children. It may have been particularly risky because of its status – mayors have apparently been targeted for kidnapping or worse by Russian forces since Moscow launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Russian forces have withdrawn from north-central Ukraine after failing to encircle kyiv, leaving a trail of destruction and mounting evidence of what locals and rights groups say are crimes of war, especially summary executions of unarmed civilians, rapes and other atrocities.

Like other towns north and west of kyiv that bore the brunt of the assault, Makariv – where the main facilities targeted by Russian forces included the hospital, the municipal administration building and the police headquarters – is again under government control.

Destroyed and damaged civilian vehicles in Makariv.

For now, a two-storey yellow brick building has been converted into the headquarters of the municipal administration and the police. Sitting on a bench in a green park surrounding him, Tokar pointed to a middle-aged man lying on another bench holding a Kalashnikov.

“He is the only one who agreed to come with me,” Tokar said. “He was my bodyguard. Now he’s my friend.

Change the dynamics of the battlefield

In the days leading up to their mission, Tokar and his bodyguard pored over maps and fretted over the details of their plan – a process complicated by the changing dynamics of the battlefield outside of Makariv. Russian positions changed regularly and a miscalculation could prove fatal.

While Tokar was fine-tuning his rescue plans, Roman Lyashenko was on the battlefield.

A gay and bearded businessman, 44, Lyashenko joined the local territorial defense unit – part of a network of volunteer militias established across the country as tens of thousands of Russian forces gathered near the Ukrainian borders before the invasion. His ex-wife and his current wife had evacuated, with their respective daughters, shortly before the fighting reached Makariv.

Roman Liachenko

Roman Liachenko

“There were very few regular Ukrainian army troops in the city when the Russians arrived and only 80 of us in the territorial army. All we had between us were Kalashnikovs and eight RPGs (rocket-propelled grenade launchers), but the Russians didn’t know that,” Lyashenko said, beaming with pride as he described the lopsided balance of power. “If they had known we didn’t have heavy weapons, we wouldn’t have been able to hold them off for so long.”

Approaching Makariv, Russian forces occupied the kyiv Golf Club, about 6 kilometers from the center of the city. The club’s underground car park became their local headquarters; its well-maintained greens and bunkers became launching positions for artillery and Grad rocket launchers. They also took control of Lypivka, a village on the road from Borodyanka to Makariv – and a nearby settlement where Svitlana, Zakhar and Hanna took refuge.

According to Tokar, the bodies of 149 civilians had been found in and around Makariv as of April 12. With locals returning home and discovering new bodies every day, that number is likely to rise. Many of the dead are in Lypivka.

A destroyed Russian armored vehicle near Makariv.

A destroyed Russian armored vehicle near Makariv.

Bisected by the Makariv-Borodyanka road, Lypivka is a picturesque hamlet with its own vineyard and about 400 houses, half of which have been damaged or destroyed. The retreating Russian forces revealed scenes of devastation in the village – burnt-out cars and the charred debris of collapsed houses strewn along the road between destroyed Russian tanks crumpled in semi-hidden dugouts.

Boxes of unused artillery shells lay open and neglected on the side of the road, perhaps reflecting the haste of the Russians’ withdrawal from the area or their desire to make room for loot in their departing vehicles. Residents say Russian troops withdrew from all areas they occupied around kyiv with large amounts of items stolen from Ukrainian homes.

“Completely Zombified”

“It was a nightmare,” retired teacher Valentyna Rybitska, 63, told RFE/RL. “They took everything. Plasma TVs, bicycles, scooters, carpets, clothes. They left nothing behind. I have no words to explain it.”

Sitting on a shady bench by the side of the road with one of her neighbours, Rybitska said Russian troops devastated the neighborhood.

“They were always looking for cigarettes and alcohol. When they got drunk, they fired their guns,” she said. “A guy found some fireworks and thought they were some kind of weapon. Of course they set them off when they got drunk.

Crates of artillery shells left behind by retreating Russian forces near Makariv.

Crates of artillery shells left behind by retreating Russian forces near Makariv.

“They were completely zombified,” Rybitska continued. “They said they were here to protect us from NATO” – part of the narrative that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government used to try to justify the unprovoked invasion.

Many houses in the village were occupied by four or five Russian soldiers each, residents said. The owners, if present, moved in with neighbors or in basements and cellars usually used for storage, their proximity to Russian troops putting them in a situation of extreme stress and constant danger.

Rybitska pointed to a house across the road: “A 46-year-old woman was killed in there. She pointed to another house, where she said an elderly couple met a gruesome end. A young woman was raped in her home on a parallel street, she said.

A few days after the chaotic departure of Russian troops, many bodies have yet to be discovered. The full depth of horror has yet to penetrate.

The “Russian World”

It was in this perilous environment that Tokar and his bodyguard traveled on March 7, long before the Russian retreat, when they went to the dacha to try to get Svitlana and the children to safety. His last contact with his family was a week ago, so he didn’t know if it was already too late.

They chose an indirect route via secondary roads, but still encountered Russian forces twice. Pulling off the road each time, they stopped the car, crouched down to get out of line of sight, and remained silent, their hearts pounding until the Russian patrols passed. They left the car a few hundred meters from the house.

Mayor of Makariv Vadym Tokar

Mayor of Makariv Vadym Tokar

As they made their way on foot through neighbors’ gardens to their destination, volleys of artillery shielded them from barking dogs. The dacha was intact, but when he saw how close it was to a Russian artillery cannon, Tokar’s heart sank.

She sank further when they entered the house: their things were there and the food was still lying around, but his wife and children were nowhere to be found. It looked like they had left in a hurry – or had been taken away. Tokar slipped out, entered the back garden, and headed for the cellar door. He paused to breathe before opening it.

At first, there was nothing: no light, no sound. Then he heard his name, and Svitlana came out of the darkness, surprised to see him. The children followed, safe and sound but disoriented. There was no time to party. After a quick hug, he ushered them into the house and helped them grab some things. Together with the bodyguard, they returned to the car and the relative safety of Makariv.

From there they traveled to western Ukraine, where Svitlana, Zakhar and Hanna are staying with relatives. Lighting another cigarette and worrying about the long-term effects of the trauma and strain they’ve been through, Tokar recalls the day he left them there over a month ago, before return to Makariv.

“I asked them if they wanted to leave Ukraine and live in another country,” he said, choking. “They told me yes, they do.”

The center of Makariv after its occupation by Russian forces.

The center of Makariv after its occupation by Russian forces.

For Lyashenko, the invasion and the war deepened his sense of identity as a Ukrainian and hardened his antipathy towards Russia. In his mind, Moscow’s true ambitions and attitudes toward Ukraine are evident in the death and destruction he witnessed in his hometown.

He summed it up with a term the Kremlin uses to signify its desire to control lands with large Russian-speaking populations – and which many Ukrainians now associate with the conduct of Russia and its troops.

“This,” Lyashenko said, looking at the damage and rubbish left along the road after the Russian retreat, “is the ‘Russian world’.”

“We are Ukrainians,” he said. “We have our own culture and our own language which is distinct from Russia. Our values ​​are European, not Russian. When this war is over I am sure we will do something about corruption in this country because we all want to be in Europe.