Gilles Hertzog
Ruins of BorodyankaGilles Hertzog
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Homage to Borodyanka

Bearing witness to the horror and majesty of a ruined, resilient Ukraine

by
Bernard-Henri Lévy
April 21, 2022
Gilles Hertzog
Ruins of BorodyankaGilles Hertzog

We arrive by train, from Lviv, to Kyiv. They are fat, blue trains, comfortable, fairly fast, with a reputation, before the war, for being on time. But everyone has in mind the bombing, the day before yesterday (April 9), of the Kramatorsk station, where at least 52 died. So, people are careful. They avoid gathering. Step lively if the platform is exposed. And when the train pulls out, it’s with all lights off, shades drawn in the compartments, and, all during the night, stops in the middle of the countryside, and detours, which causes delays. Soon, though, you think nothing of it. In the wagon, there are volunteers who have put their families out of harm’s way and are returning to combat. A sleeping soldier, his unloaded Kalashnikov hugged to his chest like a baby. A Brit who has come to enlist in the International Brigade created by Zelensky. And people who travel against the current of refugees, having decided, in fear and trembling, to return to their town or village. What’s left of my house? Did they destroy the blue and yellow terracotta ceiling that, for three generations, survived all catastrophes? And the porcelain I left behind, in my haste? And my mother-in-law, whom I’ve heard nothing about since the invasion? That’s what we talk about on the Lviv-Kyiv direct train, crossing, as in a dream, a besieged Ukraine. And that’s what we hear when we are lucky enough to have a good fixer: Serguei O., perfectly Francophone, devotee of Albert Camus and Michel Houellebecq, with the look of James Cagney in The Mayor of Hell and who, after having done, in a past life, “every possible stupid thing imaginable,” rededicated himself to his country’s defense.

In Kyiv, the unexpected. The Russians having, for now, lifted their siege, we hoped for a climate if not of jubilation, then at least liberation. But no. The streets are empty. Stores and churches closed. The Maidan—which I saw in 2014 with Gilles Hertzog and Marc Roussel, packed with people, vibrating with its democratic revolution—is deserted, covered in offset barricades and iron antitank Czech hedgehogs. Everywhere the same terrifying silence as on the dead planets, covered in ice, like steel globes, that serve as background scenery in the novels of Philip K. Dick. To be expected, says Vitali Klitschko, the former boxer-turned-mayor and, since then, war chief, who welcomes us in fatigues in the shadow of a basilica. Don’t be fooled, he insists, with a funny hard look that is no longer that of a friendly giant, the old champ pulling his punches, the soft Dostoyevskian man we met in 2014 at his party headquarters, and who we brought to Paris to meet President Hollande. The Russians have retreated, it’s true. And, because we undid them, they have decided to redeploy in the Donbas and the cities of the south, where the resistance drives them mad. But they could come back. And on the Belarusian border they have machines that can hit us at any moment. Just then, an alert siren wails. He listens. Looks up at the sky knowingly. “No,” he says, “it’s not yet for us.” And then, accusingly: “Be sure to say, when you get back, that each of the missiles they launch on my city is sponsored by the gas you buy from them every day.” A winning but heartbroken smile crosses his lips. The soft man is back, rushing in on the armored one.

With Mayor of Kyiv Vitali Klitschko

With Mayor of Kyiv Vitali KlitschkoMarc Roussel

In Bucha, like in Irpin, the streets have been cleaned of bodies left behind by the Russians. But the stories of the survivors are as chilling as the images. An old woman whose daughter had been killed before her eyes: She died like an animal, curled up at the end of the night in the last room of her house. Another: She remembers the fat face, the hateful, clenched mouth, of the boy who held her shoulders while the others tormented her; she’ll never forget his cold sweat, tinged with cold soup, and the smell of the cheap booze he chugged straight from the bottle, between swears; nor the words they dared to write, on their way out, on the wall of a nearby house: “From Russian with love.” Another: The Russians had parked cannon transporters in a neighbor’s courtyard; when the Ukrainians counterattacked, the Russians suspected the neighbor of having transmitted their GPS position and executed him with a bullet to the neck. And another woman: Her son had, in his cellphone, images of destroyed tanks—they blew his head off, and then, as if to punish him more, left him to rot for three days, with the soldiers wiping their boots on him like a doormat. And still another who found her husband’s body thrown in a garage: She just buried him, she doesn’t want to speak of it anymore, she folds into tears and silence. Bodies massacred and abused, 16 children killed, the mayor tells us the story of these survivors who were made to wallow in the blood of the dead, that’s what we heard in Bucha.

Night, near Ukrainka, in one of the few houses still standing in this region of ponds, reedy marshes, and pine forests that seems an interminable series of disasters. We are among the fishermen, Serguei tells us. Only that, for a fisherman’s house, this wood building is large. Modern. We can’t push through a door without coming across helmets, piles of bulletproof vests, military maps, computers, and assault rifles. And, if the Dnipro is down there somewhere, in the night, we can make out no boats or nets—and, with their herculean bearing, tussled hair, camo gear, their boots crusted in muck and unlaced, their brusquely vengeful looks when talk turns to the crimes of the Siberian Buryats, the men who greet us look less like toughs, or commandos, and more like sailors. We eat smoked eel, carp, over-boiled meat. We clink shot glasses of horilka, the firewater of “Taras Bulba,” to the glory of Ukraine and its heroes. With tongues loosening, Alexis, the leader, lets us know that we are near Trypillia, cradle of a millenary Ukrainian civilization whose existence revisionist Russian historians work to deny. And, even if there’s no way to get information about his men’s pasts out of him, he ends up telling us that their real jobs, back in Bucha for example, were to “maintain the justice of men.” It’s late. We go to bed. They head back out, heavily armed, into the night, to “maintain justice.” I think of Sarajevo, where the first to the resistance were named Caco, Celo, Juka, and they were both wicked kids and brave.

The Nescheriv monastery is also completely isolated, at the end of a flat road, green-gray under a blue sky, spared the bombings, 60 kilometers south of Kyiv. Set in this bucolic scene, at a bend in the strangely silent river, there is a chapel all gold, painted wood, angels and saints, edifying images, multicolored onions, dedicated to the prophet Jonah. And in this inspired décor live 26 monks, in black habits, thin beards, burning gazes and wolflike faces, praying in rotation 24 hours a day, together with the 40 Donbas refugees they have been sheltering since the start of the war. At some point, Serguei leans in to my ear. “A small problem needing my attention,” he whispers. “I’ll be back in five.” After an hour when he is still not back, I step out myself and find him speaking with a group of armed men who had arrived in 4x4s, visibly worked up. They heard we were here. But most of all I learn that the monastery is, albeit anti-Putin, still dependent on the Patriarchy of Moscow, and therefore suspect in the eyes of the patriots of the territorial defense nearby. Serguei, without losing his cool, shows on his cellphone a photo of us with President Zelensky. Problem solved. And we are cleared for a disquisition from the leader on the War of the Bells, which opposes the monasteries still faithful to the Patriarchy of Moscow to those that took the independence offered in 2018 by the Patriarchy of Constantinople. Abbot Ioasaf, who was a track champion in his youth, is yet to make that jump. For now, he prays for peace, for the glory of Ukraine, and for the 60 cats who also take refuge in the monastery.

In a shelter outside of Lyiv

In a shelter outside of LyivMarc Roussel

As for this other catacomb, I won’t share the location. We are still south of Kyiv. But 4 meters below ground, in a bunker fashioned of piled bricks and cement, made up like a dorm, where a dozen children have spent, for the last five weeks, most of their nights, and, sometimes, their days. There is an adolescent there, from Kharkiv, who has lost—and understood—everything. Another, with an angel’s face, laughing too much, with high rouged cheeks—her mother died in Bucha, pierced by a projectile on her way home from shopping. A brother and sister, younger, who play with Legos, recreating the war and the siege of Mariupol. But there are still others, the youngest, who don’t know what they are doing there, and who, lying on their makeshift mattresses like captive, cold birds, look for new ways to chase their boredom. So, when an alarm sounds, the villagers who take turns watching over them and feeding them tell them it’s the fire trucks. When an explosion is heard in the distance, it’s thunder. And whenever one of the older ones shows them on their phones images of missiles streaking through the sky, they explain to them that it was fireworks. I don’t know if President Zelensky is right to call the destruction of Ukraine that Putin and his cronies have decided on “genocidal.” But we spent a night, that I do know, with children who resembled little Giosué of Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, whose father made believe that life in a concentration camp was just a movie set. Who or what should be “denazified”? The Ukrainian nationalists, really? Or the executioners of these children, thin-necked, sunken-eyed, their lives broken?

History is likely to be unkind to Petro Poroshenko. And it’s true that it’s tough luck to have faced down Putin for five years, forced him to negotiate in Minsk and, in the same movement, to have built the new Ukrainian army, only to be succeeded by an astounding young man who started his career as a clown and whose bravery, heroism, and strategic and political intelligence have put him in the skin of a Ukrainian Churchill. But the former president is a good sport. We found him on L Street, behind a basilica of the old city of Kyiv, at the headquarters of a battalion he supervises. And we spent the day, from there, touring the northern zone, beyond Bucha, toward the Belarusian border, where entire villages were annihilated by the retreating Russian army (and I mean the Russian army; not Chechen militias; not Syrian mercenaries). Not once did I catch the former president saying a single bad word about his glorious successor. And not once—over the long day where he happened upon partisans rejoicing to see him here, near them, on this bloody field—did I see him break the patriotic pact he made with Volodymyr Zelensky on day one of the war. This is also beautiful. The national unity, that too is to the glory of Ukraine. When the great rise to the level of the humble, when the same amount of strength and character resides in the high born as in the lowly, it’s proof that a people is rising, and no matter the challenges still to endure, are promised victory.

Everywhere people spoke of Bucha. We heard less about Borodyanka. But the testimony from there, 30 kilometers farther north, past two blown-out bridges along a path of misery the locals call the route of death, is hardly less instructive. This building cut in two by a missile. … This other, reduced to rubble, where rescue workers in yellow vests work this morning in a cloud of dust to dig out the body of a child who has shown no signs of life since yesterday. … This apartment, quartered by drunkards who, wishing to leave no living thing behind, launched a farewell grenade. … The cellar where you could hear them guzzle, sing, fight, play accordion, rape, pillage, and where, because “Ukrainians are rats” and need to be smoked out like rats, they threw another grenade. … A decapitated body covered in black plastic. … An improvised day care where children of the disappeared only know how to sleep one on top of the other, whimpering from fear and cold, saying they can still hear, in their dreams, the screams of drunken soldiers shooting into the air, at night. … The hoarse yelping of dogs searching for their masters. … Braziers, like in the Maidan, where people come to get some soup from humanitarian organizations. … The stench, everywhere, of garbage, gas, and burning cloth. … And then, at the center of the Grand-Place, the bronze statue of the great writer, the conscience of Ukraine, Taras Shevchenko: He got a rocket in the nape; his head, half detached from his bust leans as if about to fall; but no; it holds; and it continues, before the charred buildings, to embody strength of spirit.

And yet, if there were a scale of the worst, you’d have to go elsewhere to find the most dire level. The road back to Kyiv having been washed out by a deluge, we shifted to the southeast, rolling an hour without knowing where we were headed, only to land, midafternoon, in Andrivka. More village than town. There was nothing there, not even a store, much less some military objective. A poor hamlet, totally unimportant, barely a blip on the map, forgotten of God and man. It seems, according to what the inhabitants told us, that this is what happened. A Russian column passes this way. They take quarters and are at ease. After several days there without orders, they begin to understand that things are going badly for the Kremlin and the order will be coming to redirect the troops to the Donbas front. And so, as with all vanquished and cowardly armies, part of it goes mad. Slashing. Bashing. Executing at point blank. Robbing the dead. Looting amid the rubble. We’ll massacre them, the swine, we’ll make them pay. Of this moment of collective punishment remains some soldier’s dog tags, abandoned rations, a pair of boots swapped for those of a killed Ukrainian for their warmth. One should never compare the incomparable. But this carnage against civilians for having lost the war fair and square, this battalion gone insane that before leaving the front takes revenge on the hostages at hand, it brings to mind something for the French. The Das Reich division, called to the Normandy front, which, before deploying elsewhere, takes the population of Oradour-sur-Glane.

It’s nearly curfew. Kyiv becomes a ghost town. Not a pedestrian moves. No cars roll. Checkpoints at each intersection, manned by youths with itchy trigger fingers who know this is the time double agents infiltrate. Thankfully, we have come back to our fishermen. They have the password. They manage to get us, before our train to Lviv and on to Poland, to the Maidan where it all began, and where we set our last rendezvous, at the foot of the column of the archangel Michael: Tatiana Kucher, former mayor of Ukrainka, son of a survivor of Babi Yar, who now runs a powerful NGO helping displaced people, reminds us that on this eve of elections in France, that the far right is 10 times less prevalent here than in Paris. And then, in the darkness of the square, just as we were about to pile into the cars, out of nowhere, like a ghost, a revenant: hatless, black full-length cloak, still severely blond, tightly braided, escorted by just a bodyguard holding her umbrella, the old muse of the Orange Revolution, Yulia Tymoshenko. Is she really here by chance? Or did our old friend Serguei nudge the hand of happenstance? We recall our first meeting, at this same spot, eight years ago, after her liberation from the Kharkiv prison where one of Putin’s minions had thrown her. And the last, five years later, here again in this spot, the night of my first encounter with the man who would eclipse her in bringing to the eyes of the world the colors of a free Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. Beginning and end of story. Acceleration of the times when war succeeds revolution to make heads roll and spin the wheel of fortune. Destinies made. But great peoples endure. As does the strength of a Europe—I depart here the most tragic, cruel, and noble of its theaters. Slava Ukraini!

Translated from the French by Matthew Fishbane.

The author’s new documentary film, The Will to See, featuring reporting from Ukraine, premiers on April 29, 2022, in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and author of more than 30 books including The Genius of Judaism, American Vertigo, Barbarism with a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and The Empire and the Five Kings. His new book, The Will to See: Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope, was published on October 25, 2021 by Yale University Press.

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