With Mateusz Lachowski on Ukrainian unity, crimes of Russian soldiers, and national identity reinforced by war, talks Michał Zieliński.
Every day, the media report on the horrific things that are happening in Ukraine. For the last almost two months, you have been experiencing this war first hand. What does it look like from your perspective?
It depends on the place. Considering Kyiv itself, I have a feeling that the reports were exaggerated. Of course, the city was under attack. I saw and heard the explosions, I saw the damage, for example at the Retroville shopping center. Some districts now are indeed destroyed, but in my opinion, the situation in Kyiv was not as dangerous as it was conveyed in the reports. However, it is entirely different in towns from which Russians have withdrawn. Makariv, Bucha, Borodianka... What happened there is unimaginable. The center of Borodianka has been razed to the ground – it brings to mind the scenes from Pianist by Roman Polanski, where Szpilman is walking across the city that doesn’t exist anymore. I felt the same way. In Bucha, on the other hand, there is an overwhelming feeling of gloom and misery. When I was there, three days after it had been liberated, the streets were still full of bodies. It is hard to describe the horror of the situation. No media can convey what it feels like to see a dog tearing apart a human body, and not be able to do anything about it, as the road or the house is heavily mined.
It is already said that Ukraine is one of the most mined places in the world now.
There is a huge number of mines there. I’ve been at the positions near Brovary, where anti-tank mines were literally lying along the road. That’s why I know that all those videos showing the boys from the territorial defense forces carrying explosives are not at all exaggerated. It is also true what you feel sitting in a trench. When I experienced a hail of shells on positions near Velyka Dymerka, it was exactly like what you see in the movies. Flashes of light, explosions, fear. At night, it might be considered a somewhat beautiful view. During the first shelling I experienced, I raised my head over the trench to watch it for a moment. When the shift commander told me to hide, I shared my thoughts with him. He said it was stupid, but during their first shelling in Donbas the whole company watched it.
You have been documenting the war from the very start of the Russian invasion. What made you decide to do this?
I went to Ukraine for the first time in 2019. I really wanted to make a documentary on what was going on there, as I was interested in the conflict and I had friends who were actively engaged in it. In Pavlohrad I met a volunteer battalion of hospitallers [medics], with whom I went to a training organized before they were sent to the front. That’s how it started. Later, I was going to go back to tell the story of two sisters who serve in this battalion. My plans fell through due to the pandemic and closed borders. Eventually, we planned to go on March 1, 2022. Several days earlier, the invasion began.
I know from my own experience that it’s not that easy to just pack up and go to war.
I used to work as part of an editorial team, so I knew what to expect. I also know Ukrainian. My trip from two years ago had changed my thinking about this conflict. Earlier, I perceived it more as a civil war, where each side has its own reasons. When I was there, it turned out that one of these sides is an evident aggressor. This motivates me to be with these people and convey to the world what they tell me. I had planned to come for a week, but I’ve been in Ukraine for six weeks now, with a two-day break. However, I had not been entirely prepared for what I would find here. I was ready for Russian propaganda, I had heard of castrating POWs or shooting medics in Donbas, but I had never expected this scale of war crimes.
It is hard to imagine and, most of all, understand, the cruelty of Russian soldiers.
The point of reference may be Ivankiv, whose inhabitants say that Russians were relatively merciful to them. The town wasn’t destroyed much, but cut off from electricity and water, as the withdrawing soldiers blew everything up. It is said that first they offered humanitarian aid, and later, at night, they robbed and raped. Among their victims were two girls, 15- and 16-year-old. Andriivka – a small town near Makarov, from where Kyiv was hail shelled – was where conscripts from the far east Russia were stationing. They were mainly teenagers. According to the locals – keep in mind it is their perspective – they were quite nice and civil. First, they shot 20 men of draft age, they refused to let people bury them for several days, but ultimately they agreed, and later they “only” stole everything they could. The abnormal, crazy ones were those who raped and shot entire families. This was the case in Bucha. There, anyone who left their house was murdered. We met two girls who had escaped right before Russians entered the town. They told us everyone who they had known and who had stayed there was dead. I’ve also heard a story of a woman shot in the face by Russian soldiers, who, moments later, killed her 16-year-old son. For four days they didn’t let her bury him, despite the fact she begged for it every day. They shot next to her feet to keep her away. Eventually, the body started smelling terribly, dogs were tearing it apart, so they let her take the boy. For me, this is unexplainable.
In the face of such tragedies, Ukrainians are still fighting relentlessly and altering the course of this war. What is the mood among civilians and soldiers after two months of fighting?
We are watching this war from the perspective of the West. We assume that Ukrainians will eventually accept some form of settlement, giving up Donbas, for example. But the fact is that the defense of Kyiv was successful, and Russians are not retreating without a reason. Ukrainians haven’t changed their attitude towards the war and haven’t lost their motivation. Civilians, above all, want peace, but the army has a clear goal – to protect Ukraine, to push the Russians out of the country. They think that if they fail at any place – such place will become another Bucha. It’s hard not to agree with them. People are being killed just because they have to walk their dogs. Girls must pretend to be boys. There will be deportations, displacements, purges, just like in the times of Stalin. We can see that already happening in Mariupol.
The besieged Mariupol is a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. However, its fate seems to already be determined.
I wish I were wrong, but the chances that Mariupol manages to defend itself and counterattack are slim. However, when I talked to a soldier who has a friend in the Azov regiment [a unit defending Mariupol, associated with Ukrainian nationalism], he stated that the defenders of Mariupol will fight to the end, to the last standing soldier. No one will surrender there, as they know what Russians will do to them. Another matter is that everyone here has a similar attitude. It is very impressive. You are drinking tea with someone and you can’t imagine this person in the middle of a killing spree, but later you see them bring a Russian tank with their unit, and you know that what they had said about their readiness to fight was not just an empty statement.
It seems that this war truly reinforced the Ukrainian identity.
For Ukrainians, independence is of crucial value, and this war unites them. I’ve met people who could only speak Russian, but refused to use the language. They came to us to try to say something in Ukrainian or Polish, to learn at least some new words. For them, Russia is a synonym of aggression and murder. In this regard, the attitude does not change. But there’s also fear. All eyes are on Donbas now, and they are afraid of what’s going to happen there. Not only Ukrainians, but also Russians. They are really suffering great losses in Ukraine.
We hear about killed Russian soldiers every day, but we don’t hear much about losses on the Ukrainian side. Do you know what Ukrainians have to deal with?
Ukrainians are conducting information warfare and they are doing it very well. I am observing it up close, and I see that although the losses are significant, detailed information is kept from the public. At some point, in Makarov, guns were given to any man who wanted to fight. There, the number of casualties was very high. It’s obvious that shellings or bombings are connected with a big number of casualties, but I don’t know if it was hundreds or thousands, as hardly any information reaches me. There are also losses in heavy equipment, although it’s said that the Ukrainian army has more tanks now than at the beginning of the war, and there is a grain of truth in that. The situation is worse when it comes to aviation. Most airports have been destroyed, and with them, also anti-air systems. In my opinion, the most destruction is in fact a result of the disproportion in aviation. Soldiers on positions are not afraid of artillery, but of the Russian aircraft. Maybe because there’s no escape from bombs falling from the sky. At the same time, new soldiers are trained every day – after all, it’s possible to teach someone to fight in a matter of two months. On top of that, professional soldiers are almost everywhere, not only on the front line. They are stationing even in small villages, which seems to be surprising, particularly considering the heavy fights that are ongoing in Donbas.
Visiting these villages, or going to the front, did you meet any foreign volunteers?
Yes, and it’s actually an interesting issue. If you are asking about the legion, it doesn’t work anymore. Ukrainians don’t really want to take people with no combat experience and no knowledge of languages in which they can communicate. One of the recruiters told me about volunteers from Peru and Colombia who had earlier fought drug cartels in the jungle. They only spoke in Spanish, so they were sent away. However, I’ve also met people who had earlier served in, for instance, the Foreign Legion, as well as a fighting Pole, who is a retired soldier. There are many Americans, English here, also quite a lot of foreign medics. They are usually former soldiers or policemen, who came to Ukraine with a belief that by defending it from the Russian attack, they are fighting for “our freedom and yours.” This is their main motivation. They didn’t get any special treatment that would encourage them to join the fight. What’s more, they usually use their own equipment.
A vast majority of people are escaping the places where fights are ongoing. They usually become internal displaced people. Can they also count on help?
In western Ukraine there are no more places to sleep. In Lviv, renting an apartment or even a room is very difficult, and people are still escaping eastern cities, looking for shelter and safety. Aid is very much needed, and it reaches here, but Ukrainians don’t only count on help from the outside. Anywhere I go, people are very united, motivated and active. I can see how they take care of one another. They also have an amazing attitude towards the army. They don’t let soldiers pay for coffee, they let them cut lines in shops. On the streets, they wave to them or hit their fist against the chest to show their respect and gratitude. As a nation, Ukrainians are incredibly united.
Mateusz Lachowski is a journalist, director and documentary film-maker. He has been reporting on the war in Ukraine for the Polish media since the beginning of the Russian invasion.
autor zdjęć: Mateusz Lachowski